The Fur and the Fury

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Fifteen years after animal rights campaigners launched a successful fight against the fur industry, designers are once again including fur accessories in their collections. Is it a passing fad - as animal rights organizations hope - or a sign of changes in the moral standards of the fashion world?

Animal rights organizations believe it's just a fad that will pass quickly. Nevertheless, clothing made of mink, beaver, raccoon, fox and other furry rodents appeared in the fall shows of leading designers. Prices are rising and the fur market has been steadily growing over the last four years. It is doubtful that these are "the last breaths of a dying industry," as one animal rights organization advertisement put it.

According to The New York Times, Americans have been stricken with a case of amnesia. Suddenly fur is in fashion, ethics are passe and people don't even remember what the problem is. The fight against the fur industry in the mid-1980s was considered one of the most successful fights of the ecology movement. Activists managed to link fur fashions and cruelty to animals, the industry shrank by more than half, and now, 15 years later, it seems that the effects of the information campaign have worn off.

According to data from the Fur Information Council of America, over 220 designers used fur in their production lines this past fall (compared with 44 designers in the late 1980s). U.S. sales in 2000 increased by 21 percent compared with the preceding year and totaled $1.69 billion. Oscar de la Rente, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Gucci and Valentino are unhesitatingly showing models dressed in the best fox fur. Once again, fur seems to be the symbol of glamour and refined taste.

One of the explanations for this surprising phenomenon is that the economy may be global, but culture is still local. Some 80 percent of furs sold in September at a public auction in Copenhagen (a large center for marketing raw materials for the international fur industry) were sold to markets in Asia.

According to activists in the international animal rights organizations, Friends of Animals, the concept of animal rights has not been absorbed in the Far East. The growth in the fur industry in the West stems, according to this view, from commercial ties with the East - where other norms prevail. Yet this theory fails to explain fur's renewed popularity in the fashion houses of Milan and New York.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists protested outside fashion shows and sprayed blood on the fur coats of wealthy women. Organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) enlisted celebrities in the cause: super-model Naomi Campbell was photographed for a PETA brochure in 1994 in which she declared that she'd "rather go naked than wear a fur."

Around a year ago, Campbell dropped out of the campaign. She went back to modeling mink and fox coats by designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, and attacked activists in the movement. She said they were violent. She declared that she loves fur and also wears clothes made out of leather and wool. "Where do you draw the line?" she asked. She noted, however, that she wouldn't wear a fur from an animal that was hunted.

Some view the new trend that Campbell symbolizes as a temporary withdrawal. Others talk about cultural maturation and present a complex picture of the fashion industry.

In England, for example, demand for furs is still light; prominent designers, such as Stella McCartney, continue to vehemently object to the use of furs and anti-fur industry legislation is intensifying.

Following criticism by ecological organizations that entire species were facing extinction due to hunting conducted for furs, the industry is currently built primarily on growing farms. Mink and fox grown on farms - most of them in northern Europe, Canada and the United States - currently supply 85 percent of output. However, animal rights activists, such as the influential British group Respect for Animals, report on cruel growing conditions on the farms. The foxes are caged in small cells, with minimal freedom of movement, and minks, who love to swim, are kept far from the water. All of it entails a lot of suffering. In Britain, a law was passed last year barring the raising of animals for the fur industry and hardly any farms remain on the island.

In the United States as well, where the industry is reawakening, there is heated discussion on ethical issues. In advertisements, industry representatives from the International Fur Trade Federation distinguish between animal rights and animal welfare. According to them, if animals are granted the same rights as humans - as demanded by animal rights organizations - there is no justification for industries that deal in wool, milk, leather and certainly, meat. They argue that it is worth improving animal welfare - the conditions in which they are raised and the treatment they receive.

They favor reducing the cruelty caused to animals, but see no cause for dismantling the entire industry.

