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Fur fashion boom faces a growing backlash

Jan Tomes
January 6, 2017

As some question the ethics of the fur trade, fur will be doubtless a staple in the current season, beginning with the Men's Fashion Week in London on January 6. Jan Tomes explores the practices and the issues at stake. 

Mode Pelze
Image: Fendi

In the fashion weeks ahead in London, Paris, New York, Milan and elsewhere, there's certain to be a lot of fur. Animal skins are a $40 billion annual business employing almost one million people worldwide. 

In Milan's high fashion Solari street, luxury giant Fendi is showcasing its latest collection, complete with signature fur flourishes. Models stand slack with cigarettes and iPhones in hand, snapping cool pictures with fans while waiting to have their hair and makeup done before the show. 

Meanwhile, a very different kind of a show is getting started at the building's main entrance as activists hold up anti-fur banners depicting skinned animals.

Fendi is the logical place to protest against the use of fur in fashion. Fur coats created in the brand's ateliers were loved by Italians in the 1940s and 50s, and when the then-emerging German designer Karl Lagerfeld joined the family company as creative director, the whole world became addicted to the Fendi fur look.

Mode Pelze
A look from the men's Prada Fall/Winter 2014 collectionImage: Prada

Nowadays, Fendi is the go-to place for fur for both women and men, the brand selling everything from fox coats to mink charms. It also presents an annual "haute fourrure" collection comprised almost entirely of fur. Fendi's double F logo even stands for "fun fur."

Indeed, the fur industry is booming. According to the International Fur Federation (IFTF), global fur sales have almost tripled in the last five years, rising from $15.6 billion in 2011 to more than $40 billion in 2015. 

Fur fashion backlash

Fendi fur might be hip right now, but animal welfare organizations think the cost of fur fashion is too high. "Although the fur industry tries to convey the impression that 'ethical fur' is possible, it has to be regarded as a mere greenwashing scheme," says Andrzej Pazgan of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Germany. "Minks, foxes and raccoon dogs - which are the dominant species kept for their furs worldwide - are non-domesticated, wild animals. Because of this, the housing conditions on fur farms will never be able to meet their natural needs," he adds.

"The killing of animals today is as gruesome as it has always been," Thorbjørn Schiønning, the chairman of Fur Free Alliance, an international coalition of forty animal protection organizations, told DW. "Foxes from farms are still killed by anal electrocution, minks are gassed. The fur industry is mainly focused on killing the animals in a fast and cheap way that doesn't damage the skin. Animal welfare is not the main priority." 

Mode Pelze
A chinchilla farm in ChinaImage: PETA

While some brands are embracing fur, designers such as Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have committed to going fur-free. "We've made a firm commitment to abolish the use of animal fur in all our collections," said a representative of Giorgio Armani SpA when contacted by DW. "Technological progress made over the years allows us to have valid alternatives at our disposition that render the use of cruel practices unnecessary as regards animals. We are taking a major step ahead, reflecting our attention to the critical issues of protecting and caring for the environment and animals," the spokesperson added.

The fur-free movement seems to reflect broader popular opinion. In a series of public polls carried out across the EU in 2014 and 2015, an average 86 percent of respondents said they opposed fur and fur farming. According to the German survey conducted in March 2014 by Integral and Four Paws, about eight in ten Germans consider fur to be outdated. 

The future of fur

When I met Silvia Venturini Fendi, the Fendi brand heiress, a few hours before she unveiled the Fall/Winter 2016 menswear line to the public, we discussed the future of fur, and whether it will retain a place in fashion and society. 

"I ask myself these same questions very often," she said. "It really is a complicated issue, mainly ethically, but also because there is a large industry at stake. Perhaps one day the entire world will become vegan, and we won't do fur anymore. Maybe one day we will change our habits. Why not? But when people still eat meat and wear leather…"

But these days it's almost impossible to avoid fur. This fashion season sees shops full of fur coats, handbags, shoes, or accessories like furry key rings. 

Mode Pelze
A Gucci loafer lined with kangaroo fur that was introduced in the Fall/Winter 2015 collection and became the 'it' shoe of the seasonImage: Gucci

"The fur industry has indeed made a significant shift from fur coats to making fur find its way into all kinds of clothing, often just a small trim," says Thorbjørn Schiønning of Fur Free Alliance. "This is a strategic plan that has kept the business floating. If the fur industry hadn't made this strategic change, then we would see it dwarfed almost into extinction today," he says. 

Or as Mark Oaten from the International Fur Trade Federation, which promotes the fur trade globally, puts it: "There is a strong, high fashion element in fur right now, and the number of people buying fur suggests that some of the issues surrounding the use of animals are less important for the consumers than they perhaps were in the 1990s."

Faux fur a real alternative?

Some ethically-minded brands want to project the modish fur look by using synthetic faux fur materials. But is it really the right alternative? Oaten argues that fake fur often uses toxic chemicals and produces a lot of unusable waste - unlike the real thing. "The fur industry has a strong, sustainable message," he says. "Fur is a luxury natural product that doesn't end up in landfills because people are very proud to own it and pass it to the next generations."

PETA activists
PETA activists in Germany protest fur industry practicesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

Some activist organizations are also questioning the ethics of faux fur. Recent investigations by PETA show that many products labeled fur-free or "100% acrylic" in fact contained fur - most likely from China, where raccoon dog skins are produced and processed cheaply. 

In November 2016, Japan's last fur farm closed down. Governments across the EU - Germany included - are currently under pressure to ban fur usage, and many fast fashion brands are going green and excluding fur from their product lines. 

On the other hand, as the public demand for fur reaches record levels, the fur industry is trying to improve its image by developing new farming and animal killing techniques - Shaman Furs, for example, is a one-man brand founded by native Alaskan Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, who hunts otters and produces handmade products from their fur. 

The debate over fur is an emotional battleground where ethics, attitudes and lifestyles collide, and where there can likely be only one winner. The ball is now in the consumer's court.