Fur - the fake debate

After losing ground in the public relations battle, the fur industry is trying to outfox its critics with an attack on the ethics of wearing 'environmentally unfriendly' fakes. So are their allegations true?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A decade ago, the world's top supermodels posed naked for a series of anti-fur adverts that became some of the most iconic images of the 90s. Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson were all photographed under the slogan "We'd rather go naked than wear fur."

A decade ago, the world's top supermodels posed naked for a series of anti-fur adverts that became some of the most iconic images of the 90s. Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson were all photographed under the slogan "We'd rather go naked than wear fur."

The glamorous 1994 campaign marked a shift for the lobby group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), away from direct action attacks such as throwing paint at fur wearers towards playing the industry at its own game by making ethical fashion cool.

But, 10 years on, and after a disastrous slump in sales, the real fur industry claims it is making a comeback. And with all the bitchiness and cunning for which the fashion industry is best known, the two sides are now engaged in a bitter war of words over the relative merits of their products.

Just as Peta managed to "out-glamorise" the image of fur in 1994, the fur trade is now trying to "out-ethicise" the animal rights world.

Furriers are claiming that the manufacture of polyester and nylon copies of the "real thing" involves chemicals that pollute the environment and that damage the health of factory workers who have to handle them.

The American Fur Commission has claimed that it takes one gallon of oil to make three just fake fur jackets.

Real fur, on the other hand, is natural and biodegradable, and therefore more ethical than artificial fibres, goes the argument.

The industry is also using the rhetoric of freedom of choice and speech to turn the wearing of fur into a civil rights - rather than animal rights - issue.

Andrea Martin, of the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), said: "This is about freedom of choice; people nowadays don't want to be dictated to by Peta and other groups on what they should or should not be wearing.

"Peta are enforcing their views on other people and while that may have been fashionable in the 90s, it isn't now. I think that is why our members are seeing rising numbers of younger women turning to real fur; they are making a stand about being dictated to."

According to the BFTA, sales of real furs have increased by 35 per cent in 2003 compared to 2002, while the age of the average customer has dropped from 49 to 35 in the last five years.

Frank Zilberkweit, the owner of the upmarket Hockley fur store in London's Mayfair, said: "We have definitely seeing younger women coming through our doors over the past year.

"Fashion designers such as Prada and Dolce and Gabbana, which target twentysomething and thirtysomething women, now use fur and that has had a knock-on effect for stores like us.

"Christina Aguilera bought a little fur shrug from the store to wear at the MTV awards recently; young women see celebrities like her wearing real fur and they go out and want to buy the same thing. Our store is now often packed with people browsing and buying."

Mr Zilberkweit's products range from little fur scarves at around £100, to sable coats that sell for as much as £13,000. He freely admits that the fur trade suffered badly in the 1990s, partly as a result of the Peta campaigns.

"The industry was in a mess," he said. "In the past five years, we have worked hard to get the message across about our products and how they are produced.

"We have had to prove that we have good standards of welfare on the farms and improve our products to appeal to younger customers as well as older ones.As we see it, the anti-fur argument is fundamentally flawed; we use animals for food, for leather in shoes, for sheepskins - it is pure inverted snobbery against fur wearers.

"The fact that people like Peta have to resort to terror tactics shows that intellectually, their argument doesn't stand up."

Anti-fur groups appeared to have won a major victory in September, when the fashion giant Inditex, owners of the Zara chain, announced it was removing all fur from its stores worldwide.

Inditex had attracted the ire of anti-fur campaigners after it began selling clothes featuring rabbit fur in its stores.

The company claimed its decision was a reflection of "our commitment to respect for animals and the environment surrounding us," but the statement was put out just days before planned protests outside Zara stores around the world.

Staff at the company had been harassed, with animal carcasses delivered to their homes and threats made to their children.

But interestingly, insiders at the company say that the fur products had been selling like hotcakes, and that Zara's young customer base seemed unconcerned about the ethical issues.

And of the original gang of five supermodels, only Turlington and McPherson have stuck to their anti-fur stance. Campbell was sacked by Peta after admitting: "I like fur"; Crawford said she thought the adverts were just another modelling job and when Moss was questioned about a foxtail stole she was sporting, she retorted: "I wear what I want to wear."

So is real fur seeing a real resurgence? The anti-fur lobby may love animals, but it already has its claws sharpened for a fight with the furriers.

While the BFTA admits that its reports of surging sales are based on anecdotal evidence, Peta points to official government trade figures which somewhat undermine the pro-fur spin.

According to the Office for National Statistics, sales of fur products have fallen by 76 per cent, from £6.3m in the third quarter of 2000 to £1.5m in the third quarter of 2003. And far from being a green alternative, fur farming also involves environmental pollution.

According to a study by the University of Michigan, the energy needed to produce a real fur coat from ranch-raised animal skins is 20 times that required for a fake product.

Campaigners also claim that the chemicals applied to real fur to prevent it rotting make it no more biodegradable than synthetic rivals.

Andrew Butler, campaign co-ordinator for Peta, said: "The only people who are claiming that real fur sales are on the increase is the fur trade and they still can't back that up with independent statistics." Peta argues that in the profit-driven world of the fashion trade, it seems unlikely that stores would ditch fur if it really was selling so well.

Harvey Nichols, the up-market department store beloved of well-heeled ladies who lunch, is now fur free, while its rival Selfridges claims only to stock furs that are a by-product of the food industry.

