Fur clothing: Ethics and sustainability

Friday, May 24th 2019
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We recently published an article looking in depth at the sustainability of luxury, bespoke menswear, which seemed to go down well. So here is the second part of that interview, with American writer Alden Wicker.

In it we specifically focus on fur, which is probably the most controversial of any type of clothing. Often to an irrational extent.

Permanent Style: Hi Alden. Continuing our discussion about fashion and sustainability, I’d like to turn to fur. It feels like this has had the most attention of any other issue in the past 30 years - yet there’s a lot of misinformation out there. What’s your view?

Alden Wicker: I think the biggest issue here is fake fur - which has had a lot of good coverage recently.

Fake fur is just plastic, which will not biodegrade. It is not a good alternative to fur, environmentally or in terms of animal welfare either. We’re only just discovering all the damage microfibre is doing to animals and the environment.

Yes, fake fur was called out quite strongly - at the least in the UK - for its harmful effects. But it feels like it is still being sold on an ethical basis. It reminds me of companies selling clothing and footwear as ‘vegan’, just because it’s plastic.

Yes that’s a perennial issue with fur. There’s very little informed discussion going on. Canada Goose is a good example here in the US.

They’ve been a focus in the UK too - there were protests outside the shop on Regent Street for a long time.

OK, so it makes a good example. And it’s perhaps the kind of place your readers might be interacting with new fur.

The fur that Canada Goose uses is coyote fur. The coyotes are trapped wild in a traditional way in Canada, and they’re allowed to be killed because they’ve become so numerous, breeding and moving far beyond their natural range. They’ve become a menace to other animals like the caribou in the North.

They’re in no way endangered, and if you kill one of them, you’re taking the life of one animal but also saving the lives of others - probably baby caribou.

I think people that aren’t familiar with the countryside (including myself) often don’t understand this idea of land management: of controlling animal numbers in order to preserve other animals, or the flora even. They see culling as cruel, but there’s no way to avoid animals dying, one way or the other.

Exactly. I was actually doing a lot of research around this on deer hunting in Austria. Animals have to be killed to avoid them becoming too numerous - mostly for their own sakes, as they’ll all starve to death when the population gets too big.

At this point in history, you have to accept that humans are part of the ecosystem and for some animals - like deer - we are the top predator. We might not want wolves re-introduced (because they’ll prey on sheep we’re farming) so we have to take on that role, and not abdicate responsibility because we’re squeamish about death.

And if the fur, antlers or anything else from those animals can be used, it should be. Otherwise it’s just wasted, right? I’m told lots of governments destroy animals they cull - such as red fox in Germany, or muskrat in Holland - partly because they don’t want the bad PR of selling them.

Yes, that fear is very strong. But of course not all fur is from culled animals.

I have mixed feelings about mink production. On the one hand, when it was done in Scandinavia it was farmed well. But on the other, mink are actually carnivores, so raising them is pretty energy intensive and not that sustainable.

Rabbit is a lot better, but at this point most rabbit comes from China, which has negligible controls when it comes to animal rights.

Does the same general guidance apply as in our first post, that fur sourced in Europe or North America will usually be better regulated, and therefore better in terms of treatment and the environment? 

Yes, that's a good guiding principle. There will always be exceptions, but that's the place to start.

The point about the climate impact of fur is interesting - I don’t think it’s one that would occur to most people.

True, but it’s important. I read a couple of competing papers recently looking at this, one commissioned by an animal-rights group and one by the fur industry. They came to different conclusions, but only because they used different assumptions about how long someone would own a fur coat vs a synthetic coat.

Basically, if you buy a full-length mink coat and keep it for less than 10 years, and you keep a fake-fur coat for more than two years, then the fake fur is better for the environment in terms of energy used.

But that’s a full mink coat. If you’re talking about the fur trim on a Canada Goose coat, or fur accessories, then they’re not environmentally unfriendly.

And that doesn't include the effects of the plastic itself as a pollutant?

Yes, without that.

So it seems like the effects of fur are very dependent on the animal used, how much used, and how long you keep and wear the piece for. Even a fur coat is OK when it’s passed down between generations.

