Famous luxury fashion brands—Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Michael Kors, and dozens of others—had more than 5,600 items made from illegal wildlife products seized by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service at U.S. ports of entry from 2003 through 2013, National Geographic has learned from researchers who recently published their work in the journal EcoHealth.
The analysis doesn’t implicate luxury fashion companies in intentionally smuggling illegal goods, nor does it say which companies may be linked to more recent illegal imports; since 2013 the U.S. government no longer discloses to the public the names of businesses importing wildlife products, a move that's been challenged in court.
But lead researcher Monique Sosnowski, a doctoral student in criminal justice at the City University of New York (CUNY), says the seizures spotlight a lack of adequate controls throughout the entire supply chain. “We’re not trying to point out Gucci and be like, ‘You’re so awful for using these things,’ but [rather] point out this mass system failure,” she says. “There’s all these protections in place, but these companies [were] still somehow importing goods that are illegal.”
For their analysis, Sosnowski and Gohar Petrossian, a criminologist at CUNY, used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain seizure records from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2003 through 2013. They identified 474 luxury fashion-related seizures comprising 5,607 individual items, nearly 70 percent of which were exotic leather products. Reptiles accounted for 84 percent of all items, many of which were belts, watch bands, wallets, shoes, and purses.
Those numbers almost certainly understate the gravity of the problem. Law enforcement studies routinely find that U.S. officials manage to interdict fewer than one in 10 illegal wildlife shipments, notes Bruce Weissgold, a former reptile trade intelligence analyst and senior international trade specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The CUNY study, published in January, reveals that despite multiple layers of control by countries and companies, illegal wildlife products have tainted the supply chains of some of the most prominent fashion brands in the world, whether or not the fashion companies were aware. Though the study focuses on law enforcement records from 2003 through 2013, aggregate figures from 2008 through 2019 analyzed by Sosnowski indicate that wildlife trafficking remains a serious problem in the U.S. More than 4,000 shipments of illegal wildlife products were seized last year.
Molly Morse, a spokesperson for LVMH, which owns a number of companies on the list—including Louis Vuitton, Loro Piana, Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Fendi—said in an email that the seizures connected to LVMH “were many years ago and generally related to paperwork and labelling processes.”
“We have rigorous internal training and processes in order to comply with all regulations...and we are in ongoing contact with regulators around the world regarding emerging laws,” Morse said.
Neha Wadhwa, a spokesperson for Ralph Lauren, called the company’s inclusion on the list of seizures “misleading and flawed,” adding in an email, “We have a long history and commitment to animal welfare. We were one of the first luxury brands to ban fur nearly 15 years ago, and remain committed to ensure all species are sustainably sourced.”
Representatives from Michael Kors, Jil Sander, and Coach did not respond to requests for comment about the seizures. The Kering Group, which owns Gucci and other companies cited, including Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, and Yves Saint Laurent, acknowledged National Geographic’s query, but ultimately did not provide comments.
Though most companies did not comment on the seized products, many have corporate social responsibility policies in place that promote traceability, animal welfare, and sustainable use of wildlife, and some have banned the use of certain wildlife products.
The CUNY team omitted the names of the companies linked to the seizures from their paper published in EcoHealth because, Sosnowski said, the purpose of sharing research in scientific journals is not to name or shame parties who may have been associated with illegal activities—whether they’re countries, companies, or individuals—but rather to identify larger trends. Sosnowski says she shared the list with National Geographic exclusively to “bring the issue closer to home” for consumers.
According to the official seizure records, Ralph Lauren accounted for 29 percent of the seized items, followed by Gucci (16 percent), Michael Kors (10 percent), Jil Sander (6 percent), and Coach (5 percent). Gucci had the highest number of individual seizure incidents—50—followed by Yves Saint Laurent at 41.
International trade data shows that 11.7 million products made from reptiles were imported into the U.S. from 2003 to 2013, meaning that the 5,607 luxury fashion seizures reported in the study represent just 48 out of every 100,000 imported items made from reptiles, says Daniel Natusch, a conservation biologist at Macquarie University, in Australia, and member of several reptile specialist groups and the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the body that sets the conservation status of wild animals.
Wildlife products, including exotic leathers and fur, are often used in high fashion, though an increasing number of companies have sworn off their use in response to pressure from consumers concerned about animal welfare and conservation. Diane von Furstenberg, Chanel, and Jil Sander, among others, no longer use exotic leathers. Stella McCartney, Versace, Michael Kors, and Gucci are among brands that no longer use fur. The fashion industry often defends its use of legal wildlife products by saying those goods support livelihoods. They also say their efforts are crucial for conservation because they provide an economic incentive to manage and protect species and their habitats for sustainable use.
As in many industries engaged in the trade of wildlife and wildlife products—which range from exotic pets and timber to health supplements and traditional medicines—the legal and illegal often exist side by side. And there are many ways that illegal products or practices can enter the supply chain in the fashion industry.
