As we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, the fashion industry is adapting – but how is the industry itself connected to the origins of the spreading disease?
By Sascha Camilli: Journalist, public speaker, host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel, one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists
Zoonotic diseases, such as coronavirus, SARS, MERS and bird flu, all originated in animals and were born from our use of animals for a range of trades. Now, as the disease rages, we are forced to question our ways and realise that our choices affect both ourselves and others across the globe.
The latest scientific thinking is that COVID-19 originated at a food market in Wuhan, China, where animals both dead and alive were sold as food. As a result, bans on the consumption of some exotic animals were introduced. In some parts of China, exotic animals have been used as food or medication for a long time – even following proof that civet cats were involved in the SARS epidemic. Following temporary bans on wildlife sales in China, markets are currently still selling both alive and dead animals – which sparks fears that there will be further global virus outbreaks.
But exotic animals are used for more than food. Their bodies are commonly sold to be made into apparel and accessories for luxury fashion. A Birkin bag in crocodile skin from Hermès can cost up to $500,000, and has a waitlist of several years. It can take three reptiles to make just one bag.
Behind the luxurious exterior of exotic-skins accessories, a seedy and violent world of cruelty can be found. Snakes are often nailed to trees and their bodies are cut open before their skin is torn off. Lizards are sometimes decapitated. Crocodiles and alligators commonly live in cramped, crowded tanks before they are killed with the nape-stab method, which is meant to sever their spinal cords immediately – but it's not often used properly, meaning that animals die a slow and agonising death. Ostriches are often slaughtered at only one year of age, by being put into an electric stunner and then having their throats slit in front of other birds. What all these animals have in common is that they die terrifying deaths for nothing more than human vanity.
Can this cruelty be justified? According to Sandra Altherr, a biologist with Pro Wildlife, no. "We don't need products from the wild for luxury fashion," Altherr told DW. "It damages wild ecosystems and in addition causes a lot of pain for the animals."
And no matter how much companies claim their products are “ethically” made, undercover investigations continue to prove otherwise. "There's no such thing as an exotic ethical skins," says Yvonne Taylor of the animal rights campaign group PETA, whose international affiliates have uncovered cruelty in the trade on many occasions. "You can have the killer look without the killing by opting for a fake version."
Brands that have banned the use of exotic skins include Victoria Beckham, Diane Von Furstenberg, Gucci, and most recently Paul Smith. High-street brands have also said no to exotic skins, but it's the luxury labels, who were previously supporters of the trade, who have truly made a statement with their bans. The entire state of California has also banned the sale and import of crocodile and alligator skins, paving the way for more territories to stand up against this trade.
In a time when devastating crises are forcing us to think about animal use and the impact human industries have on nature, on animal populations and on ourselves, it's getting more difficult than ever to justify torturing and killing animals for fashion. Especially in today's forward-thinking fashion industry, where cruelty-free, on-trend, vegan options abound.
By Sascha Camilli
A passionate changemaker, Sascha Camilli is the founder and editor-in-chief of the world's first digital vegan fashion magazine, Vilda Magazine and the host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel. She was selected as one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists and is a frequent public speaker on the topic of vegan fashion and material innovation. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, read our interview with her here.
If you want to indulge your wild wide, but keep exotic skins on the animals they belong to, check out our Ethically Exotic edit, with bags and shoes in faux snakskin, crocodile and ostrich, made from luxury and sustainable 100% vegan leather.
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Cover image by LUXTRA