Yes. I completely understand vegans who don't want to take anything from animals, but for everyone else they can't really treat all fur as the same. 

I remember last year during Wool Week here, a video was being circulated showing British farmers mistreating sheep. But it must be quite easy to expose one bad practice, and much harder to show the thousands of bad ones somewhere else.

Yes, and in fact there was an exposé a few weeks ago that showed a famous video - where Chinese fur farmers skin animals alive - wasn’t real. The farmers were paid to do it by the people doing the filming. It didn’t even make sense - skinning alive would produce a terrible skin. It would destroy the farmer's livelihood. 

There was another incident where there was campaigning against fox fur because foxes were allowed to over eat, to make them fat and have more skin. But that's a question of context: lots of people allow their dogs - particularly pugs - to over eat.

I guess mass-farming of cows is a lot worse, given that involves over eating and growth hormones. And of course foie gras, which requires force feeding.

Exactly, it’s a matter of scale, yet fur always gets the most attention.

As a consumer, is the best approach to try and avoid mass production - eg caged eggs - and to buy based on stamps of better treatment wherever there is one?

Yes, and down is a good example there. You can buy much more humanely plucked down, usually stamped with the Responsible Down Standard.

The Humane Society is also worth looking at in that context. They’re less extreme and more considered around animal welfare, for example pushing for the banning of gestation crates rather than pig farming as a whole.   

Finally, my biggest piece of advice would be to use vintage fur. There’s so much of it around, it’s not that expensive, and it’s very sustainable. Buy vintage, then take it to a furrier and have them make it into something else.

I’m glad you said that, because that’s what I did recently - I used second-hand rabbit with a company called Yves Salomon to make a lining for a vintage field jacket. [I promise readers, I didn’t prompt Alden to say this!]

In fact that was one thing that prompted this discussion. There was some very considered feedback from readers on my post about it, and some said they would like to hear from someone independent on the issue, rather than a fashion company.

Oh great. That’s certainly a good idea: vintage as a whole is the most sustainable thing there is, and if you’re going to buy fur, then vintage is the way to do it.

It’s hard to say without full life-cycle analysis exactly how new fur and fake fur compare, but re-using old fur will always be better than both of them.

I’m so jealous of that jacket now. Fur is so warm. I don’t think it’s possible to explain to people how warm it is until you’ve walked around in it.

I know what you mean. It's like it's generating its own heat, rather than just trapping it. Well, thanks for the chat Alden.

You can read our first article on sustainability in general, here.

Alden is a writer, speaker and contributor to magazines such as Newsweek. Her site is EcoCult.com.

If you would like to know more about fur and its regulation, a good resource is the International Fur Federation. This is of course an industry group.

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Anonymous

Interesting article and a good point of view, however a fairly one sided argument. I would be interested to hear the counter argument to this as I am sure there is one. More of an Op-ed than a rounded article.

JB

Very interesting post providing a lot of different points of view and new information compared to what the general public knows or takes for granted I’m sure.

Fletcher Warren

Hi Simon, this is a good perspective. One suggestion for the piece – you might consider adding some information at the top about Alden’s qualifications to speak to this subject. I know this was addressed in your earlier interview with him on sustainable luxury, but I think it would be good to have the same bona fides carried over here. I could see using this article as a good resource for conversations about fur in fashion, but without clicking through to the links at the top, it’s not obvious why Alden’s views should be given weight.

Fletcher Warren

*her, not him, obviously. Sorry Alden!

Anonymous

I think fur does indeed have some positive attributes for sustainability over plastics. But I also think this missed a huge part of what people find disturbing about fur, mainly that the animals are held in leg traps for long periods of time (where they often suffer injuries) until they are killed, rather than more humane methods. An ecologist I know likes to say that this is the anthropocene – the time when human activity is the dominant influence over the environment. I agree that hunting and wildlife management is not only necessary but a responsible practice for long term sustainability, but the real question is over the ethics of how it’s done, which I don’t think was discussed enough here.

