Design for Biodiversity: The Crocodile

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In my last blog post I began to discuss Design for Biodiversity, a project we are collaborating with the Responsible Ecosystem Sourcing Platform (RESP) to explore the relationship between fashion and biodiversity and ultimately advance the practice of design for sustainability. Convened under the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the RESP International Working Group for Reptile Skins, (made up of policy makers, academics, scientific organisations and luxury brands – including the LVMH Group, Burberry, Mulberry and Armani) aims to transform the international fashion trade of reptile skins. This means understanding and supporting biodiversity conservation and the wellbeing of those whose livelihoods are dependent on this trade.

The crocodile trade in Argentina is a great example of the balance and interdependencies between business, habitat conservation and local livelihoods. Crocodiles play an important role in their wetland environment, they help maintain a balance within the ecosystem by regulating other species and fertilizing water plants, and yet are threatened by illegal hunting and the high mortality rate they experience as hatchlings.

In an effort to support the habitat and population of Caiman Crocodiles in Argentina, breeders have collaborated with local Gauchos (legendary Argentinian figures and master horse riders), who work on ranches and hold a strong connection to wildlife. To protect the eggs from predators – both human and other animals, the Gauchos on horseback harvest them from the wild marking the nest as they go. The Gauchos bring the eggs back to their homes where they are able to care for them until they are transported back to the breeding station to be hatched and grown. Once big enough, half of the crocodiles are returned back to their original nests, while the rest are kept for trade purposes. By educating and offering the local community an opportunity and incentive to be a part of legal trade, the illegal hunting has decreased and the population of Caiman Crocodiles has dramatically increased – essentially fostering both economic and ecological resilience for the local environment.

The imperative for fashion brands to think about the natural resources they rely on is clear – the luxury accessories market is worth around €57 billion, exotic animal skins (having doubled in the last few years) now make up almost 10% of luxury handbag sales. Despite surrounding controversy, demand for exotic skins like snake, crocodile and alligator have been rising, and with a croc bag selling for 30 times more than their bovine counterpart, it is easy to see the business incentive.

While it can be difficult understand the use of exotic skins in fashion and there are many who consider it immoral to do so, they remain an important and valuable resource for communities across North and South America and South East Asia. Through RESP pilot projects and working with local communities and luxury fashion brands this project will develop better design and production methods, which support both economic and biodiversity resilience.

Stay tuned for more on RESP pilot projects – coming soon!