The use of fur in fashion has long been a source of heated debate. From the iconic PETA campaigns of the ’90s to a recent spate of high-profile designers going fur-free. But is it really that simple? We ask, how ethical is fur?
Fur: a brief history
Traditionally, fur was worn as a source of warmth and protection. For centuries, animals were killed for meat, with their pelts providing a practical and durable material that would keep people safe from the elements. Fur is still used in traditional and ceremonial clothing the world over—from Aboriginal Possum Skin Cloaks, to the traditional clothing of First Nations people in the Arctic such as Inuit Seal Hunters, to the Queen’s royal robes. Importantly, for some remote indigenous populations, animal skins and furs are one of the only sources of income available to help their communities thrive. Putting indigenous practices under the microscope while ignoring cattle farming in the West is inconsistent at best and likely has roots in racist and colonial thinking.
In the 20th century, fur became a regular feature of luxury fashion, when Hollywood stars appeared draped in exotic pelts. Since then, fur has been marketed as a measure of wealth and glamour—expensive and desirable. As fur’s popularity grew, fur farming became big business. At the same time, the animals involved became commodified, opening the door to inhumane practices.
Animal impacts of fur
For many of us, wearing fur is simply cruel, and to be avoided at all costs. Campaign groups such as PETA have long highlighted the inhumane practices of fur farms. Shocking videos showing distressed animals have laid bare the conditions they are kept in to feed the fur trend. Fur farms dominate the modern fur trade, and production has more than doubled since the 1990s, to about a hundred million skins in 2015. No longer an expensive luxury, these days cheap fur trims can be found on high street shoes and accessories. The most common animals for fashion fur are mink and fox.
The animals—who are housed in unbearably small cages—live with fear, stress, disease, parasites, and other physical and psychological hardships, all for the sake of an unnecessary global industry that makes billions of dollars annually.PETA
Amid widespread backlash, fur farming has been banned in a few European countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, and Austria. Mink imports are also banned in New Zealand, effectively banning mink farming in the country.
In an attempt to reassure consumers about its treatment of animals, the fur industry launched the voluntary Fur Europe scheme in 2016. It aims to regulate fur farms across Europe and improve animal living conditions through what it terms “Welfur” assessments. The scheme looks at cage size, location, food ,and overall treatment of the animals.
But it’s China’s fur farms that have attracted recent attention after a series of exposés by animal rights groups. Claims include animals being skinned alive and the killing of cats and dogs for the fur trade, where pelts are deliberately mislabelled and sold overseas. Real domestic animal furs have even been found in products that were sold as fake fur in the UK. Jeroen van Kernebeek from the campaign group Four Paws Australia says it’s hard for shoppers to tell the difference, “these days real fur often appears as the trim on collars, hoods, and hats, or used for accessories. It is very difficult for consumers to distinguish real fur from that which is fake.”
For decades fur farms have in China have been able to operate without regard to animal welfare, and the country still lacks robust laws on animal welfare, though public attitudes may be shifting in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fur farming may be the biggest source of animal pelts, but it’s not the only one. Some may argue that wild-caught animals lead happy lives before being killed—and that makes it more ethical. Around 15% of fur is sourced like this—mainly from beaver, coyote, muskrat, and raccoon from Canada, the USA, and Russia. But serious concerns have been raised about the methods used by hunters such as steel jaw traps or cages, which can leave animals injured and severely stressed for days before the hunter returns to them.
Environmental impacts of fur
Aside from the animal welfare issues surrounding fur, the environmental effects are also cause for concern. Fur requires complex processing and chemical treatments to manufacture. Animal skin will decompose and rot unless it is treated with toxic chemicals, such as chromium and formaldehyde. These pose a risk to waterways as well as the workers who handle them.
The land, feed, and water consumption of the animals also produce carbon emissions. In fact, the climate change impact of 1kg of mink fur is five times higher than that of wool, the best-scoring textile in a life cycle assessment (LCA) conducted by the independent research organisation, CE Delft
Why oppose fur, why not other animal products?
In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish.Karl Lagerfield
A number of commentators have questioned why fur has been the focal point for protests and campaigns, when animals killed for leather also suffer. PETA argues that “leather production is just as violent, painful, and deadly as the fur trade.” (WARNING: graphic images).
The environmental impact of leather is arguably worse, too. Ecocult Editor Alden Wicker recently wrote about why she wears fur, including a family heirloom fox fur given to her by her mother. In the article, she points out the toxic leather tanning industry in Bangladesh that puts workers and children in danger. The sheer scale of the leather industry compared with fur is an environmental and health disaster for the communities that produce the material.
Is it because we associate fur with luxury fashion—something entirely for show instead of food or protection—that it feels particularly cruel and unnecessary? But of course just because leather has its own ethical issues, doesn’t make fur any less problematic.
Second hand fur
There are arguments for and against buying second hand fur. On one hand, you’re extending the life of the garment without giving your money to the fur industry. On the other, proudly sporting a fur coat can be seen as an endorsement of fur, regardless of its source.
Some would argue that fur is sustainable because of its longevity. Fur is one of those items that can be kept in the family for years and handed down through generations. They see a luxury fur coat as an investment, a big-ticket item that transcends passing trends.
A ’90s revival
The fur industry may have grown massively since the ’90s, but in the fashion world it seems the rejection of fur has come back into vogue. There is a growing fur-free movement involving brands such as Stella McCartney, Armani, Gucci, Ralf Lauren, DKNY, Versace, and Galliano, along with high-street fashion chains like H&M, Topshop, Zara, and Gap. In March 2018, celebrities including Paloma Faith and Ricky Gervais put their name to a campaign calling for a fur import ban in the UK. More than 425,000 people signed the petition delivered to UK Prime Minister Theresa May. For the first time since the ’90s, it seems many celebrities would rather go naked than wear fur.
When we rate brands at Good On You, we deduct marks for the use of new fur, regardless of its source. As we’ve said in the past, “an ethical consumer motivated by the interests of animals would not consider purchasing any new product made from fur.”
Author bio: Madeleine is an experienced content writer who specialises in all things personal sustainability, environmental awareness, and minimal consumption. She loves using her writing and research to clearly communicate these key solutions to environmental issues, and endeavours to help people do more in their everyday lives to minimise their footprint on the planet. To do this, Madeleine also manages the online platform Our Simple Gestures, and in her spare time loves being outdoors and enjoying life. Also find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.