Beautiful decor may have a dark side

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Whether it’s fur or feathers or ivory tusks, many consumers naively think that if a home decor product is on the shelves, no animals or their habitats could have been hurt in the process of bringing it to us. We have governmental regulations and consumer awareness to keep our noses clean, right?

Wrong.

Sometimes watchdog organizations are out there, beating the drums of social-consciousness and awareness about the multifaceted ways humans are wreaking havoc on other species and the planet.

They try to make the rest of us worry along with them (at least a little bit) about wildlife and the world, but most of us don’t have the bandwidth to put many of these worries on our own plates, let alone to attempt to effect change with our pocketbooks or to pay attention to the dark side (think poaching, mass killings and far-reaching environmental destruction) of the beautiful things we love.

Fortunately, I’m here with a starter kit of troubling practices that you should be paying attention to and doing something about.

It all started last week when I had an eye-opening discussion with Craig Hoover, chief of wildlife trade and conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency that protects nature. Hoover told me about the impact certain home decor choices have on our planet and its wildlife.

After talking to Hoover, I felt like a dirt clod in the spring meadow of life. Now, I have not overnight turned into an off-the-grid, chest-beating vegan PETA activist driving a solar-powered Smart car with a Greenpeace sticker on it. But I do care about the future of this green spinning sphere upon which we all depend.

Hoover has a simple mission: to prevent consumers from unwittingly buying home furnishings that harm the wild.

“Most people aren’t thinking about where an item comes from and what impact their purchasing decision has on animal and plant life around the world when they buy home furnishings,” says Hoover.

“So true,” I say. “They’re thinking: ‘That would look awesome on my coffee table. How much is it?’ 

“I want to get them to make the connection between the beautiful product in the store and the impact that removing it from the wild has on plants or animals,” he says.

Brilliantly connecting the dots, I ask, “As in, if consumers would stop buying ivory, hunters would stop killing elephants just for their tusks?”

Bingo.

“Anything that creates a demand for products made from endangered species is bad news for that species,” he says.

While I knew about ivory, Hoover shared some other products used in home decor that he wants you to think about before you buy. I hope you will read it. If you do, you will not be the same. I’m not.

• Ivory. Often beautifully carved into ornate balls or figures, ivory comes at a steep price to wildlife, usually to elephants, which are killed solely for their tusks. Some ivory also comes from walrus tusks and hippo teeth, Hoover says. Unfortunately, demand for ivory has risen sharply.

Last year 35,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, and more than 60 percent of forest elephants over the past decade. As a result, Asian elephants are endangered, and African elephants as threatened, which typically means that, without intervention, they’ll be endangered in short order.

• Coral. In home decor, showy pieces of coral are often on display, but again, at a cost to the planet. Hundreds of thousands of species of fish rely on coral reefs for food and shelter, Hoover explains. But, because of the market for coral, the planet’s reefs are shrinking.

“Coral grows very slowly,” says Hoover. “A 12-inch piece of branch coral, one of the fastest growing types, grows only an inch a year, so it would take 12 years to replace itself.”

•  Tortoiseshell. Sea turtles are endangered because their shells are so highly regarded. Fake tortoiseshell is common in eyewear, hair accessories, and handles on flatware because the mottled brown tones look so fabulous. But those opting for items fashioned from real tortoise are contributing to the demise of these reptiles.

• Rhino horn. Poachers are killing rhinos at an alarming rate, the equivalent of a rhino every 12 hours in South Africa alone, just for the animal’s horn. The texture of toenails, rhino horn is mostly sold for unproven medicinal purposes, but some fashion the horns into drinking or “libation” cups, which sell for extraordinarily high prices.

“Rhino horn is selling for a higher price per ounce than heroin,” Hoover adds.

• Orchids. I never would have thought that buying these graceful flowering plants could threaten our already at-risk rain forests. However, that’s where many orchids come from. Hoover encourages those who want to adorn their homes with these tropical flowers — and that includes me — to ask retailers about their orchid sources before buying. If they were grown in a hot house nursery, buy them with a clear conscience.

“Those mass-produced are conservation neutral,” he says. But those imported from overseas? Likely not.

•  Mahogany. Supplies of mahogany and Brazilian rosewood are dwindling, and are highly regulated, says Hoover, who wants consumers to know the status of the wood in the furnishings before they purchase. Stick with woods like oak and pine that are plantation grown and sustainably produced.

• Feathers. Decades ago, women’s fashion, specifically millinery, which adorned hats with assorted exotic feathers, created a run on rare birds, driving many toward extinction. Strict laws arose to protect more than 1,000 species of migratory birds, but wildlife protections vary among countries and parts of the world, and where one species may enjoy some regulatory protections, others may be in the midst of a population decimation.

Once again, Hoover wants consumers to ask informed questions before making feather purchases. Ask what kind of feathers are on the object and where they came from. If the source is wild birds, that’s not OK, and it’s likely illegal; if they came from birds in captive breeding, they are conservation neutral.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.

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