photo courtesy North Charleston on Flickr
There was a time when an affluent man who wanted to impress his wife – or buy his way back into her good graces – would show up with a mink coat. A less affluent man might, instead, offer a rabbit or coyote fur, or perhaps a mink stole.
That practice mostly died out before I got married, and I have never been in a doghouse from which any pelt could extricate me. My wife has never desired a fur coat, as far as I know, and I’m pretty sure that my adult daughters would not be caught dead wearing one. These opinions are typical of their respective generations, at least here in the United States.
Through a combination of in-your-face activism and simple rising social awareness, fur’s popularity is clearly waning in America and many other Western countries.
Wearing furs in public today is apt to draw some sort of personal reaction from someone who views it not as a matter of personal sartorial choice, but as a gratuitous statement of cruelty and violence. Certainly there are now synthetic substitutes that mimic fur reasonably well, and nobody needs to wear real furs today purely for warmth. Fur has gone from a symbol of economic status to a defiant statement, intentional or otherwise, against a now-prevalent social more. I suspect many people may just want to avoid the potential blowback (or potential vandals bearing red paint).
Why do so many people agree that we should avoid real fur, when leather is still mainstream and vegetarianism remains a minority choice?
I suspect a major contributor was the rising awareness of harp seal hunts. While some leather-wearers argue that the material is a by-product of the meat industry, the harsh reality of hunters clubbing seal pups is hard to ignore once you’re aware of it – and a variety of animal rights groups have worked hard for years to make sure as many people are aware as possible. Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and many others have raised awareness of the Canadian seal hunt, and encouraged boycotts and protests. Celebrities have also spoken out against it, including Brigitte Bardot, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen and Paul McCartney, who called the practice a “stain” on Canada’s character.
All of this public scrutiny has not yet ended the Canadian seal hunt, but it does seem to have significantly dented demand for seal fur. The hunt, which has been subject to quotas since 1971, has dropped to a fraction of its historical size. While some years may have low numbers because ice conditions made hunting more difficult, the overall trend is still evident; 217,857 harp seals were reported killed in 2008, compared with 80,924 in 2017. Sealing generated $34 million in sales in 2006, compared with $1.6 million in 2016, according to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
No amount of international pressure has persuaded the Canadian government or the resource-dependent communities where the sealers live to abandon the hunt outright. The only thing that would stop it for good would be if people stopped buying seal furs completely. In fairness, few Americans or Europeans even have the choice; the U.S. banned imports of seal products in 1972, and imported seal pelts have been illegal in Europe since 1983. Canada, along with Norway, challenged the EU’s updated version of the ban in 2014, but the World Trade Organization upheld it. Today, the primary market for Canadian seal products is domestic.
For those opposed to the harp seal hunt, abstaining and urging others to abstain is a reasonable way to proceed. Less reasonable: activists putting boats in the sealers’ way, endangering both the sealers and themselves.
Also unreasonable are the misguided efforts by extremist vandals who attack terrestrial fur farms and, in some cases, release captive mink into the wild, where their life expectancy is short. Activists have gained traction in opposing fur farms with arguments similar to their objections to meat and leather. At the extreme, their rhetoric uses isolated or exaggerated examples of mistreatment to vilify an industry that largely tries to operate humanely these days, given that the end product necessarily involves animals’ deaths.
I am not sure there is any principled distinction for avoiding farmed fur while consuming leather goods or eating meat. Many activists may agree that no such distinction exists. But fur has lost the battle of public perception in a way other animal products have not. Many people who would be horrified to appear in real fur still carry designer leather bags.
If you need evidence of fur’s losing battle, at least in many Western countries, consider the recent news that Gucci has become the latest member of the Fur Free Alliance, pledging to ban the use of fur starting with its 2018 spring and summer collections. While many may applaud the move for its ethical ramifications, the truth is that fashion houses want to produce products they can sell. Gucci’s chief executive, Marco Bizzarri, called fur “a little bit out-dated” and emphasized that the move would appeal not only to Gucci’s customers, but also to young designers whom the firm hopes to attract. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Armani have all previously gone fur-free.
Many fur industry insiders pin hopes for fur’s future on China. Bernie Halloran, who owns a seal processing plant in Newfoundland, has expressed optimism about Chinese demand for a variety of seal products, though he told the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s that business has been slow so far. Fur Commission USA, an industry group for mink farmers, cited a 2015 CCTV America report in its article “China – The Leading Market for Fur.”
China’s demand for fur is real. A 2014 article in The Guardian pointed out that, more than two decades after PETA’s famous “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign, the global industry is still valued at more than $40 billion. At least some of the industry’s resilience has to do with shifting sources of demand. But whether this demand will remain high in China, and high enough to prop up an industry going out of style as well as out of favor in the West, is not yet clear.
In the end, people can certainly vote with their pocketbooks and encourage others to do the same if they like. While I would find it obnoxious to have someone confront me about what I was wearing in the Starbucks line, I would probably just thank them for their opinion and wish them a nice day. Given the negligible chance I’d ever be wearing a fur in a Starbucks, though, I’ll almost certainly never find out.