The statistics are daunting. Over the last 15 years, sales of fur and fur trim in the United States have reportedly increased 81 percent. Over the last two years alone, sales of fur have increased in Britain by a striking 30 percent. And in the past year, global fur sales were up more than 9 percent from the previous year, and 40 percent from five years earlier.
The resurgence in fur can be traced to the public-relations efforts of SAGA, a Scandinavian supplier of furs from farmed minks and foxes, which in turn encourages the trend through a design school in Copenhagen. Other contributing factors are production and design methods that make real furs appear artificial. The globalization of trade and the spread of capitalism to Russia and China have also benefited the industry.
“A lot of consumers don't care so much about ethical issues,” said Lise Skov, a lecturer at the Copenhagen Business School. Getting people to care requires clearly defining what they should care about. The Independent on Sunday listed the main demands of several animal advocacy organizations, and noticeably absent was an explicit call to end the industry. It’s not surprising then that people are generally unconcerned about fur if animal advocates themselves appear indifferent.
Here are the advocates’ reported demands, which we’ll examine in turn:
1. Stop farming nondomesticated animals, such as foxes and mink.
2. Stop segments of the industry considered especially harsh. Examples: cats and dogs raised and killed in poor conditions in China; seals inhumanely slaughtered in Canada.
3. Accordingly, label fur to clearly show its type and origin.
Is buying fur from trapped animals less ethical than buying products of fur farms?
It’s one big business -- all of it lucrative, and all of it disrespectful to other animals.
More than 70 percent of the fur sold in the United States comes from mink, many of whom are raised on one of more than 300 mink farms which together produce nearly 3 million pelts each year.
Then there are the muskrats, otters, beavers, pine martens and fishers (the last two belong to the weasel family, with the fishers being significantly larger) -- some of the free-living animals currently trapped in North America for the fur markets in China and Russia. China is now the main consumer of pelts from the northern United States, and trappers who last year got about $2.80 for each muskrat’s fur now get $7 for each muskrat they trap and skin. Of the three main Canadian auctions where trappers sell pelts, the largest is the North American Fur Auction in Toronto, at 5.5 million pelts a year.
Are some segments of the industry especially harsh, and therefore worse from an ethical standpoint?
When activists focus on how certain sectors of the fur industry do not conform to specific or proposed regulations, they prolong the industry’s existence, by permitting it to adapt. They also get arguments back from industry experts. Thus, as organizations fly advocates to Newfoundland to watch the seal kill for regulatory violations, Canada’s Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing “found that the methods used in hunting seals compare favourably to those used to hunt any other wild or domesticated animal.”
Our activism places abolishing the kill within a movement to respect the interests of nonhumans to live on their own terms. We’re also campaigning to end government support for the seal kill in Canada’s economically depressed Atlantic coastal region, pressuring the government to instead provide real economic relief. For although Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans touts the seal kill as an economic boon to Newfoundland and Labrador, the region continues to suffer double-digit unemployment, and the top homeports for seal industry employees have unemployment rates 30 percent higher than Canada’s average.
In New Zealand, plans are underway to eliminate brushtail possums by marketing their skins as “eco-fur.” Speaking for the New Zealand RSPCA, Robyn Kippenberger told London’s Independent that the industry is “relying on the possum ‘pest’ status to condone inhumane practices” and that unless manufacturers can guarantee that “their fur and skins…have been procured by humane methods, we do not support the killing of possums for their fur.” But as we’ve noted in the case of seals, the killing of possums is disrespectful to the animals killed, regardless of whether the killing is called humane or not.
Should activists support legislation to label fur to clearly show its type and origin?
It’s important that animal pelts be identified and not sold as faux fur. But there is no point in distinguishing animal skins as ecologically sound. Nor is there any sound reason to pursue activism to differentiate, say, cat or dog hair from the pelts of other animals. No matter which animals are skinned or in what country, or how their pelts are processed, animal-advocacy organizations should be calling for the industry’s outright end.
The Independent on Sunday revisited advocates’ three campaign demands when covering the marketing of coats under the Sean John fashion line. Macy’s presented the jackets as made with “imitation rabbit fur,” but what drew the attention of one U.S. humane organization was the “genuine raccoon fur” label on the collars -- which, the organization objected, were actually raccoon dog pelts.Raccoon dogs are free-living canids, and they’re stalked, trapped, and captive-bred in China.
