Could it ever be ok to wear fur?

It's cruel, unethical and unaccountable - but it's also reusable, sustainable and biodegradable. If the industry cleaned up its act, maybe skins could come out of the doghouse, says Joanna Moorhead
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The Independent Online

But, much though I love the link they give with my deceased granny, I've never worn her coats. The reason is simple: they're fur - one a long, sensuous, grey-brown mink; the other a striking leopard shortie. At precisely the moment I came into them, in the mid-1980s, these coats were fashion suicide: women were getting paint thrown over them in the street if they displayed even a few tufts of the stuff. "They're beautiful coats," said my mother, as we consigned them to the wardrobe. "But they're utterly worthless. No one will ever wear fur again."

Twenty years on, and how wrong we were. Fur is back, and what's extraordinary is that it never went away. Not only is it the oldest fabric in the fashion handbook, it's also probably the most ancient trading item of all time. So what if it disappeared from view in the aftermath of that David Bailey TV ad (the one that told you it took a dozen dumb animals to make a fur coat, and just one to wear it)?

Something with so strong a hold over generation after generation of wearers; something with so powerful a subtext that spelt glamour and luxury and style; something with so strong a following in other parts of our global village, whatever the negativity in the UK; something with a story that strong was never going to fade away for ever. According to the British Fur Trade Association, sales of fur and fur-trimmed items were up by a third last year on the previous year, and it's now all systems go for what they call "a strong, positive, upward trend".

But as the designers drool over their new-found love of fashion's most sensuous fabric, the action is hotting up among the animal rights protesters. Last week's fashion week in Milan saw activist group Peta storm the Dolce & Gabbana show in outrage at the design house's use of astrakhan, the fur of newborn lambs. So are we set for another round of angry, paint-filled protests, with the hard line drawn once again between, on the one hand, those who simply can't live without their gorgeous furs, and those who can't stomach the idea of anyone wearing the skin of an animal that has been killed to produce it?

Not necessarily. There is, it seems, a middle way, and behind the scenes in the fashion industry, people are plugging away to spearhead a revolution that could see fur-wearing become not just an ethical way to dress, but - whisper it if you dare - the most ethical clothes option of all. Sounds amazing? Dr Joan Farrer, who researches sustainability in fashion at the Royal College of Art School of Fashion and Textiles, feels that this extraordinary prospect is perfectly possible.

What she believes is that, as consumers demand more information about how the products they're buying reached the shelves, it's inevitable that the finger will eventually point towards the fur industry. When that happens, the effect could be to clean up a chain of production currently shrouded in secrecy and lead to vastly improved practices that could mean people who currently wouldn't be seen dead wearing a fox fur, decide that, just as they eat meat from a pig that's been humanely reared and killed, so will they wear a fox that's had similarly humane treatment in its life and in its death.

"Most of the fur used for clothing in the UK comes from the farming of mink and fox in Scandinavia, since fur farming is outlawed here. But at the moment it is difficult to trace precisely where the fur on the item you're buying came from, and how the animal it came from was cared for and killed," says Farrer.

"You can go to Scandinavia and see the auction houses and hear all about a model industry, but you quickly find out it isn't always like that. I've been secretly to two fur farms and they were nowhere near the image presented by the industry's shop window. You get foxes that live in tiny cages, are allowed to have two or three litters and are then killed by being strapped to a rack and electrocuted by a current simultaneously through the mouth and rectum. Meanwhile mink are killed in gas chambers, and they can take up to 20 minutes to die.

"The farmers will tell you it's a cost issue, but it's perfectly possible to kill animals by injection - these could cost as little as 50p, and fur retails for a lot of money so it's possible to build that cost into the supply chain. They'll tell you they'd have to have vets to kill by injection, but other people could learn to inject them - and in any case most fur farms have vets available."

What makes Farrer interesting is that, unlike almost everyone else you encounter in the emotionally charged world of fur farming, she isn't coming down on one side or the other. Her view is simply that individuals should make up their own minds about whether or not to wear fur, but that at the current time they're not given anything like enough information to make that choice. "We're taking the industry on trust. We're buying our items and we're assuming that producers have acted correctly and that the animals have been properly looked after and killed humanely - but that isn't necessarily the case at all."

The British Fur Trade Association requires members to label products with a note of what animal the fur came from, but nothing more: and many fur items on sale are from retailers who are not BFTA members. But Farrer wants a mandatory requirement for all fur products sold in the UK to be labelled with details of what animal they came from, its country of origin, living conditions and manner of death.

It's not impossible to provide such information: it could be stored in the fabric of the garment in a microchip. "People should be able to make up their own minds about whether they wear fur. What they need to make up their minds is information."

Surveys into public feelings about fur-wearing suggest Farrer is right, and that far from being in one camp or the other, many consumers have a range of views. One poll in 2003, found 40 per cent of people would wear sheepskin, while 15 per cent were happy to wear mink. Only 11 per cent thought rat was OK, 5 per cent would wear cat, cheetah or tiger, and 4 per cent dog or monkey fur. Clearly, there's far less polarisation among the public on the issues than there is among the noisiest players in the fur wars: and with transparency and improved farming conditions, we could start to see a culture of "ethically produced" fur clothes similar to the culture of organic food buying.

One issue, for many people, would be a greater alliance between production of food and use of animal skins: many consumers, says Farrer, make the assumption (usually wrongly) that where a rabbit's fur is used for a coat, its insides have been used for food. It's not impossible for that to happen, but without public clamour it's not going to: and for public clamour, basic facts are a prerequisite.

Farrer is well aware that the issue is complex: there are those who will argue that cleaning up Scandinavian farms would simply result in a bigger market in Europe for furs from the even murkier producers of cat and dog fur in China. But she remains convinced that addressing the issues she has highlighted is long overdue, and that sooner or later it will become inevitable.

She herself wouldn't be averse to wearing fur that came from a chain that she could see was "sacrosanct"; she believes others would do the same. And in the long term, she suggests, investing in a coat that would last not just one but several lifetimes, and is made of a sustainable and biodegradable product, could prove a more ethical option than a "wear it once, chuck it tomorrow" item from Primark. All of which gives me another whole outlook on my granny's coats, even if I'm not getting them out of the wardrobe just yet.

Cruelty in the name of fashion

Astrakhan is made from the pelts of karakul lambs bred specially for their skins and slaughtered within days of birth when their coats are at their softest and most curly.
Broadtail is made from the coats of stillborn lambs - or lambs cut from the wombs of slaughtered ewes. The skins are sewn together and dyed. Retailers to use broadtail include high-end fashion brands such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Marni, and the garments produced are sold for thousands of pounds.

This is wool from Tibetan antelopes. It is obtained by killing the animal, which is an endangered species. Trade in Shahtoosh is illegal, but a recent upsurge of interest in shahtoosh in the West has given rise to a black market, and poaching is out of control.

Surprisingly, these furs are legal in the UK. The animals are reared in extremely cruel conditions in the Far East and slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. Garments are usually cheap to buy and may appear in high-street fashion, although consumers often don't know what it is they're buying and may even think it is fake fur.

The sealskin trade is entirely legal, although skins are banned in Europe and the United States. The seals are culled in their thousands when only a few weeks old. Consumers are generally well aware of the origin of the products, as mass seal-culls are well publicised. Sealskin is popular in parts of Scandinavia and in China.