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Fashion's Love of Python Comes at a Price

The $1 billion python trade raises concerns about sustainability, illegality and animal welfare issues. The fashion industry is finally starting to confront these concerns -- but is it enough?

Above: Reese Witherspoon, who stopped carrying python bags after a 2011 PETA protest, carries a faux version by Stella McCartney to the premiere of "My Valentine" in 2012. Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage

WARNING: This story shows the reality of the animal skin trade and includes graphic content.

Luxury fashion is nothing without its snake.

Whether it materializes as bags, boots, belts, heels, clutches or luggage tags, python has a trending role in couture: Narcisco Rodriguez’s Python-Print Two-Tone Pumps. Saint Laurent’s Python Medium Betty Bag. Chloe’s Python Susan Studded Ankle Boot. Reece Hudson’s Python Siren Backpack. And Fendi’s Multicolored Python Patchwork Collarless Jacket, priced at, oh, just $11,500. (Of course, that’s pennies compared to last year’s must-lust exotic-skin item: Hermes’s crocodile t-shirt, which clocked in at no fewer than $91,000.)

The popularity of exotic skins like python, alligator and crocodile has ebbed and flowed over their many years in the fashion industry, but currently there’s a cozy embrace as luxury brands, appealing to an ever-richer and more global customer, try to appear even more luxurious.

According to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, buyers of exotics are women between the ages of 35 and 60, who are very affluent, cosmopolitan and “mostly suburban to metro.” Cohen further explains that although these exotic items sell to only about 1 percent of the population, “they represent 3-4 percent of the luxury market. It might not sound like a lot – it’s not big in terms of size. But it brings in a lot of money.”

And a whole lot of controversy. The python trade raises concerns about wildlife conservation, sustainability, illegality along the trade chain and animal welfare issues. But a recently released study on the trade by fashion giant Kering suggests the industry is finally starting to confront these concerns -- an effort that many agree is a splendid idea, if not entirely overdue.

An Introduction to the Python Trade

There are five kinds of python heavily traded for their skins out of Southeast Asia, where most of the python in the fashion world is sourced: The Reticulated python, the Burmese python and three species of short-tailed python. According to “The Trade in South-East Asian Python Skins,” a 2012 seminal report by the International Trade Centre (ITC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Traffic International, about 500,000 python skins are exported annually from Southeast Asia, with the overwhelming majority of those skins ending up in the European fashion industry. Luxury brands cited in the report are as high profile as Prada, Gucci, Hermes, Dior, Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Chanel.

“It’s enormous,” says Chris Shepherd, Regional Director of Traffic in Southeast Asia. “The fashion industry involves fewer species than, say, the pet trade. But it’s in very large quantities.” (Ninety-six percent of the value of the trade chain is captured by the European fashion industry; the trade altogether is worth at least $1 billion annually.) The top source countries for python are Indonesia and Malaysia, but Laos, Vietnam and Singapore are also in the trade mix. Pythons enter the trade after either being caught in the wild or bred in captivity.

The Illegal Trade

Despite the fact that a half-million python are exported annually, according to the ITC report, the skin of wild-caught snakes has particular qualities that make it resilient despite substantial harvesting. The snakes have fast growth rates as well as high reproductive outputs -- and because they’re nocturnal, they’re less likely to be caught from the wild in massive numbers.

For those who are conservation minded, this is good news. The bad news, however, is that data used to make determinations about the sustainability of the python trade is scarce. “There is a paucity of information available to determine whether current harvest levels are sustainable or not,” the report reads. Limited data from Indonesia, for example, shows sizable quantities of python are slaughtered before they reach breeding age, so “it is possible that this reduction in the number of mature, breeding adults (particularly females), may have impacts upon the ability of populations to remain at stable levels.”

Similarly, according to the 2012 report, there’s an information gap as it pertains to the captive breeding industry. “Countries claiming to be ranching these facilities – that claim to be breeding the python – need to be monitored,” Chris Shepherd explains. “What we find is that, while some are indeed breeding species, many of them are not. And they are just taking the wild caught python and laundering them.” If the numbers are being manipulated, this means that more python are conceivably being taken from the wild than the data indicates and the quotas allow.

Daniel Natusch is an IUCN/SSC Boa and Python Specialist Group (BPSG) member who contributed to the ITC report. He says there are approximately 1,100 legal farms in Asia that sell skins to the domestic and international fashion industry, but he believes there’s a compelling reason why snakes are being taken from the wild: poverty. “Because poor people make a living from this trade, it is unreasonable to assume they are going to stop harvesting. This results in more snakes being taken than quotas allow.” Natusch continues, “All reasons for illegal trade result because people still want to sell the excess skins they have been collecting. If quotas were raised or, more appropriately, abolished in favor of sound management and monitoring programs, then there would no longer be incentives to trade illegally.”