Anonymous

I agree with the first comment, it is slightly one sided, framed, I think, by some of the direction of travel contained within the questions. Though I agree with the useless application of fake fur and similar products. The notion of Plastic shoes as a component of ethical buying is also worthy of challenge. Coyote fur is a somewhat of a distraction: it is a tiny fragment of world fur production which is overwhelmingly sourced from intensively farmed, ‘single use’ animals. I agree that pelts sourced as a side product are valid but, for example, Mink is not on anyone’s menu soon. However, timing is all: two days ago Prada announced that by 2020 it will end all production or use of fur in its fashion business. This may well lead the way for other fashion businesses and thus change fur’s place within the way we think about fashion, style and costume.

E L

“The coyotes are trapped wild in a traditional way in Canada, and they’re allowed to be killed because they’ve become so numerous, breeding and moving far beyond their natural range. They’ve become a menace to other animals like the caribou in the North.”

There is a real debate as to whether culling actually helps control animal populations. Many say that it can actually have the opposite affect in certain cases. There are a variety of reasons for this. I also think it is problematic to think of things this way, but more on that shortly.

“Animals have to be killed to avoid them becoming too numerous – mostly for their own sakes, as they’ll all starve to death when the population gets too big.”

Then let them die. Let nature take its course–it is better at preserving itself than we are. One thing this article seems to miss is what killing animals is for us. When we kill animals we harden our hearts. We stop seeing animals as creatures who have lives and interests that make moral claims upon us (we might say something similar about someone who works in a prison where people are in solitary confinement–what does working in that prison do to that person’s ethical life?). By killing animals, especially ones we have strong emotional attachments to, we do damage to our ethical concepts. We are already callous in our treatment of many farm animals. We don’t need to extend this callousness further.

“We might not want wolves re-introduced (because they’ll prey on sheep we’re farming) so we have to take on that role, and not abdicate responsibility because we’re squeamish about death.”

We should want wolves re-introduced. What we have done to them is horrible. Also, I think to attribute not wanting to kill animals to mere squeamishness misses the point. Compare this with someone who doesn’t want to fight in a war (even a justified one) because he doesn’t want to kill people (even if they are horrible people, e.g. terrorists). To attribute this person’s aversion to killing people to mere squeamishness misses the point I think. It misunderstands the ethical concepts we employ that shape how we think of other human beings. I think the same thing can be said about animals in this case.

There is also a view implicitly expressed in this interview that animals are things to be worn–and that if they are killed we should use their parts. I think this gets at many of the things I am saying. We don’t use the body parts of dead humans and we wouldn’t even if they were fashionable and this is not because doing so would cause any harm–it wouldn’t. This is because human beings are certain things to us. To use them in this way would violate what they are to us (for the same reason we think it heinous to kill a pet, or wear one that died of natural causes).

I think the same thing can be said about certain animals, especially wild ones, and ones we have stronger emotional attachments to. Treating animals in certain ways and as certain things makes us more callous and violates our ethical relationship to animals.

Furthermore, we need not demand that all animals should be treated the same (though we should treat many animals better than we do). Beetles are not the same thing to us that cows are. Cows are not the same things to us that elephants are. And, elephants are not the same thing to us that retrievers are. To insist otherwise is unintuitive. Wild animals, especially certain ones, make a stronger claim upon us–I think–than many farm animals.

I also think fur might be a bigger problem insofar as when we look at it, we see the animal and think of the animal from which it came. We (or at least I) don’t have the same reaction to leather.

Julius

As a man from the north (Sweden) and from the forest industry i would like to point out that that most of the worlds forests are forest plantations (75% in Sweden) . Which basically means that the “forest” is state of the art farms. Controlling the animal population is absolutely crucial for sustainable forestry. A nice fur is inherited in generations. I have my grandfathers fathers coat. No other piece of clothing has the same presence, warmth and possibility for longevity, as long as it comes from sustainable farming or sustainable hunting.

