One That (Almost) Got Away
Why the Fur Trade is Coming Back and What
We Can Do About It
By Norm Phelps
The campaign against fur ought to be a slam-dunk. Fur
is demonstrably, absolutely unnecessary. There are a multitude of synthetic
fibers that are warmer than fur, just as comfortable, and don’t
rot in a rainstorm. Even better, they don’t smell up your house
and attract bugs if you forget to put them in cold storage during the
summer. And if a cab sprays you with dirty slush as it accelerates past
your upraised hand, you’ll have one less thing to be upset about—the
synthetics can withstand pretty much any glop that New York City traffic
can baptize you with. There isn’t even a fashion benefit to fur.
Faux fur can be virtually indistinguishable from sable, fox, mink, shearling,
and other popular furs. In fact, dead animal fur has only one advantage
over faux: it is a lot more expensive, which makes it irresistible to
people whose self-esteem depends on other people knowing that they spend
obscenely large sums of money for no better reason than to impress the
kind of people who are impressed by people who spend obscenely large
sums of money for no better reason than to…well, you get the
Landmines in America
Fur is as cruel as it is frivolous. About 15 percent of the fur sold
on the world market comes from wild animals, mostly in the U.S., Canada,
and Russia. Intended victims suffer a prolonged, agonizing death, but
the traps used on them are indiscriminate—they attack anyone and
everyone who steps on them. The first resident of The Fund for Animals’
Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary was a cat who crawled to the ranch house
dragging a steel jaw trap on her leg. She survived and lived a long,
happy life, but the leg had to be amputated. Michael Markarian, president
of The Fund, calls traps “the landmines of the American outdoors.” Trapping
is time and labor intensive and delivers a product of unpredictable
quality and quantity, which is why 85 percent of furs on the world
come from farmed animals.
Ranches of Nightmares
Fur farmers like to call their operations “ranches,” hoping
to conjure in the public mind fantasies of happy animals roaming an
open range. In reality, farmed fur-bearing animals live their entire
lives crowded together in wire pens. No matter how many generations
have been captive bred, their nature is to roam free over a wide territory.
Unable to fulfill their innate needs, they literally go insane, spending
their days and nights behaving neurotically, with constant head bobbing,
endless, futile pacing, and self-mutilation—a nightmare that
ends only with death.
A Rebounding Market
Retail fur sales in the U.S. peaked in 1987 at $1.8 billion; and by
1991, had dropped to $1.1 billion, largely because of efforts by animal
rights organizations to educate the public about the cruelty of fur.
In the mid-90s, however, the fur industry began turning a corner, and
by 2002 sales had rebounded to a 15-year high of $1.7 billion. From
their low point in 1991, retail sales have climbed 54 percent.
The reason for the rebound was a radical change in strategy by the
fur industry. Instead of emphasizing full-length coats (“your grandmother’s
fur coat,” as the industry now disdainfully refers to them in
advertising aimed at young, hip consumers), the focus is now on trim
and accessories: there are fur-lined jackets, fur-lined boots, fur
cuffs, and purses, even fur-trimmed bikinis and sunglasses! And now
that harmless-appearing trim has accustomed the public to the idea
wearing fur, boutiques catering to young shoppers are featuring fur
jackets by popular designers. Meanwhile, the decline in the sale of
full-length coats to women is softened by their popularity with men,
a fashion made popular by hip-hop icons for whom conspicuous consumption
is a status symbol.
Trim and accessories have not only helped fur to shed its image of “cruelty
for vanity,” they have brought fur within the reach of consumers
on a budget, and are now featured by major outlets shopped by middle
America, such as Burlington Coat Factory and J. C. Penney. According
to the Fur Information Council of America, an industry trade group,
fur trim now accounts for $500 million dollars in retail sales annually,
or about 29 percent of the industry total. But that number grossly underestimates
fur trim’s share of the retail market.
When the fur industry announces sales figures, it lumps goods and services
together—sales of new garments, storage costs, and the costs of
garment repair and garment remodeling. Analysts believe that the retail
sale of new full fur garments accounts for only 60 percent of the total.
Since essentially all of the ancillary costs—cold storage, repair,
etc.—are borne by owners of full fur garments, total retail sales
of new fur amounted to $1.2 million, of which $720 million was for
fur garments and $500 million for trim and accessories. Therefore,
trim and accessories accounted for just over 40 percent of all retail
of new fur.
Countering the Counterattack
This new strategy by the purveyors of cruelty for fashion calls for
a new strategy by the activist community. In the 1990s, we thought that
fur was dead, figuratively as well as literally. Confident that we had
won, we turned our attention to other issues. The first thing we have
to do now is get the word out to grassroots activists everywhere that
fur is sneaking past our radar camouflaged as trim on innocuous-looking
cloth and synthetic garments.
Next, we have to make the public understand that those innocent appearing
bits of trim come from animal suffering and death. Fur is fur, and it
is cruelty for vanity whether it is a full-length mink coat or a synthetic
bomber jacket with fur collar and cuffs. The most popular trim is fox
fur, and an estimated 90 percent of the six million foxes killed worldwide
for fur are killed to make trim. We have to make trim and accessories
the focus of a reinvigorated campaign against the cruelty of fur. If
the market for fur trim collapses the way the market for full-length
furs collapsed a dozen years ago, millions of lives will be saved every
year, and the fur industry will suffer a blow from which it will be
hard put to recover.
Our challenge today is to recapture the energy of the anti-fur campaigns
of 15 years ago. All across the country, animal rights groups are taking
action to expose the new face of fur as just one more mask for cruelty.
PETA has two coordinators in New York working on fur campaigns. The
Fund for Animals’ “Neiman Carcass” campaign, carried
out in cooperation with grassroots groups around the country, is aimed
at making the upscale Neiman Marcus department store chain a fur-free
zone from Beverly Hills to White Plains. The Animal Protection Institute,
In Defense of Animals, The Humane Society of the United States, and
a host of groups too numerous to name are hard at work regaining the
ground lost during the 90s.
As I write this near the end of October, activists are gearing up for
Fur-Free Friday demonstrations from coast to coast. The Fund for Animals
is preparing to launch the largest anti-fur advertising blitz in recent
memory, targeting cable stations such as MTV, VH1, E!, TNT, Oxygen,
and Lifetime; magazines such as The New Yorker and Gotham;
theater playbills from Broadway to Lincoln Center; and newspaper ads
and posters on the campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Fur
is back, but so is the animal protection community, and we all need
to get out and prove that in the United States of America, compassion
is still the fashion.
Norm Phelps is a program coordinator at The Fund
for Animals, www.fund.org.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about The Fund’s
“Neiman Carcass” campaign, or to get leaflets or door hangers,
or contact Pierre Grzybowski at email@example.com or (301) 585-2591,