However, this argument does not wash with groups such as the Coalition Against the Fur Trade, which says it is a convenient way for Selfridges to sell rabbit fur and still claim an ethical stance. They point out that rabbits used for their fur are kept alive longer than those used in food production, and so are still being killed purely for the fashion trade.

Selfridges and Joseph are now among the few High Street stores that still sell fur products, although more than 300 designers included real fur products in their catwalk collections this year.

Mr Butler added: "There are always going to be people who are selfish enough to wear fur, but the majority of people now wouldn't dream of buying a dead animal as a fashion item.

"Synthetic furs are more fashionable now; the quality is great and there is nothing wrong with wanting to wear something like that."

The biggest haute couture supporter of the anti-fur lobby is designer Stella McCartney, who has consistently refused to work with fur or even leather, despite being employed by Gucci, a luxury goods company which has become synonymous with fur.

And in the fickle world of fashion, where youth is everything, the anti-fur brigade still claims to have the upper hand when it comes to celebrities. The latest stars to front Peta's campaigns are pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron.

Meanwhile, the international fur lobby has hit back with a glossy six-page advertising promotion in the latest issue of the fashionista's style bible Vogue.

At present, the argument seems fairly finely balanced in the minds of British customers.

A recent survey - admittedly for the BFTA - found that 50 per cent of people said they were tolerant of other people wearing fur.

But another - for the Respect for Animals lobby group - found that only 6 per cent of women actually wore fur themselves.

So should the ethical consumer fake it or opt for real fur? Perhaps the last word should go to an independent arbiter: Ruth Rosselson, spokesman for Ethical Consumer magazine.

"In the end it very much depends on the consumer's own morals and what is important to them," she said.

"Synthetic clothing does have an environmental impact, but the fur trade is ultimately going to involve cruelty to animals in an age when it is no longer necessary to kill animals to keep us warm."


By Oliver Duff

* This autumn fake fur garments are very much in vogue, with all high street stores and major designers stocking synthetic imitations. Faux fur coats start from around £30 and go up to £1,000 - Jennifer Ellison was recently photographed in a powder pink jacket priced £900.

* America's Fur Commission says that between four and eight million fake fur jackets are sold every year.

* Peta has tried to convince young designers to use fake fur instead of real fur in their work, in an attempt to counter the tactical targeting of companies such as Denmark-based Saga Furs, who supply skins and share technology with fashion students and even sponsor students at London's Central St Martins college of fashion.

* Just 10 years ago, faux fur benefited from the fact that many celebrity would not have been seen wearing the real thing. Naomi Campbell was one of five models to sign up to Peta's "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" billboard poster campaign in 1994; Calvin Klein led designers in declaring he would no longer use fur in his collections and adverts ran with a David Bailey shot of a model dragging a blood-soaked fur coat with the line: "It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear it." In 1997, Campbell was sacked as a Peta spokesperson for modelling real fur at a Milan fashion show.

* Cindy Crawford has also made a U-turn. She signed Peta's Models of Compassion petition, saying she would not wear fur, but in August signed a contract to promote Blackglama fur coats.


THE MAIN environmental objection to real fur garments is the supposed cruelty inflicted on the animals and then their death. Peta refers to fake furs as "evolutionary furs", which "take inspiration from the beauty of animals without killing them".

A report by an engineer at the Ford Motor Company calculated that the amount of energy needed to make a real fur coat from farmed animals - accounting for 85 per cent of world production - is 66 times that needed to make a fake fur coat. This takes into account feed, cages, skinning, pelt-drying, processing and transportation. He calculated that a fur coat made from trapped animals still needs nearly four times the energy used for a fake fur coat.

In addition, formaldehyde and chromium - two of the chemicals used in fur processing - have devastating effects on the environment when they contaminate rivers and streams, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The waste may be responsible for respiratory problems, it says, and is potentially carcinogenic.

However, Ethical Consumer magazine says that fake furs are manufactured at a large cost to the health of humans and our environment. Its argument is that fake fur production uses many more toxins than that of real furs. The publication claims that production of nylon creates more than 50 per cent of UK emissions of the poisonous greenhouse gas nitrous oxide; that polyester, made from petrochemicals, depletes limited oil resources; and that chemicals used in dyeing polyester pollute waterways and are carcinogenic. America's Fur Commission estimates it takes one gallon of oil to make three fake fur jackets.

The non-biodegradability of synthetics such as nylon is a further factor.


* London has been at the hub of the fur-dealing world since the 14th century, when the Hanseatic League trading association was founded. Fur became popular in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of less formal social trends, cheaper manufacturing methods and the influence of film stars. After a dip in popularity it returned to the catwalk in force at the end of the 20th century: the Fur Council claims that only 42 fashion designers incorporated fur in their ready-to-wear collections in 1985, but this had risen to 400 in 2002.

* Fur farming has been illegal in the UK since January last year. Farmed fur accounts for about 85 per cent of world fur production, the BFTA says. Fur sold in Britain is now imported from abroad.

* The largest animal rights group in the world is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has 800,000 members, 40,000 in Britain. Its supporters believe animals are "not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment". Peta, responsible for the "We'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" supermodels' campaign in 1994, released video footage this summer from a fur farm which it claims shows chinchillas "struggling and crying as they're plugged into a wall socket and electrocuted for their pelts".

* The most farmed fur-bearing animal is the mink, followed by the fox. Mink farmers breed female minks once a year, producing a surviving litter of three to four kits killed when they are about six months old. A full-length mink coat can cost upwards of £10,000 and be made from 50 pelts. Other favoured animals are chinchillas, seals, lynxes, hamsters and rabbits.