Ben

There is a line of animal-rights argument that opposes any killing for human consumption (when alternative food sources are available) or use—full stop. Whether or not the animals killed have lived in the wild (or on a free-roam farm, etc.), are endangered, and might otherwise kill livestock are besides the point. I’m not 100% sympathetic to this argument, but the points in this article skirt around it.

Ross Aitken

So plastic is bad, therefore it’s cool to rock a fur coat? Perhaps we just don’t wear either real or fake fur?

As for protecting wildlife by culling where necessary, yes, that’s okay, but you don’t need to wear the results.

Simon

Beyond the rather thin argument of personal choice, I don’t see any way to spin the fact that an animal dying to provide a clothing material is both unnecessary and cruel, by any definition. It can never be considered humane, however it’s labelled or whatever standard it’s stamped with. The net result is always premature death.

The excuse species control becomes more interesting when you think a little more laterally, by replacing the various culled animals cited with the word ‘humans’. It doesn’t seem to be quite so palatable to view ourselves as the issue, even though our species size is unsustainable and we adversely affect many other species immeasurably. I’m not sure I see the difference, or could reconcile the cognitive dissonance and moral bankruptcy for a piece of clothing.

Simon

And that’s where the emphasis should surely lie, in developing sustainable materials that aren’t reliant on anything dying, including us.

Fred

Dear Simons.
If we exist we cause suffering in some way or another, be it by using petrochemicals, desertification or killing of animals. In what we eat, what we wear, how we travel, what we buy for work or fun. It is impossible to avoid this.
What we can do is be conscious of this, aim to consume as little as possible and make the most use of sustainable resources.
I am a vegetarian, and yet I find the opprobrium given to the use of fur curiously out of proportion with other consumption, there is not the same level of controversy around wearing a leather motorcycle jacket or eating a bacon butty. I wonder if it is because fur is associated with social class and that that makes it more easy to criticise?
So thank you Simon Crompton for having the courage to make an article that makes us think.

Anonymous

You mention in comments a more humane way of killing animals for fur: the industry standard, as I understand it, is electrocution via anal electrodes…

Anonymous

I did observe that anal was the most uncomfortable method, but perhaps you missed my point.

Stunning by electricity or captive bolt, as in cattle farming, are preferred.

Robin

In reading this article I’ve certainly got a more rounded viewpoint .

Prior to this all I ever heard was that fur is bad .

Nobody wants to see cruelty but some who criticise fur are happy to bite into a burger sourced from a dubious supply chain .

The oxymoron we face is can we kill humanely ?

Anonymous

There is plenty of info. from the Humane Society, PETA, etc. plus ducumentary evidence if you wish to look (BBC News item 2016). Lethal application is not in a professional environment (i. e. veterinary hospital) the method of death is therefore unregulated and without standards. Misuse of voltage, equipment or application will cause extreme pain and suffering before death. Other methods (poisoning, suffocation, exhaust inhalation etc.) are also used – each as grisly as the next.

Anonymous

FYI – https://m.imdb.com/list/ls077346010/ gives a list of fur industry/animal welfare documentaries. Worth noting that the ethical treatment of all animals is interlinked: ivory trade, tiger trade, endangered species smuggling, fur trade; all rest upon a view that animals and nature are a consumable resource, items to be killed and used for things other than food and the sustenance of life.

Anonymous

Simon your last comment reads as a PR piece for the industry: standards, comparative to livestock farming are incredibly low. The BBC piece of 2016 is representative of the issues around caging alone.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-36135834/inside-a-russian-fur-farm
To hold PETA in the same vein as the fur industry is false accounting as PETA stands for an ethical issue the fur industry is in it for profit. Furthermore PETA is only one of many organisations providing documented evidence as to these allegations.
You provide little evidence (other than an interview) yet ask others with an opposing position for links etc. You mention China: again the evidence of China sourced garments substituting real (often cat and dog fur – shown by DNA analysis) for fake fur has been an issue within the UK over the last five years (as evidenced by UK Trading Standards and the BBC).
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvfru/823/823.pdf
https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/uk-46212094.
https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/22/fake-fur-passed-off-as-real-ban-animal-rights-welfare
Claims to standard are consistently undermined by evidence to the contrary.

