The biggest social media saga to have happened in the past few days, involved a brand new Singaporean label called Ivory Lane. Founded by a certain Ivy Chng, Ivory Lane positioned itself as an accessories and jewellery brand that sells products made from ivory—a material we all recognise as an unethical derivative of illegal poaching of (mainly but not restricted to) elephants. The brand was well marketed and even had a backstory as to why Ivy Chng—a self-professed world traveller—decided to set up Ivory Lane. Chng saw Ivory Lane as "an opportunity for her to reshape nature, to create something precious that can be carried forward to future generations".
Then came the social media uproar. Since the brand's online launch on 31 July 2018, the response was negative all around. Word quickly spread about Ivory Lane, and more and more joined in to express their disgust at the unethical business.
In a bid to quell the anger, Ivory Lane released a statement: "The import and export of elephant ivory has been banned internationally since 1990. Ivory Lane does not import any new ivory into Singapore. All our ivory products are made of vintage ivory, before 1990." A PR disaster, right?
But folks, here's the thing: Ivory Lane is fake and Esquire Singapore was in on it.
How we got involved with Ivory Lane
On Wednesday, 1 August 2018, Esquire Singapore together with four other media representatives, were invited by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore to a private lunch. We had no inkling of what the get together was about, but seeing how the writers and editors invited all dealt with fashion, we figured it had something to do in that realm. It made sense—fashion does have a longstanding issue when it comes to materials with animal origins.
We were then presented with a video of an undercover operation conducted by WWF Singapore, on how it is perfectly legal to sell and find ivory-based products in Singapore. It was a shock because ivory is quite possibly, the last thing we'd actually go out to look for. And the fact that these products are available in Singapore, is astounding. When questioned by undercover investigators regarding the legalities of the ivory being sold, sellers unconvincingly expressed that the ivories were sourced before 1990 and recommended that the investigators wear them while crossing borders to avoid being questioned by authorities.
It was after the reveal of WWF Singapore's focus this time around, that Ivory Lane was introduced to us. Understandably, like the many outspoken individuals on social media, we were outraged and appalled at the idea of the business. After questioning the WWF representatives on what they could do to stop the business and how this was even perfectly legal to begin with (we all really did question them for about half an hour about this), they revealed that they were behind Ivory Lane. There was a collective "Whaaaaaaaaat?!" across the room; we were duped yet really very impressed by the concept.
There was no coercing on WWF Singapore's part, for any of us to be part of the faux campaign. We were all on the same page—how could we take charge of this to spur bigger conversations, and raise awareness about Singapore's role as a transit hub for illegal wildlife trade? We all agreed on signing non-disclosure agreements so that this campaign was privy only to all of us in that room.
There had to be a party pooper
But then, somehow, it was leaked out. We found out through our sources that The Straits Times threatened to release a story that WWF Singapore was behind it all along, well ahead of the intended timeline for the full scale of the campaign. The campaign was due to end on 30 August 2018, with the objective (and activations in between) properly and sufficiently communicated to the public.
On our part, we were scheduled to release an interview with 'Ivy Chng' to find out more about Ivory Lane, to create further conversations surrounding ivory and the legalities of it. There were plans to engage Esquire Singapore readers to raise awareness about these issues that we don't normally think about because we're (perceived to be) so far removed from the equation involving illegal wildlife trade. And what we at Esquire Singapore are disappointed by, is that the campaign needed a bit more time to be completely understood, instead of a sudden press statement released just shy of a week into it. And clearly, if you read the Facebook comments on the post, there's a mix of confusion and misunderstanding, which could all have been avoided if the campaign was given time to grow.
We've reached out to Elaine Tan, chief executive officer of WWF Singapore to find out her thoughts about the quick end to their viral faux brand campaign.
ESQ: How do you measure the success of this campaign—by how viral it went or the strong negative response behind the entire brand?
Elaine Tan: We believe in conservation impact, which can only happen when Singapore takes action to strengthen our wildlife trade laws. The voices of people in Singapore speak louder than any organisation especially when it comes to local laws. The overwhelming and strong response towards Ivory Lane has made it very clear that people in Singapore have a zero tolerance towards illegal wildlife trade, and signals to the authorities that people are willing to support any measures to address this.
ESQ: Were you prepared for the strong pushback on social media? Understandably, the public does feel duped, with some commenting that this was unnecessary. What are your thoughts on it?
Elaine Tan: We do not feel that there was a strong pushback as most of the responses were positive towards WWF and people understood the reason behind what the campaign and why we did this. However, controversy is better than indifference. Indifference is our biggest challenge in addressing illegal wildlife trade in Singapore. People do not realise Singapore plays a part in the global illegal wildlife trade as a demand and transit market.
While it was a fictitious brand, Ivory Lane allowed people to debate the real issues about the legal selling of ivory in Singapore, and decide if allowing domestic ivory sales as well as other illegal wildlife products was something they wanted in Singapore. Love or hate Ivory Lane, it made you more aware about issues surrounding illegal wildlife trade in Singapore.
ESQ: Personally, I feel that the campaign was a success because it did raise awareness about the legal loopholes in our system. Moving forward, what do you hope the general public gets out of this saga?
Elaine Tan: Ivory Lane did not just highlight shortcomings of our local wildlife laws, but also showed that there is significant gap between what people in Singapore thought about ivory and what was actually happening. Singapore is a bigger player in the global illegal wildlife trade than many would think, as we are a transit and demand market. The solution lies with stronger laws and enforcement measures.
ESQ: Based on the responses on social media, Singaporeans appear to feel strongly for this cause. How can they help in the fight against the purchase, selling and trading of ivory?
Elaine Tan: We are heartened to see so many people in Singapore unite as a voice against illegal wildlife trade. And this is just the start.
Our investigations did not just uncover a domestic market for ivory sales in Singapore, with over 40 shops selling ivory and numerous online listings for illegal wildlife products. In addition, we are also a major transit country for illegal wildlife trade, due to our strong global connectivity. Singapore is one of the largest transshipment ports in the world but has comparably low maximum penalties for wildlife crime. In addition, our investigations have uncovered that Singapore is due for clear and strong legislation to address ivory and illegal wildlife trade, and Ivory Lane has demonstrated that there is strong support for legislation that can address this.
Individuals can also help by reporting on any suspected illegal trade activity on this platform, which will be shared with the local authorities for enforcement.