Federation officials also stress that the fur industry is necessarily composed of small businesses owned by professionals and families that earn their living from skills handed down from one generation to the next. It is impossible to produce fur clothes on an industrial assembly line - it must be handmade. Therefore any restrictions on the fur industry will damage commercial diversity and hurt the weak.

Culture critics in the alternative press also point to this problematic aspect: multinational fashion factories - that use cotton and synthetic fabrics - are guilty of exploiting people and damaging the environment. The cotton industry, for example, is responsible for a substantial share or the world's pollution due to extensive use of insecticides and dyes. Can you ask consumers to refrain from buying any clothes?

In a certain respect, even in the animal rights organizations there are those who agree that the situation is more complex than presented in the 1980s. Members of Anonymous, an Israeli animal rights organization, several weeks ago released an information booklet on "Damage to Animals in the Clothing Industry." They argued that the fight against the fur industry was successfully completed and now it's time to focus on other cruel industries such as leather, wool and feathers. Haggai Cohen, an investigator at the organization, says that today "people realize that fur and leather symbolize aggression and violence. Woolen clothes or a down-filled blanket are still not associated in the public's consciousness with aggression and violence, even though those industries are no less cruel."

He says Israel has no wool manufacturing and not much demand for it whereas Australia is a powerhouse in the wool industry. However, "in the world of a global village, products bought close to home are manufactured at the other end of the world and it's important to change consumer consciousness at the point of purchase."

Organization members seek to distribute information about the cruelty involved in raising sheep for wool: the males are castrated; sheep are injected with genetic mutations and sprayed with chemicals to keep fleas away from the wool. And that's only some of the cruelty inflicted on the animals.

This winter, members of the movement will demonstrate and hand out information booklets outside large outlets selling down blankets. "Tens of millions of ducks and geese suffer from the plucking of their feathers," Anonymous activists write in the brochure. "Around 50 percent of the down and 42 percent of the feathers used to fill pillows and blankets around the world were plucked from birds while they were still alive. The remaining feathers and down were plucked from animals that had already been killed."

According to furriers in Israel, the fur market shrank due to economic reasons and not because of an information campaign launched by green organizations. Haim Kasperski, who has been manufacturing furs for over 35 years at Alaska, a store on Ben Yehuda street in Tel Aviv, says there are today seven furriers in Israel, compared with 60 who were around in the 1970s.

He says there is a slight awakening in the market. "Mainly, there is demand for fur trimmings and accessories - collars, hats, shoulders and pockets - people don't buy entire coats." But because his customers are primarily tourists and there's a recession and no tourists and no winter, these are not good times. Kasperski says that today there is no ethical reason not to buy a fur coat. "Today, they use only animals that are commercially permitted," he says and emphasizes, "fur is a by-product of the use of animals in other industries." In his store, he sells furs made from mink, beaver and sheep. "The fat from minks is used in the cosmetics industry, beaver glands are used to make perfume and sheep meat is used as food."

Hugo Brital, who has been manufacturing furs on Ben Yehuda street for over 30 years, assumes that the fur industry has not crashed because of cultural changes and will also not revive for the same reason. "It's like the diamond market. In order for the product to be prestigious you have to maintain a small quantity of items, otherwise it becomes mass consumption. In the late 1980s they started manufacturing furs in industrial quantities, the quality dropped and so did prices. The campaign by animal rights organizations succeeded only because it occurred on fertile ground; the industry was in any case dying."

One way or another, the alternative press in the United States speaks of a genuine dilemma: a fight against the fur industry is a fight against the elite and the wealthy, but even mass fashions and other industries connected to animals involve exploitation, cruelty and environmental damage. Consequently, if all sectors of the clothing industry are ethically lacking to the same degree, what will the ethical consumers do?

The magazine, Mother Jones, simply suggests supporting the recycling industry. The goal is to reduce the manufacture of surplus - there is already enough processed fabric, fur and leather in the world for whoever wants it. It told its readers:If you want stylized fashions that match your ecological values, this is the only way: buy recycled clothes made of fur, wool or cotton, it doesn't really matter - as long as it's second-hand.

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