Dirty Luxury: How Fashion Contributes to Pandemics

Dirty Luxury: How Fashion Contributes to Pandemics

We are in the midst of what is the biggest public health crisis of our times – and when it comes to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, most experts are unanimous. The disease, which has killed around 300,000 people worldwide at the time of writing, is believed to have started in a Chinese market where animals – alive and dead – are sold for human consumption.

So what exactly is a “wet market”? Many people in Asia, especially the older generation, prefer freshly slaughtered meat, which is often sold at markets where water is poured over the meats to keep them fresh. Wildlife markets, on the other hand, often trade in exotic animals – unlike traditional wet markets. But the Wuhan market where the virus originated sold dead and live animals such as snakes, badgers, foxes, porcupines and beavers, among others.

And this is where the role of fashion comes in. Markets that keep captive wild animals in unhygienic, cramped conditions are the perfect breeding ground for pandemics – but the use of these animals does not end at food. Wild animals are often bred, traded and killed in conditions that are highly unsanitary to end up in a luxury boutique, as Australian wildlife conservation organisation Nature Needs More found. The group discovered that accessories in python and crocodile skins sold in high-end shops in Milan were connected to the sales of wild animal flesh at wet markets, just like the one where COVID-19 reportedly originated from.

Animal fur from foxes, raccoon, wolf, beaver and mink hanging after processing. Photo: David Tadevosian.

Fur is also a big pandemic risk, which was discovered most recently in the Netherlands, where COVID-19 was found in mink at four fur farms. It’s the first time this virus has been linked to a large-scale animal operation, and it’s also the first case of coronavirus in animals in the Netherlands. Following these findings, animal rights organisations have called on Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Carola Schouten, to bring forward the fur-farming ban in the Netherlands, which is scheduled for 2024. After a phasing-out period, the country was already set to go fur-free, but activists are urging for the ban to come into place sooner to avoid further risk.

“Filthy fur farms packed with sick, stressed, and injured minks are breeding grounds for disease,” says PETA Director of International Programmes Mimi Bekhechi. “In the face of a global crisis stemming from the wildlife trade, the Netherlands shouldn’t wait another four years to shut down its last remaining fur farms – it must take action now.”

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And there is reason to worry: the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that approximately 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans originated in other animals. More specifically, this isn’t the first time deadly infections show up in fur-bearing animals.


The 2003 SARS outbreak saw 16 mammal species infected, including foxes, mink, raccoon dogs, and domestic dogs and cats – all species frequently killed for their fur. Animals on fur farms are often kept in filthy cages stacked on top of one another, and the close proximity and the exchange of bodily fluids increases the risk of pathogens developing. When humans handle these wild animals – who might never have been in such close contact with each other or with humans had it not been for the industries that use them, be it for their skin or their flesh – the risk of infections skyrockets.

Workforce exposure must also be taken into consideration, as workers are sometimes already at risk due to to lack of protective equipment and the impossibility of social distancing. And in fact, the mink in the Netherlands are suspected to have passed the virus on to humans.

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Even before the pandemic hit, both fur and exotic skins were on their way out of fashion. Brands that have banned both from their collections include Victoria Beckham, Diane Von Furstenberg, Chanel, Gucci, and most recently Mulberry. Fast-fashion labels have also taken a stand against fur and exotics, but it’s the luxury fashion houses, whose name used to be synonymous with the extravagant ostentation linked to these materials, that have truly made a statement with their fur bans.

The state of California has also banned the sale and import of fur as well as crocodile and alligator skins, paving the way for more territories to implement bans of their own – a move that couldn’t come soon enough, considering the contributions of these deadly trades to devastating crises.

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