In some exporting countries where animals used in the fashion industry originate, including Indonesia and Malaysia, there is ample evidence of corrupt officials giving cover to illegally acquired wildlife by issuing legal permits to exporters. That makes it “virtually impossible to know whether the shoes in the shipping crate are of legal origin,” says Weissgold, the former reptile trade intelligence analyst at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Another common violation is when animals illegally captured in the wild are mislabeled as “captive bred.”
While some companies have made efforts to improve their wildlife-related practices, Weissgold says more must be done. “Given their resources, reach, and expertise, I believe it is incumbent upon fashion companies to be good corporate citizens,” Weissgold says. “They have a unique position to influence their suppliers.”
Some seized products are from endangered animals
Nearly 58 percent of the seizures documented in the EcoHealth report pertained to animals caught in the wild rather than those bred in captivity on farms.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates country-to-country wildlife trade, strictly bans the trade in 13 of at least 60 species that were identified in the seizures. They include Nile crocodiles and broad-snouted caimans, unless they’re captive-bred with proper permits. Two species—the saiga antelope and the Siamese crocodile—are critically endangered. Researchers estimate that only between 500 and 1,000 Siamese crocodiles remain in the wetlands of Southeast Asia.
CITES affords different levels of protection for species depending on how threatened they are. In cases where trade is allowed, countries are supposed to grant export permits only if scientific evidence shows that trade won’t undermine the animals’ survival in the wild.
Thirty-six of the species, including reticulated pythons, are listed as species of “least concern”—in other words, not in danger of extinction—but most of the others, including African rock pythons, sunbeam snakes, and several species of cobra, have not been assessed by the IUCN or granted protections under CITES. It’s not known how many of these animals are left in the wild, whether their populations are increasing or decreasing, or whether trading them is sustainable.
“The fact that more than 50 percent of the seizures made were of animals taken from the wild should set off some alarm bells,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit group that works to reduce illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. “Very little is known of the status of many of these species in the wild, and therefore the impact of the illegal trade—and the legal trade, for that matter—is largely unknown.”
The data also revealed the international nature of wildlife trade, Sosnowski says, and the fact that illegal products often cross multiple borders before being discovered. More than half the U.S. seizures were imports from Italy, France, and Switzerland, though most of the animal products originated in Southeast Asia.
Only a fraction of illegal products get caught
U.S. enforcement officials estimate that only 10 percent of illegally imported wildlife products are even confiscated, according to Weissgold, the retired Fish and Wildlife Service agent. As a result, “It’s a ‘buyer beware’ world,” he says. “You can never be 100 percent sure that the product you’re purchasing has been legally acquired.”
Natusch disagrees. “These are some of the world’s largest and most responsible companies, with a significant brand image to protect,” he says.
Natusch believes most of the 5,607 seizures cited in the study were likely mistakes by the exporting or importing companies—“paper violations, clerical errors, or simple and perfectly reasonable misunderstandings,” such as a company forgetting to declare shell buttons on a blouse.
Weissgold, for his part, says that based on his nearly 25 years of experience working as an intelligence analyst at a federal enforcement agency, paperwork violations are “quite symbolic of large-scale fraud in the industry.”
When you pair that with a U.S. judicial system that has high standards of proof, “wildlife inspectors are frequently just staring into a crate without any idea what can be done about it,” Weissgold says.
Animal welfare concerns
Even when trade in animal products for the fashion industry is legal, there are still animal welfare concerns, Weissgold says. A 2016 investigation carried out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an advocacy organization known for sometimes controversial tactics, concluded that Vietnamese farms that allegedly supplied crocodile skins to a tannery owned by LVMH confined crocodiles for up to 15 months in small concrete cages before slaughtering them for skins. PETA investigators videotaped tannery workers severing the crocodiles’ spines—paralyzing them but not killing them—before skinning them alive.
Asked about the PETA investigation for this story, LVMH did not dispute the findings, but said that by 2016, Heng Long, the Singapore-based tannery in question, no longer sourced crocodiles from the Vietnamese farms featured in the PETA video.
Shepherd, of the Monitor group, says inhumane treatment and suffering is the norm for captured wildlife in Southeast Asian countries. Another investigation, carried out by PETA, found that snakes are commonly skinned alive. Karl Ammann, an investigative filmmaker, documented large-scale “laundering” of wild-caught reptiles, a process in which suppliers falsely passed off wild animals as captive-bred in Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Ammann also recorded pythons and water monitors being hit on the head with hammers and skinned alive in Indonesia. A 2013 report by the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office on the reptile skin trade concluded that many methods for killing the animals—including decapitation, freezing, heating, suffocation, drowning, and cutting jugular veins—were inhumane.
In 2019, LVMH launched a certification system for crocodile farms in an attempt to strengthen its ability to trace skins and track animal welfare. Other companies have gone even further.