Generally, the illegal trade in exotic skins – like all wildlife -- is a “high profit, low risk” endeavor. Simply put: You can make money without worrying too much about being caught. Beyond the issue of whether the python is captive-bred or wild-caught, there are other ways to dodge the legal system. For example, in the export process, the snake skins can easily be concealed within shipments of other legally exported products, permits can be falsified, or the documents that state whether a python has been captive bred or caught in the wild can be forged. “This form of fraud,” says Shepherd, “is one of the most common forms of wildlife smuggling.”

The illegal trade in python can exist anywhere in the trade chain. A FOIA request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) asking for import data from the years 2010-2013 (until November 1), shows that, during those three years, approximately 656,000 pairs of python shoes were imported into the U.S. by the fashion industry. And every year, a very small percentage of these shoes are “seized” -- meaning that “in some way, the shipment is in violation of the law,” explains Bruce Weissgold, senior CITES policy specialist at FWS (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). “A confiscation of imported wildlife in the United States may occur for a variety of reasons, including violations of CITES requirements, foreign wildlife protection laws -- which are enforced through the Lacey Act -- or other legal requirements. Most confiscations relate to some sort of permit irregularity, such as more items in a shipment than is allowed on a permit, or the absence of a permit. Of course, the absence of a permit may be linked to an outright smuggling attempt or it may or it may be a slip-up by a company in managing their shipments.” From 2010-13, a number of well-known luxury fashion houses had shipments seized.

The Fashion Industry Investigates

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Enter Kering -- home to a multitude of luxury brands like Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Saint Laurent. In late March, it released a sizable report called “Assessment of Python Breeding Farms Supplying the International High-end Leather Industry” (ITC’s Daniel Natucsch is a co-author). The report, which was funded by Gucci, is the product of the recently formed “Python Conservation Partnership” – a joint venture between Kering, the International Trade Center (ITC) and the Boa and Python Specialist Group of IUCN. The goal of the partnership is to focus on “research and recommendations around improving sustainability, transparency, animal welfare and local livelihoods for the python skin trade.”

The Kering report is something of a Part II of the 2012 ITC report – although in this case, it is specifically focused on the captive breeding aspect of the python trade. Many questions posited in the 2012 report are still yet to be answered, but Natusch says the Kering report “provides a more thorough understanding of the issues, and shows that some of the concerns raised by the first report… are not valid.” (The report may be downloaded here.) Nearly 40 python captive breeding farms in China, Thailand and Vietnam were reportedly visited for the study.

According to the report, captive breeding of python is sustainable: “It is biologically feasible to breed and raise pythons to the sizes, and within the time frames required by trade.” Thus, it summarizes, captive breeding is “an economically viable business model.” However, the survey emphasizes that various systems must be put into place for this to happen so that captive breeding doesn’t negatively impact wild python numbers or create a venue for illegal trade. The report also recommends that python farming shouldn’t be promoted exclusively, but that a complementary relationship between captive breeding and “robust wild harvest systems is needed to ultimately achieve the social, economic and conservation benefits made possible by this trade.”

Kering maintains that this report is the first of many, and there will be forthcoming studies on the livelihood of python farmers, the management of wild snakes and welfare concerns. Altogether, research about the trade will be an 18-month long endeavor, and by 2015 there should be some clear recommendations in place.

Developing a Traceability System

Kering isn’t the only group working on the trade within the fashion industry. Another group looking for answers is RESP, short for the Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform. RESP mainly focuses on creating a global traceability system for the python trade -- a way to connect the dots from source to consumer. Ralph Arbeid is an advisor for RESP, and has been working in the leather trade since 1973 (he is also a co-author of the 2012 ITC report). Arbeid explains that RESP is currently pursuing the research for “a modern technology that allows the tracing of python skins throughout the various stages of the production process -- from the moment that the skin enters the market up, to the moment the consumer takes possession of the end product.” (Yes, like those shoes in your closet.)

Eduardo Escobedo, director of RESP, explains a main catalyst for RESP’s formation with the reptile skins industry was a graphic undercover video on the python trade produced by Karl Amman, called “The Medan Connection.” Amman’s documentary portrays a gruesome, dirty industry, in which snakes are bludgeoned on soupy, bloody floors, hung on hooks and skinned alive; with those skins eventually being stretched tight and nailed onto planks of wood. There’s an aesthetic canyon between these images and the glitzy bags, boots and clutches for sale, and the documentary incited “a public outrage in Switzerland, where a lot of the skins are manufactured,” says Escobedo. When companies were approached for a response, “they realized they had no answer. They didn’t have a clear understanding of what was going on in their supply. And because they didn’t have a clear response to the video, they realized that some important questions needed responses. This is why traceability of the python has become one of the biggest priorities.”

