This World Wildlife Day, Here's How Fashion Affects Wildlife

March 3 is World Wildlife Day – a United Nations International day to celebrate wildlife in all its beauty, and all the ways that the world's wild animals and plants contribute to the well-being of the planet. World Wildlife Day falls on this date as it is the birth date of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was signed in 1973 – meaning that it turns 51 this year. This day also celebrates CITES' vital work in conservation.

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert. 

Wildlife and natural habitats are being threatened in many ways as the climate crisis sweeps over the word, and one of the contributors to this devastating destruction is the fashion industry. Rampant overproduction, polluting chemicals, and the use of animal skins are just a few of the ways in which our wardrobes are putting biodiversity in danger.

One of the most explicit and impactful ways that fashion is harming wildlife is by turning them into clothes. In the exotic skins industry, animals are routinely taken from their homes in the wild to be crudely slaughtered. Others are raised on dirty, cramped farms. Sometimes, these animals are endangered under CITES – but there are situations where these regulations come with exceptions. For example, alligator farmers in Florida are still allowed to collect a certain number of wild alligator eggs to replenish animal numbers on their exotic-skin farms, despite these species being monitored under Appendix II of CITES.

And alligators are far from the only species suffering for exotic skins: lizards are commonly decapitated, and snakes are pumped full of air to stretch their skin before being skinned. We are perhaps not as used to communicating with snakes as we are dogs and cats – or even cows and sheep – but these animals are sentient just like any other beings.

“Rather than exploring lush jungles and swamps and experiencing all the sensory pleasures that they’re so keenly attuned to, snakes used for their skin are kept in filthy cages, blown up like balloons, and even skinned alive,” says PETA Vice President of UK Programmes and Operations Elisa Allen in a comment when the organisation exposed snake farming for Louis Vuitton accessories. “PETA is urging everyone to reject this horrific cruelty by refusing to purchase any item made with exotic skins.”

But directly killing animals is not the only way that fashion harms them. Deforestation means that many species are displaced, their habitats under threat – and the leading contributor to this devastation is animal agriculture. Whenever we say “animal agriculture”, the first thought in most of our minds is meat and food – but fashion is also partly to blame.

In order to raise cattle for leather, forests are cut down at an alarming rate. Wool also means that trees are cut down and forests are being eliminated to make room for grazing sheep Nonprofit organisation Collective Fashion Justice released a report on the connection between animal-derived fashion and deforestation. This report found, among many other things, that wool requires many times more land to be cleared than cotton.

“The fashion industry affects wildlife in a myriad of ways: directly, by devaluing them to mere commodities — as we see in the fur industry, the skinning of crocodiles, kangaroos, reptiles and other wild species, and in the feather trade — and indirectly, too,” says Collective Fashion Justice founder Emma Håkansson.

“Deforestation in inefficient raw material supply chains like leather and wool, for some cellulosic materials, and even synthetics tied to fossil fuel production.” The solution, according to Håkansson, is adopting a new way of viewing clothing that doesn't include animals. “Transitioning to an animal-free fashion system is critical to both direct wildlife protection and broader biodiversity protection which can occur when agricultural ranching lands are rewilded.” 

Desertification is among the other lesser-known impacts of fashion – namely cashmere. Sold as a “luxurious” and “natural” material, touted as ethical even in sustainable fashion circles, cashmere is actually an environmental disaster, having been found to be among the most destructive fabrics in fashion. Cashmere goats eat 10% of their body weight every single day, ingesting the entire plant with the roots, which prevents regrowth, and the animals often consume more plants that can grow back naturally. This leads to desertification in areas that are already largely degraded or at risk of desertification, such as China and Mongolia. As it means that living conditions worsen for many species, desertification is a significant threat to biodiversity.

But harmful as they are, animal-derived fabrics aren't the only culprit. Overproduction of any materials, natural or otherwise, is a threat to wildlife. Constant production driving the fast-fashion cycle means that chemicals are emitted into the environment, and as landfills fill up, our discarded garments continue to leach toxic substances and harm nature.

And it's not all about what happens on land, either. Marine animals are harmed by the microplastics emitted into waterways by washing synthetic clothing. Granted, clothing isn't the only villain here – plastic is present in many products used today, and ocean plastic pollution is largely due to fishing. However, synthetic materials such as acrylic, polyester, and nylon do contribute to microplastic pollution, where micro-particles find their way into waters and harm the health of sea animals.

We can minimise the impact of this pollution by using different kinds of washing machine filters and washbags such as Guppy Friend to limit the emissions. But there is also a need to push for brands and governments to take action on microplastics. In 2025, all washing machines in France will have to include a microplastic filter – this brilliant legislation urgently needs to be introduced elsewhere, too.

Whether it is human rights, pollution or wildlife, our fashion choices have consequences. While it's impossible to live or dress entirely impact-free, the critical state of our planet means that we all need to take action – which can start on an individual level with what we wear and use, and rise to the level of collective action.

But the bottom line is that change is needed, for our sake and the sake of other species that we share this Earth with. And what better time to start than World Wildlife Day?

By Sascha Camilli

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. Her podcast, Catwalk Rebel, is out now. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cover image by Zdeněk Macháček, second photo by Gwen Weustink, both via Unsplash

For more great content like this in your inbox, sign up to our newsletter, and save 10% off your next purchase, plus great savings throughout the year.

Immaculate Bestsellers

"A superb experience from beginning to end... I have three items, each high quality, beautifully presented... the first place I look for luxurious classic pieces for my wardrobe.”

Victoria, 5 Star Trustpilot Review