In 2018, Diane von Furstenberg banned the use of exotic skins in its products, and Chanel did the same two months later, citing the difficulty of obtaining ethically sourced products. Jil Sander followed suit.
In several opinion pieces, Natusch and others, however, have condemned exotic skin bans as well-meant but “too simplistic” and “not supported by evidence.” He and other researchers are working with companies including the Kering Group, which owns Gucci and other luxury fashion houses, in an effort to better control the supply chain.
In 2017, the Kering Group opened a python farm in Thailand, to provide a sustainable, more humane source of skins, a company representative told the Guardian at the time. The group also continues to source animals from the wild.
Four years earlier, the Kering Group teamed up with the IUCN’s Boa and Python Specialist Group and the International Trade Center, a multilateral agency with joint mandates from the World Trade Organization and United Nations, to launch a group called the Python Conservation Partnership. The Partnership’s mission is to improve sustainability of the python trade and promote transparency, animal welfare, and local livelihoods.
The first of several reports commissioned by the Python Conservation Partnership between 2014 and 2016 recommended replacing all the methods used to kill pythons in China, Thailand, and Vietnam—including decapitation, drowning, and taping snakes’ mouths and anuses shut and then using an air compressor to pump air into their bodies—with less cruel practices. Another report from Indonesia and Malaysia by the same group in 2016 concluded that assertions about inhumane python-slaughter practices in in those countries “cannot be substantiated” because traders destroy snakes’ brains before skinning them.
All three of the reports concluded that wild harvesting and farming of pythons can be sustainable and support local livelihoods, aiding conservation by giving people who catch pythons in the wild an incentive to protect reptiles and their habitats.
“Without the luxury industry, many of the species being used would be in a much worse position,” says Natusch, who co-authored the Python Conservation Partnership reports. “The benefits of this trade far outweigh any negatives.”
The Indonesia and Malaysia report did confirm, though, that python skins are illegally traded between Southeast Asian countries at significant levels, and that misuse of international permits allows for laundering wild-caught animals by labeling them as “captive-bred.” The study found that the high levels of illegal trade are fueled by poverty and the opportunity presented by abundant python populations. The authors also said that the trade quotas are excessively restrictive and suggest either increasing or eliminating them.
Jon Paul Rodriguez, chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, defends the group’s funding from industry groups as a common practice in science. The sustainable use of wildlife is one of his organization’s pillars, he says, and IUCN researchers are required to adhere to an evidence-based approach, regardless of who funds the study. “You cannot buy the science,” he says. “My mantra as chair is always evidence first.”
All IUCN publications, including those funded by the Kering Group, also undergo an internal peer review, he adds. “Like any scientific paper, [these are] available for others to contradict if they have better evidence.”
Critics counter that the IUCN’s focus on “sustainable use” has gone too far, to the point that “even the use of endangered species has been advocated by the IUCN,” says Mark Auliya, a herpetologist at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, in Bonn, Germany. Auliya is one of those critics and also a member of the IUCN’s Boa and Python Specialist Group. He says studies, including IUCN’s, commonly underestimate the complexity of the wildlife trade and its frequent ties to organized crime; findings about sustainable trade often don’t reflect the reality on the ground for species.
The Boa and Python Specialist Group’s industry-funded reports, Auliya continues, were published without consulting the entire group—something Auliya says he’s been critical of in internal meetings. “Not every scientist with field experience would support those studies’ findings,” he says.
Concealed company names
The CUNY study doesn’t shed light on whether measures taken by Diane von Furstenberg, Chanel, Jil Sander, the Kering Group and others have reduced luxury fashion-related seizures at U.S. borders. That’s because after 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service started redacting the names of importers linked to seizures documented in public records requests.
Weissgold, who was working at the service when the restrictions went into effect, says he asked many times for an explanation, but never received an adequate answer. He suspects that the decision was at least partly spurred by companies complaining that competitors could glean trade secrets from seizure records.
Whatever the reason, the lack of transparency in all government wildlife import and export records “is absolutely handcuff[ing] the conservation and criminality communities from evaluating the trade data,” Weissgold says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the service, did not provide a comment about why the service began redacting companies’ names from seizure records.
Weissgold adds that he has no reason to believe that illegal imports tied to luxury fashion have declined since 2013. Monitor’s Chris Shepherd also believes that the problem is ongoing. For him, the message for consumers is clear: “Buying wildlife products may be contributing to the decline of a species in the wild and may be contributing to the illegal trade. If in doubt, do not buy.”
Sosnowski hopes the study provides an opportunity for greater transparency and improvements in the supply chain and legal enforcement from source to finished product. “We want people to see that these are the brands we all know and love, so they see that they as consumers can help move the industry towards more sustainable practices,” she says.
Ultimately, consumer demand is what makes companies take animal welfare and conservation into consideration, Weissgold says.
“I think if buyers knew that the python skin used in their handbag may have been pulled off of a live animal, some might squirm or slither away from the retailer,” he says. “But let's face it, many only look at it as a handbag.”