Escobedo elaborates on the traceability system the organization is striving to implement. “RESP has begun the work for the development and testing of the four components of the system: the identification device, the application device, the tracking technology and the global database.” In order for the system to work, he says, “the global database must be comparable from country to country. Secondly, the data itself must be comprehensive, credible and externally audited.” Finally, Escobedo points out, “It is crucial to employ the latest technology that is also user-friendly and tamper-free.” For example, RESP is looking at chips or barcodes to trace the skin to its origin, and “we are looking at opportunities to take these technologies a step further to make them unnoticeable to the naked eye and make them compatible with mobile phone applications so that consumers can access useful information about the material, the species, and their habitats.” Arbeid says that RESP is engaging with all stakeholders in the trade, including fashion houses, and that ideas will soon be submitted to software developers. “This process is in full swing,” says Arbeid, “and we hope that by the end of this year, we will be able to start testing the system live.”

The Real Issue: Animal Treatment

For some consumers, these efforts for reform might be well and good – tackling sustainability and traceability and the illegal chain. But for others, it’s all just gobbledygook. Because to them, it means absolutely nothing compared to the issue of animal welfare.

There are three main methods of slaughter for a python in the trade: Decapitation, brain destruction (blow to the head using a hammer or mallet) and asphyxiation, which is explicitly described in the 2012 ITC report: “ The research team observed at one slaughter house [in Vietnam] that the live snakes have their mouths and anus sealed with rubber bands. An air compressor is then used to fill the animal’s alimentary canal with air which has the same effect as filling the animal with water, only the animal is still alive, not having had its head cut off or its brain crushed first. Post inflation, a rubber band was also tied around the heart to cause cardiac arrest.” According to the report, “the team observed that the animal continued to move for around 15-30 minutes after inflation. Whether these movements were the result of conscious writhing or post-mortem spasm is unknown.”

Unsurprisingly, the animal welfare organization PETA has been campaigning to stop the trade in python for years (a video on PETA’s website narrated by Joaquin Phoenix can be viewed here). “From the start, we have seen the exotic skin trade as being a problem,” says Ashley Byrne, Campaign Specialist at PETA. Byrne states that the campaign to abolish fur from wardrobes has by and large been a success, and so now, a more aggressive turn toward reptile skins makes sense. “In recent years, we have started prioritizing the issue more because so many people see fur as cruel and as something they want nothing to do with. Young people have rejected fur in large numbers. So we have started making exotic skins a priority.”

For the first time, in 2013, PETA protested the python trade at that year’s New York Fashion Week, with Byrne and others hitting Lincoln Center body-painted like green snakes. The organization also continues to call out celebrities for wearing python: Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Reese Witherspoon, Kylie Minogue and Ashley Olsen have all been cited. But PETA is also quick to give credit when a company decides to go exotic-skin free. According to Byrne, Topshop, H&M, Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret, Cole Haan, Nike, and Adidas are all on board.

But these brands are not in the domain of luxury fashion. The most recognized high-end designer who shuns animal skins is Stella McCartney. Another is New York-based South African designer Marc Bouwer, who has dressed a many top celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Sarah Jessica Parker and Halle Berry. Bouwer says the technology now available to make alternative-to-python fabrics is very high: “They are actually superior and last much longer; I think a lot of people are wearing fake skin already and don’t even know it.”

When asked if he is ostracized by the more formidable luxury fashion houses for not using exotics, he replies, “I still am. The very la-dee-da fashion stylists are so brand conscious, and they think if it’s not leather, it’s not good. It’s a stupid mentality and needs to change. It’s absolute bullshit.” Of all the cultural arenas that exalt the use of exotics, Bouwer says, “The music industry is the worst.” He understands, however, there is less sympathy toward reptiles than other mammals. “I think snakes and crocodiles… a lot of people find those creatures disgusting. But they have a right to live and when they are bred and captured – especially bred – they do terrible things to preserve that skin. It’s horrible, what they go through.”

NPD’s Cohen says he is seeing a rise in using alternatives to python, but ironically, he says that the lean toward faux exotics is simultaneously spawning a surge for the authentic version. “There’s plenty of people who wouldn’t know the difference between the two,” Cohen remarks, “but it seems like the faux growth has spawned the desire for the consumer to have ‘the real thing.’” Why? “It’s in the DNA of the brand. It’s what separates brands from everything else... In their eyes, the world doesn’t need another imitation.”

Traffic's Chris Shepherd acknowledges that, in the end, buying or not buying that Python Medium Betty Bag or Susan Studded Ankle Boot is up to the consumer. But what does that 35-60 year old metropolitan, cosmopolitan, maybe suburban woman do if she’s lusting after said product, but wracked with images of bludgeoned snakeheads, with no clear answers still to the trade’s dysfunctions? “That’s the hard part,” he says. “Ultimately, consumers should demand a product coming from a sustainable and legal source. Consumers have a lot of power. And they should demand that the companies prove it. And if the companies can’t prove it... don’t buy it.”

“At the end of the day,” Shepherd reminds, “this is a fashion item. It’s not a need.”