The one thing we can be thankful for - here in the UK at least - is that we are rarely confronted with the sight of real fur. After high profile campaigning in the 1980s, glamour girls (and glamorous grannies!) were so terrified of incurring public contempt that all but the most ardent fur lovers hung up their minks and chinchillas at the back of the wardrobe.
Twenty years on and fur is still not popular in the UK. Although the fur industry arrogantly boasts that sales are booming and that more designers are using their products, their claim is not backed up by what we see on the high street. You may spot the odd fur coat or jacket but in most cases the wearer is a tourist. Modern British women simply do not like draping themselves in dead animal fur.
Beware of those fluffy collars, cuffs and hoods
Fur trim is the industry’s way of attempting to boost its sales, cutting pelts into strips, which are then sewn onto relatively cheap garments. Everything from parka jackets to winter boots and even cushions may feature real fox or rabbit trim, the two most common types of pelt used. Domestic dog and cat fur from the Far East has also been found, deliberately mislabelled to disguise the true origin.
Sadly, both rabbit fur and goatskin have been making an appearance in some high street stores of late. When confronted, head office officials peddle the feeble excuse that those skins are ‘by-products of the meat industry’, and therefore acceptable. This excuse is misleading, based on the incorrect assumption that animals are killed only for their meat. In fact, whilst animals may be killed primarily for one reason, selling off every body part down to the last bit of gristle that can be scraped from the bones is what makes the factory farming and slaughter industries profitable.
Some factory-farmed rabbits are most definitely bred for their fur. Rabbits bred for meat are killed at an earlier age with the fur not considered good enough quality for fashion items. ‘Fur’ rabbits are allowed to live much longer, so that their fur thickens. Undercover investigations on Asian rabbit farms have recorded evidence of animals being skinned alive.
Whilst fur has virtually been wiped off our fashion radar, other types of animal skins have yet to provoke either public outrage or sympathy for the animals from whom they are stripped. Alligator, crocodile, python, cobra and lizard – and even frog, shark and salmon skin – are turned into so-called ‘luxury’ items.
Python is particularly popular at the moment. According to designers, it is cheaper than crocodile and each skin is large enough to require only a few seams to turn it into a finished garment. Snakeskin shoes and crocodile bags often retail for hundreds of pounds. One wonders just what is so luxurious about skin ripped from the back of a dead animal – particularly one who has been farmed in appalling conditions, or been torn from the wild, and possibly skinned alive.
Alligators are farmed and trapped in the United States. Crocodile skin comes mostly from animals farmed in Asia. These essentially wild animals are reared in crowded tanks of fetid, stinking water, and are killed at around two years old. Death is brutal, often coming in the form of a blow to the skull with a baseball bat or similar instrument. Investigators at one US alligator farm found workers slaughtering the animals by severing their spinal cords with a hammer and chisel.
In Asia, Africa and South America, reptiles are hunted in the wild. In the belief that flaying keeps the skin supple, snakes may be nailed to a tree, have their skins stripped from them whilst still alive and be left hanging to die a slow and agonising death.
While some snakes are trapped in the wild, designers now claim that they only buy skins from farmed snakes, which they regard as a more sustainable source. A spokesperson for one of Italy’s leading tanneries argues that farmed skins are of a higher quality than those from their wild-caught counterparts because the reptiles have been housed individually. This may benefit the fashion designers but individual cages afford no luxury to the snakes. Two of the designers’ favourite skins are from the browny-orange python curtus and the grey and white python reticulates. Both are threatened species on the CITES appendix II list. Skins may only be traded under licence. Yet according to inspectors from wildlife monitoring organisation Traffic, the licensed skin trade has boosted the illegal trade, with skins from wild snakes smuggled amongst consignments from snake farms. Soon there may not be any pythons left to catch, as they are becoming increasingly hard to find in the wild.
Although reptiles have yet to garner much public sympathy, there really is no ethical difference between snake, crocodile or alligator skin and fur from wolves, raccoons or beavers. Reptiles may not be fluffy or look at you with wide, imploring eyes, but they are no less sentient. They feel pain; they suffer. They are not here to be turned into this season’s must-have handbag.
Leather – funding the meat industry
Neither should we forget the millions of cows, calves, pigs and goats whose skins are converted into fashion items.
It is sometimes argued that since they are being killed anyway, it is better that we use every bit of them. The truth is that the leather industry funds factory farming and slaughter directly. The skin represents 10% of the total value of a slaughtered cow. The UK’s leather industry is valued at £650 million a year.
Designers may fawn over soft, buttery skins, but the softer the skin, the younger the animal from whom it has been stripped. Calfskin comes from the unwanted offspring of dairy cows. The softest leather of all is taken from calves who were never even born, ripped from their slaughtered mother’s womb.
The pollution issue
One accusation often levelled against those who choose synthetic over ‘natural’ (i.e. real animal skin) is that the manufacture of man-made materials causes pollution and, unlike leather, is not environmentally-friendly or chemical-free. Yet the production of leather is actually very polluting.
In order to blast the fat from the hides and then prevent them from decomposing, skins are processed with substances including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and other ‘tanning’ treatments. Some may contain arsenic, cyanide, aluminium or chromium. In order to have easy access to the vast amounts of water required, many tanneries are situated along rivers. Chemical waste, along with hair, sludge and acids from the factories, seeps into surrounding water, causing serious damage to the environment and wildlife.
Workers in these plants also suffer. A study of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks between 20% and 50% above the norm, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukaemia among residents near one tannery was five times the U.S. average.
Leave the skins on the animals’ backs!
If you like the leather or fur look, you can find fantastic fake leather jackets, trousers and skirts, plus a great selection of animal-free footwear, fake fur waistcoats and scarves in most high street stores. You’ll even find accessories and footwear made of synthetic snakeskin or mock-crocodile.
Sometimes, it’s virtually impossible to tell what’s fake and what’s not. And therein lies a problem. Is it actually a good idea to wear such convincing fakes? Or is giving the impression that you are wearing the real thing inadvertently promoting the cruelty?
It’s a tricky question – and one that we will have to leave to you to decide.