Be the change you want to see in the world - Gandhi

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stingray Sneakers: Ethics & Bio-Customization

Heinous? Hilarious? Amazing? The fashion industry never fails to shock. A Thai-based company called Rayfish Footwear has brought bio-customization to the masses for a cool $1,800 once production is fully underway near the end of 2012. If you have to have them now, it will cost you - $14,800 - $16,200 for a pair of sneakers! Exclusivity reigns supreme in this industry and Rayfish was just crowned. At least until they drop in price, are knocked off and found in every Chinatown around the world.

What Rayfish has done is isolate the genes that express colour and pattern in a variety of animals and allows the consumer to combine these genes to create unique new prints. Brilliant really - they've made the average consumer into the designer (eliminated the need for an actual designer and passed the job onto you - genius from a corporate capitalist point of view) and they charge a shitload of money to grow your exclusive stingray and make it into shoes - just for you. 

I have to admit, I spend some serious time playing around on the website - designing endless new prints.  Here's how it works:

* Design your pattern, mixing and matching the DNA from snow-leopards to angel fish resulting in unique two colour patterns. Combine up to three different DNA's for the background colour, three for the foreground and three for the pattern. Yes, you can own a pair of sneakers made from up to '10' different  animal DNAs (including the sting ray itself).

* Rayfish makes your special DNA concoction and inserts it into a fetal stingray. As the ray grows, it does so expressing the aesthetic characteristics of the animals you chose.


They are grown in these tanks according to the website.

The final product is Shagreen or stingray leather. Shagreen is a rough, granular untanned leather. Historically it was usually made using the rump area of a horse and for providing grip on weapons such as bows or swords. The Art Deco era popularized its use for furniture and the main source became sharks and stingrays. It has been used for many random products; fashion accessories, Rubik's cubes ($1,950), book binding and shoes. 

It is a luxury leather that requires a fairy lengthy processing stage and is more difficult to work with than a standard cow-hide. A Shagreen cuff from Canadian jeweller Myles Mindham runs between $1,300 - $5,000 and Hermes 2010 furniture collection is made with Shagreen - Price Upon Request, no surprise there. The luxury furniture designer Karl Springer's iconic chair is made of Shagreen along with many other of his designs.  

Ha! I guess if a  Shagreen leather Rubik's cube is $1,950, $1,800 for shoes that are bio-customized seems like a steal.

Myles Mindham

Louboutin + Platers
 Using Shagreen is not new and the same ethical issues apply with all exotic leathers that have been used for centuries or any leather for that matter. Historically, luxury items were made in very small quantities of unparalleled quality, ageing gracefully and passed on through generations. Unethical to some but totally sustainable in the sense that they were hand made and very small amounts of raw materials were used due to cost - not the way cow-hide, cotton, pony hair and even ostrich are used today. We buy soo much cashmere these days the increase in cashmere goats have had devastating environmental and cultural effects on the Mongolians. Overgrazing is leading to desertification and a shrinking water table while the increasing demand has been eroding the nomadic herding culture.

This bio-customization brings many ethical and environmental issues onto the table. To grow an animal just to use it for shoes just seems reckless and unnecessary. Side note: Can't you just wait to see how PETA reacts to this! The company has already received much back lash and has released a statement clarifying that the meat will be used for food, not thrown away. Fair enough - cow hide is a by-product of the beef industry. They claim this is more humane than factory farmed beef and its leather by-products, which could be true but then again Asia is not known for its rigid regulation in the production sector. But genetically modifying an animal for fashion??? I'm sure it is not painful to the animal - it is just changing colour and pattern but restricting them to those tiny tanks, do we really need shoes that bad?  It's an ethical slippery slope. 

What really gets me is that they call this product SUSTAINABLE. Okay, sustainable because you are breeding your raw material so you have a bountiful endless supply. What about the subsequent processing of the leather? What about the bio-hazard waste because you are genetically modifying animals? What about all the energy used to grow the stingrays? What about the glues used to make the shoes? It's Thailand - environmental laws are weak at best and is there even regulation for animal welfare in this type of situation? Most likely using a glue that contains PVC (polyvinyl chloride) that will eventually release VOC's (volatile organic compounds), toxic, hazardous chemicals. $1,800 is obviously cheaper than all the other Shagreen products out there so I feel like the quality of these shoes will not be the same as Louboutins or a Hermes piece. How long will it last then?  What about the rubber for the soles? Are those eyelets made with metal containing nickel? Can they be recycled or do you just toss 'em in the garbage when you're done? I could go on and on but you get the point, farming an animal does not make fashion products 'sustainable'. 

What's scary is the promotion of using stingray leather for a fairly democratic fashion item - the sneaker. Shagreen is a luxury leather - its use should not be encouraged as luxury items and brands become more accessible due to technology and economies of scale. The stingrays typically used for this leather have very slow rates of reproduction. The University of British Columbia has found that demand for this leather is increasing and imports from Thailand and Indonesia (main producers) has doubled since the 90's putting pressure on the stingray population. 

Do we really need to be using stingray leather? 

Do we really need to start farming stingrays for fashion?? Cows - stingrays - slippery slope. 

This brings up a lot of questions and ethical dilemas.

Some think this is a hoax - I really hope it is. There is no mention in any scientific literature of this latest achievement. Genes work in tandem and it does seem like a stretch that you could pick and choose genes/traits from all types of species.

 If we are to use bio-customization technology, it should be for something more worthwhile than fashion shoes. Don't get me wrong, I love, love shoes but there's a limit and this is it. 

check it out for yourself


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