Feathers and fur have adorned the fashions of the human race for as long as we’ve existed. A sign of power, status, wealth, and worn for any number of religious and cultural reasons, fur for so long has been accepted in cultures across the globe.
Worn on state visits and for ceremonial dress, both the Pope and the Queen have been pictured wearing mink and other furs; Native Indians wore feathers in their headdresses and the Edwardians wore hummingbirds in their hats.
But we’re not, as the Edwardians were, killing rare and beautiful animals for study, and we’re not having to wear fur for a lack of alternative clothing, so why are we still, in the 21st century, allowing unnecessary cruelty to animals for the sake of fashion?
The debate on the ethics of fur rages on and at the fourth annual summer school of the Oxford School for Animal Ethics, campaigners, academics, theologians, barristers and scientists came together to speak on the multi-faceted topic of animal fur and the ethics surrounding it.
The need for this forum is because the fur market continues to thrive – largely driven by the “couture” fashion houses who continue to fuel the demand for “luxury” items.
A quick Google search shows you can buy a chinchilla fur coat from Dior, setting you back in excess of £10,000 and you can buy a fox fur pom-pom from Fendi for around £300.
There are still consumers who want to wear beautiful animal furs, but lambasting the wearer with offensive slogans and throwing paint over those who choose to buy fur products is no longer an effective way to demonstrate the need to stop this cruel practice.
Of the five models who posed naked in the original 1994 “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign ad for the charity PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), four have since worn fur, with Naomi Campbell regularly snapped wearing it.
Mink, rabbit, lynx, chinchilla, fox, dog and cat and even hamster fur is all used in the fashion industry, and 85% per cent of that fur is farmed.
But ending this is not about trying to change fashions, rather about education and creating a shift in culture.
In the paper delivered by Dr Savithri Bartlett, Senior Lecturer University of Winchester, and Professor Noël Sweeney, Visiting Professor, University of Winchester, entitled Animals Do Not Have an Artificial Personality the idea of animals having rights is explored.
We have the Human Rights Act, the Animal Welfare Act, but at present no Animal Rights Act.
Strange then, they argue, that we allow robots to be given artificial personalities, and even a river in New Zealand, (Whanganui River), which now has its own legal identity giving the same rights as humans owing to its significance to the Maori people.
As soon as animals are given their own rights, an artificial personality, we will no longer be able to persecute, to control, or to use them for our own means.
The barbarism involved in the production of fur for fashion
Connor Jackson has created a documentary on fur farming, Klatki, where he follows the practice undercover to show the lengths the industry will go to in order to hide the barbarism involved in fur production.
In 2016 the UK imported £26 million worth of fur, showing that the industry has gone global. Only by exposing the level of cruelty and showing people what lies beneath the fashion will change ever come about.
Not too far away from the Edwardian fashion of wearing hummingbirds, in Brazil every year at Carnival time ostrich, geese, pheasant and peacock feathers are paraded in their hundreds of thousands, on the costumes of dancers and performers.
A Carnival Queen could be wearing up to 4,000 ostrich feathers on her costume alone, vibrant in colour and beautiful to watch, but at the cost of the ostrich’s quality of life, which will have been stripped of its feathers twice a year, and left to live in misery, sunburnt and distressed for up to 13 years.
In his presentation It is not fun for everyone: Feather in Brazil’s carnival parades. A comparison with the fur industry, Dr Carlos Frederico Ramos de Jesus, coordinator of the Animal Law Study Group at São Paulo University, Brazil, compares the use of artificial feathers with that of real feathers. Why, he asks, are more carnival participants not moving over to artificial feathers, which cost far less to buy and are cruelty-free?
He raises the case of the Carnival entrants “Águia de Ouro Samba School” who in February this year used artificial feathers in the parade and teamed up with Brazil’s main animal rights activists. (Although they scored highly in the “costume” category, they were let down by their music.) Dr Carlos highlights that although bringing the topic of animal rights to the carnival may have caused them to get a lower mark, they have now opened the gates for more entrants to use artificial feathers. Especially considering more than 19 tonnes of feathers are used in the carnival, with each group using 750kg, at an average cost of $330 per kg.
As consumers we have to be careful of the messages that the fashion industry and the fur industry as a whole perpetuates. It is far from glamorous, it is far from beautiful, far from ethical and far from “green”.
Kimberly Moore, Attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and Board of Directors at the Fur Free Society warns against the practice of ‘Greenwashing’, where fur companies make claims that purport the practice of producing fur to be ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘green’. Using vague terms the false claims can be twisted into messages so the consumer believes it’s ok – even environmentally beneficial to buy fur.
When you consider that chemicals used to treat fur include formaldehyde, chromium, aluminium, lead, ammonia, chlorine and ethylene, and that 90% of people who live in certain areas of India near the tanneries, are expected to die before the age of 50, the reality is far from green.
In Nova Scotia, lakes close to the mink industry areas have been seriously degraded by the use of these chemicals and blue green algae flourishes; mink carcasses thrown out from the fur farms in Russia pile up and pollute rivers, and the fur trim on children’s coats contains high levels of dangerous toxins, according to Dutch research carried out for the Fur Free Alliance last year.
The fur industry is anything but green. It is still barbaric and it is still going strong. It’s not ok to wear hummingbirds in our hats, just as it’s not ok to wear a mink coat.
But if people can’t see what’s going on behind the fashion, they’ll never know to change their choices.
- The Fourth Annual Oxford Summer School on Animal Ethics 2017 was run by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and was held at St Stephen’s House, Oxford from July 23-26.
Laura Briggs is a regular contributor to the Ecologist. Follow her here: