I recently took a trip to Las Vegas. I had mentally prepared myself for many of the conservation nightmares I was about to face, including the rampant disregard for both electricity and water, and the sheer volume of money passing from the hands of countless patrons to exceedingly rich business owners. What I hadn’t anticipated was the virtual animal menagerie I would encounter in advertisements. Animals of all types, shapes and sizes are being exploited to sell high-end fashion items.
Among wildlife, conservation, and environmental agencies, the struggle to cut off the supply of animal fur in designer apparel has been a protracted battle receiving substantial (and very well-deserved) attention. The exploitation of living animals in a fashion shoot, however, receives less. Perhaps there is less outrage because the harm caused by taking a picture of an animal is less apparent to the public than by taking its fur and skin. But there is harm nonetheless. In desiring animals for their fashion shoots, the fashion industry is perpetuating the capture and imprisonment of wild and endangered animals. With the wealth of the enterprise, many brands are willing to pay top dollar for the right animal, making the business of animal exploitation for fashion a very lucrative one indeed. So while an animal may suffer extreme anxiety (but appear physically unharmed) during a photo shoot, their problems neither begin nor end there. After the photo shoot, they continue their lives in confinement, where their care and survival rests in the tenuous hands of those who use them for profit.
Of course, this is nothing new. The use of animals in entertainment and their attempted domestication is a centuries old tradition; the Romans imported thousands of animals for entertainment and slaughter during the inaugural games at the Colosseum (81AD) to show the power and expanse of their empire. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Wild animals are still considered a symbol of affluence. Many celebrities opt to own peculiar animals as pets in display of their extravagance – from Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, to Justin Bieber’s monkey, to Mike Tyson’s tigers and Paris Hilton’s kinkajou. It is no surprise then that the fashion industry, drawing upon this popular trend, would also use animals. Some choose to use them in an attempt to conjure impressions of our primitive and powerful nature in their advertisements. Others use baby animals for “cuddly” appeal, and yet others might feature them simply for shock value. Well, I’m shocked, but not for the right reasons. In my opinion, the juxtaposition of a heavily primped model and a bewildered wild animal is nothing short of irresponsible and ridiculous.
Recently, the notorious CR Fashion Book has published shoots that include Kate Upton clutching chicks, baby tigers and monkeys, as well as a ballet-themed issue that features an Armani-clad infant chimpanzee named Bentley. While organizations like these continue to promote arcane tradition and turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions, others are making great leaps forward. Many brands recognize that there is an emerging market for people who want to create positive change through their purchasing decisions, and are catering to this. “Giving Back” sections are now prominently featured on the websites of many companies to showcase their involvement in community projects, outreach, research, and conservation. For example, the fashion megabrand Gucci is making strides towards sustainability by announcing their pledge to purchase leather from Rainforest Alliance certified cattle ranches, which will minimize deforestation for ranch land in the Amazon. Other brands take it one step further by not only giving back in donations to their respective causes, but make active involvement part of their mission. This trend toward being “green” is growing larger than ever, fueled by the consumer decisions of those who refuse to buy in to profiteering enterprises any longer.
As consumers, we make our decisions in dollars. We can do one better than avoiding brands that exploit animals in marketing — we can participate in clothing swaps, shop at vintage stores, or purchase clothing produced by companies that make more environmentally sustainable decisions. Many brands are actively trying to identify with consumers seeking change, which makes finding those that suit your agenda the fairly effortless matter of a quick internet search.
It seems clear that the fashion industry is facing a fork in the road. Which path you take is a personal choice, but one that has far reaching consequences. For me, however, I’m steering clear of brands that put chimps in suits and call it couture.