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The fur trade: Bloody fashion

We are buying more fur than ever. Seal skin is now so popular that the Government is to ban imports. The suffering this trade causes to animals is as great as ever. So why can't we do without it? Jonathan Owen reports

Sunday 26 November 2006 01:00 GMT

When five of the world's biggest supermodels posed with an "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" placard in 1994, it was the high point of the anti-fur campaign. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson had achieved celebrity status, and their influence had others queuing up to join the anti-fur protests. The act of wearing fur became a social crime and those deemed guilty risked being abused by strangers in the street.

How things have changed. Naomi, Cindy, Elle and Claudia have returned to promoting fur, with just Christy remaining true to her word. Fashion is notoriously fickle and the famous slogan "It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat... but only one to wear it" is being disregarded by many designers and models. Britain's fur industry, almost driven out of existence in the 1990s, is back - and thriving. It has been quietly restyling fur to appeal to a new generation of customers.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has revealed that more than a thousand tons of fur worth £41m came into Britain last year. The British Fur Trade Association claims that retail sales of fur have risen by a third in two years. In London, one furrier, Hockley, is reporting a 45 per cent increase in business. Global sales of fur reached a record £6.6bn in 2005, according to the International Fur Trade Federation.

Concern over the comeback is so great that the RSPCA is to mount a major new anti-fur campaign early next year aimed atfashion-conscious 15- to 30-year-olds. An RSPCA spokesman said, "There are concerns that people may be starting to buy fur in ignorance. Although full mink coats may be still ethically out of bounds, the fur industry is going for trim and trinkets. Most consumers often don't know what they are buying, and would be horrified if they realised the suffering involved."

Stella McCartney, in an interview with this newspaper, said, "There's nothing fashionable about a dead animal that has been cruelly killed just because some people think it looks cool to wear. The continuing use of fur is still a real problem in the fashion industry and there is an issue with people out there assuming that fur trim is fake when most of it is real."

More than 50 million animals will be killed for their fur this year, most of which will have spent their short lives in miserable conditions on fur farms before they are killed, sometimes being skinned while still alive.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals has joined the calls for action. Major General Peter Davies, the charity's director general, is calling for a boycott of fur, blaming the fashion industry for fuelling a rise in sales "by flaunting it all over the catwalk".

Yet the "fur fatwa" of the past is no more. High profile designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Prada, and Roberto Cavalli regularly celebrate fur in their catwalk shows and defy the attentions of animal rights activists. A generation has grown up without being exposed to the mass-media shock advertising campaigns that helped launch the anti-fur movement in the Eighties.

Campaigners are concerned that people need to be constantly reminded of the cruelty involved in fur. But issues like climate change and global poverty have taken centre stage.

"I think there has been a fall-off in consciousness and fur has crept back insidiously," said the style commentator Peter York. "Fur trim is just a texture; it is not a pelt or mass of pelts, and simply does not look like fur."

Mink and fox are being joined by an array of other animals. One of the most notorious is karakul lambskin, worn by stars such as Keira Knightley, which is made from the pelt of new-born lambs that are killed days after birth or even taken from the womb. Growing numbers of seal skins are also being imported and the Government is so concerned that it is to back a ban on the import of all sealskin products. This comes just a week after the European Union announced a ban on dog and cat fur from China, one of the world's biggest fur exporters.

Undercover animal investigator Peter Joseph (his details have been changed) has visited several mink and fox fur farms in Norway in recent months. He describes what he found at one mink farm.

"People think of these places as farms, but they are really more like animal warehouses, where the animals are there for one reason only - to be killed for their coats.

"In one dimly-lit cage in a corner of the shed was a large mink. I couldn't help wondering how people who buy fur would react if they could have seen what I did. This particular animal could barely move. It seemed to have resigned itself to its fate and just lay there - its eyes swollen from the ammonia fumes from its urine and faeces and an open wound on its head."

A spokeswoman from the International Fur Trade Federation claims that the popularity of fur is increasing due to people making up their own minds about the issue and "reappraising natural, sustainable materials with modern techniques".

But Mr Joseph is trying to forget his experience of a fur farm. "If I close my eyes I can still see them there. Walking away from the farm was one of the hardest things I have ever done."

Additional reporting by Marie Woolf and Sonia Elks

Nicole Richie and the rabbit fur jacket

WHERE AND WHEN: Book signing in New York, 2005

WEARING: Grey rabbit fur jacket

COST: Estimated £1,000

CRUELTY FACTOR: Rabbits are farmed in terrible conditions. A large proportion are bred and killed purely for the fur and the RSPCA says that people should not assume that rabbit fur is automatically a by-product of meat. In the wild, rabbits are roaming social animals that live in burrows. In a cage on a fur farm they are denied this freedom and are usually killed by having their necks broken. The use of rabbit fur in costume is first recorded in 13th-century literature.

Dita Von Teese wears mink

WHERE AND WHEN: Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Awards, Beverly Hills, March 2006

WEARING: Mink cloak

COST: Anything up to £8,000

CRUELTY FACTOR: About 85 per cent of all mink are farmed, something that is incredibly stressful for these wild animals. They live for just six or seven months before being killed; common methods include gassing, electrocution or beating them to death. They are perhaps best known for their dark brown fur, which turns white at the chin and runs to black at the tips of their tails. It takes 60 to 80 minks to make a fur coat. Young tend to be born in May. They are dead by December.

Kate Moss's seal boots

WHERE AND WHEN: Leaving a London restaurant in March 2004

WEARING: Mukluk boots

COST: About £200

CRUELTY FACTOR: Mukluks are a soft boot made of reindeer skin or sealskin and worn by Inuit. The sealskin is taken from seals that are clubbed to death at two weeks old.

Sophie Dahl chooses mink and white fox

WHERE AND WHEN: Fragrance Foundation Awards, New York, April 2005

WEARING: White mink coat, fox fur collar

COST: Estimated £7,000

CRUELTY FACTOR: Millions of mink and fox endure terrible conditions in fur farms, where they live their short lives in cages so small that they can barely turn around. White foxes that are caught from the wild in steel-jaw traps are in so much pain that some bite off their limbs in order to escape. Many die horrible deaths before the trapper arrives to kill them. Those on farms are gassed or killed by electrocution: electrodes are clamped in the mouth and the rectum.

Keira Knightley opts for karakul lambskin

WHERE AND WHEN: British Independent Film Awards in London, 2005

WEARING: Black karakul lambskin coat

COST: Between £3,000 and £6,000

CRUELTY FACTOR: One of the cruellest forms of fur, according to animal welfarists. Undercover investigations have documented how heavily pregnant ewes are killed and their unborn lambs removed for their coats. Newborn lambs are routinely killed after a few days, before their velvet-smooth coats have had a chance to uncurl. The fur is also called Persian lamb, astrakhan and broadtail. It is also used to make high-end hats, carpets and rugs.

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