The Humane Society of the United States, according to the Associated Press, is “calling upon Congress to amend the Dog and Cat Protection Act … to include raccoon dog” because the organization says these dogs are similar to domesticated dogs. This position is scientifically incorrect, as raccoon dogs are no closer to domestic dogs than any other canids whose pelts are sold.
Neither the pelts of raccoon dogs nor those of raccoons should be considered fabrics. Although it’s important that customers who order “faux fur” coats do receive fake and not real fur, it would not, on the other hand, improve things if these furs were made of “genuine raccoon” rather than raccoon dog pelts.
Nor would there be an essential difference were the pelts derived outside of China. The Humane Society referred to the killing of animals in China for their fur as “inhumane and barbaric,” but to suggest that killing in some other region is superior will merely pressure the fur industry to adopt universal standards. Indeed, Thomas Wong, chair of the Hong Kong International Fur Fair, indicates that’s exactly what’s happening when telling the media, “Some of the farms we visited [in China] are a very good standard. They use full European standards. But some of the farms, they might take time to improve.”
So the fur trade is not a problem specific to Asia; it’s multinational. North American and European designers whose exclusive lines are shown in Milan, Paris, New York and London take the lead in exporting fur as a status symbol around the globe.
Kopenhagen Furs, the world’s largest auction house for high-end furs, reported record sales as a result of a growing interest in furs among China’s increasing wealthy class. Fur is Denmark’s biggest export commodity to China, and Kopenhagen Furs, collectively owned by about 2,000 mink breeders, produces about 40 percent of the world’s mink pelts. Many furs imported by China are fashioned into clothes for export to other countries.
As we’ve noted, one of the latest international marketing trends suggests that shoppers can buy fur from a certain region, and thereby appear environmentally aware. People who buy a novelty set of nipple warmers and matching g-string made out of possum fur from the New Zealand Nature Company’s “Maruia Catalogue” can even add that they’re helping to save New Zealand’s “unique native heritage.”
It doesn’t take long to find that the “eco” in “eco-fur” has more to do with economics than ecology. Considered vectors for bovine tuberculosis, brushtail possums are targeted as threats to New Zealand’s $8 billion beef and dairy industry. And “eco-fur” is backed by the Ecological Foundation, a New Zealand organization that promotes economic growth and global free trade.
Moreover, the possum’s purported ecological relevance is linked to an eradication scheme which includes the use of the ecologically destructive poison Compound 1080, and the development of new biological control agents. Eighty percent of the Compound 1080 produced worldwide goes to New Zealand. (The chemical is also used in North America to kill coyotes and wolves for the benefit of ranchers and hunters.) Ironically, brushtail possums were introduced to New Zealand to establish a fur industry.
A Principled Approach
Eliminating the fur trade will require a fundamental shift in the approach of animal advocates to one that promotes respect for the inherent worth of other feeling beings. An end of the fur industry will be but one result of that.
Indeed, the fur industry is interconnected with the exploitation of nonhuman animals in general. Often, the skinned bodies of captive-bred animals are used by the pet food industry. Free-living animals like the brushtail possum or coyotes are trapped not only for the fur industry, but also because the control of these animals benefits the sheep and cattle industries; and animals at fur farms consume industrial waste from animal agribusiness. Beavers and raccoons are trapped at the behest of intolerant homeowners as part of extermination services. And the Macy’s and Burlington coats currently targeted by activists in major campaigns happen to be leather jackets and down-filled coats -- already animal products.
If the campaign to end the fur industry is to succeed, it must be serious – not just argue over methods or origins, but really get to the roots of exploitation. Were reporters to cover its demands, they’d write:
1. End the control and manipulation of free-living animals, so they may live on their own terms.
2. End the captive-breeding of other animals, whether they are domesticated or not.
3. Promote socially and environmentally responsible alternatives to all products derived from animals.
Let 2007 be the year the public hears this platform. Counting on your support, we can do it.
Look for Fall 2007 Act'ionLine for a preview Friends of Animals' new, hard-hitting anti-fur ads that will appear in magazines around the U.S.