For activists determined to protect and maintain threatened and endangered animal populations, creativity often is key. When existing methods stop working, they need to come up with new ways to convince governments, corporations, and, perhaps most important, individual consumers to alter their behaviors so that they avoid actions that harm wildlife—and potentially even create more benefits for them.

Consider a recent proposal: Every time a fashion designer borrows a pattern that appears naturally on an animal to produce a design on fabric (think leopard- or giraffe-print clothing, lizard skin–like boots, feathers added to a hat), it should be required to pay a fee to a group dedicated to the protection of that animal. As another facet of the proposal, teams that use animals as their mascots could donate to the protection of endangered and threatened species such as lions, bears, eagles, timberwolves, tigers, dolphins, panthers and wildcats, coyotes, or sharks. Or they might contribute to local animal shelters or zoos if they adopt a less threatened species as their mascots, like bulldogs, cardinals, bulls, penguins, or rams.

Based on analyses of historical fashion trends, the leopard print might be the most relevant source of such contributions. It showed up in ancient art, such as in renderings of Cleopatra; became a punk standard when Debby Harry of the band Blondie sported a skintight leopard jumpsuit in concerts; and today is worn by such arbiters of style as Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Whereas many of the early outfits featured actual pelts of slaughtered cats, such that they have disappeared from an estimated 75 percent of the areas in which they historically lived, today’s more conscious fashion imprints leopard patterns—their spots are formally called “rosettes”—on a wide variety of fabrics, for a vast range of products, including shoes, shirts, dresses, and bags.

Noting this persistent and widespread popularity, a group of scholars, with backgrounds in conservation and art history, oddly enough, have proposed a market-based solution to help save leopards in the wild. They refer to a royalty, similar to the ones paid to artists each time their creative production gets played, cited, or used. A royalty of, say, 1 percent of the sales price of each fashion product sold, emblazoned with leopard rosettes, easily would produce millions of dollars that could go to conservation efforts.

To encourage acceptance of such royalties, another creative idea suggests ensuring that people who wear leopard prints also feel a strong bond to the animals. The nonprofit group Panthera already has undertaken a campaign to do so. Its Leopard Spotted initiative asked fashionable people posting selfies of their leopard-inspired outfits on Instagram to include a hashtag that cited the endangerment faced by leopards in the wild. The same group partnered with Hermes on leopard-themed fashion show, the proceeds of which included a sizable donation to its conservation efforts.

The idea may seem unusual, but its potential benefits also make it seem eminently viable. Consumers might pay a little more, but they can gain a warm glow and the promise to continue living in a world in which leopards (and other endangered species) exist in their natural habitats. Nonprofits would gain resources to support their efforts. Governments might promote safari tourism by promising greater access to awe-inspiring animals in the wild.

And fashion designers could build positive reputations for supporting conservation causes—an objective that is particularly pressing, considering their historical reputation for decimating animal populations to create their products. When Oleg Cassini dressed Jacqueline Kennedy in an actual leopard-skin coat and pillbox hat in 1962 for example, women rapidly followed suit, leading to the sacrifice of an estimated half a million cats. He later expressed grave regret for the choice, and fashion houses have largely shifted to animal prints on sustainable fabrics. But the reputation persists, and paying a small royalty might offer a way to address historical harms, as well as appeal to consumers who love the animals themselves, as much as they do their patterns.

Discussion Questions

  1. Would a royalty like this work? Why or why not?
  2. What other applications of royalties could be adopted? For example, should the use of palm tree patterns require a royalty paid to forestry conservation efforts?
  3. How could fashion designers leverage these ideas to appeal more to consumers?

Source: Rebecca Mead, “Should Leopards Be Paid for their Spots?” The New Yorker, March 21, 2022; Caroline Good, Dawn Burnham, Tom P. Moorhouse, and David W. Macdonald, “Connecting the Spots: Leopard Print Fashion and Panthera pardus Conservation,” Journal for Nature Conservation, Vol. 61 (June 2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2021.125976