Anonymous

There is no aggression implied or otherwise. Nor is there any disrespect, though your editorial positioning is somewhat curious hence my point. My comments just contain refutation by argument supported by widely published and accepted facts (which are linked and referenced). I only ask for fairness: if making a claim around standards, ethics of culling etc. let’s see some evidence. It’s an issue however when overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of abuse and cruelty, is consistently ignored (within the media fur debate) due to the financial interests of the producer group. Much like the tobacco industry it takes consistent research, discovery and repeated publication to refute industry claims that are now, in the view of many, anachronistic: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/news/survey-reveals-nine-in-10-people-would-not-wear-real-fur-2268395.html%3famp
For an intelligent, reasoned and fair discussion (including some UK legislative history) on the topic see:
https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/animal-welfare

TOS

Simon,
I’d like to thank you for this article. I do think it brings some objectivity and it perhaps reminds us of the critical difference between objectivity and neutrality – absolutely not the same things but sadly and far too often confused.
You ask why this issue often gets a little overheated and I suspect one of the answers is that (like vegetarianism) the issue becomes inextricably wrapped up with personal identity. And when is it ever possible to have a calm, nuanced discussion about identity?
I appreciate this article and I suspect that some of your non-UK-based readers might be more sanguine about the human/animal interface.
Best wishes

Anonymous

TOS might recognise that Britain’s view re. nature and animal welfare has always been advanced. 1822 saw the first welfare legislation whilst the SPCA was set up in 1824. The first country to industrialise Britain has always valued nature and wildlife. Early naturalists such as Banks and Darwin led the way in a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature. Animal charities sprang up in the late 1800’s and the 1911 Animal Welfare Act legislated for better treatment. Britain was also the first to legislate for climate improvement with the Clean Air Act of 1956 (US 1963). It has little to do with ‘vegetarian identity’ and much to do with progressive legislation based on rational scientific thought.

Anonymous

The evidence doesn’t support ethics based change without some broad social support. It’s true across all social and public policy. TOS makes a modern point based on individualism, that of identity, though the long history of animal welfare is based more on altruism and rational, enlightenment derived humanism. I make the point that legislation, not ‘public thought’ is often based on science. Modern debates around social and public policy have ethics at their centre but are often divided by opposing approaches and the ‘reading’ of the science (current US female health debate as example). Whatever conclusion is reached it is always then filtered through the politics of the day. Accepting of course that ethics has been, historically, a subject of intense scrutiny and debate (from Aristotle, Spinoza etc. onward).

Tim Fleming

Hi Simon,
As always, it’s great to read another informative article! I applaud your efforts to wade further into this topic that can get pretty heated and that you keep up with such involved comments.

I don’t know of another blogger or writer that puts such effort into their work with as high a level of integrity that shows in all you’ve created over the years. Thank you for maintaining this bright spot for all of us!

Marilynsmith

There are many fur accessories in the market these days. The main issue is about avoiding the companies which are selling synthetic products instead of the real ones. Before you start hunting for Real fur hats at Amifur, you have to know about the hat variations.

John

Where are the hats from in the first picture? (Forgive me if it’s mentioned somewhere above.) They’re beautiful. Thanks.

Tony Hodges

This is quite a good walk through some of the ethical issues. I especially think the point that the crux of the moral issue is about sustainability and humane treatment is a good one. I think this is true wherever we condone animal goods – milk, eggs, leather, everything.

Also, on the question of sustainability and ecosystems, in Australia introduced rabbits are a highly destructive pest species, so the fur discussion around them is quite different from, say, mink.

Further, as someone who been involved in a fair bit of campaigning over my life, nothing used to frustrate me more than the anti-fur protestors outside Beyond Retro in Shoreditch. Telling people who are going to buy used clothes that they’re morally bad because the store sells old fur doesn’t save a single animal, and alienates a whole bunch of people who, by virtue of where they’re shopping, are odds on to share a whole lot of your values and might otherwise be interested in joining you. Surely re-using old fur is a better idea than consuming new anything?