NEW YORK — It is undeniably a status symbol, but of what?

Fur is probably the only material that a moviegoer would expect to see in the costume of both a socialite and a neanderthal. For two decades, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has worked to emphasize the latter image in American consumers’ minds, trying to change the perception of fur from one of luxury and indulgence to one of cruelty and antiquity.

PETA, which was founded in 1980, has taken a variety of approaches over the years in an effort to convince shoppers to stop buying fur. Its tactics have varied from lighthearted ads featuring half-clad models to undercover videos showing the treatment of animals on fur farms, and from disrupting runway shows featuring fur to sponsoring one of its own at 7th on Sixth last year.

Andrew Butler, campaign coordinator for the fur campaign with the Norfolk, Va.-based organization, said he believes PETA’s efforts to communicate its message — that wearing fur garments is unnecessary and that the process of manufacturing them is cruel — has been largely successful.

"The majority of people now know that there is something deeply wrong with the fur industry," he asserted, though he could not cite data to back that claim. "Once people have seen these images of animals cramped in filthy wire cages or caught in steel-jaw leg traps, and that the end result is a skinned carcass, these are not the sorts of images they can eclipse from their minds…the whole image of fur has shifted from a status symbol to a social liability."

The number of fur manufacturers operating in the U.S. has declined sharply over the past few decades — a trend that mirrors the overall consolidation of the apparel industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that from 1990 through 2000 — the most recent year for which data is available — the number of mink farms operating in the U.S. dropped by 54.5 percent to 351. Over that period, the number of pelts produced by those farms dropped 18.4 percent to 2.7 million. A 33.3 percent rise in prices over that time allowed the total value of the pelts to rise 5.6 percent to $90.6 million.Mink farms represent the majority of the U.S.’s fur production. About 15 to 20 percent of the animals killed for their fur are caught in the wild — mostly foxes, coyotes and beavers.

Despite the decline in production, fur sales have risen over the past decade, according to a fur-industry promotion group.

Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, based in West Hollywood, Calif., said many things have influenced Americans’ fur-buying habits independently of the animal-rights movement. His group sharply stepped up its activities in the late Eighties, partly in response to PETA’s campaigns.

"It’s tough to tell. There are so many things that affect the industry, certainly economics, fashion and the weather being three big components, so it’s hard to break out what the impact of PETA was," he said. "There was some impact, probably less than people think."

He said that fur sales in the U.S. in 2001 — the most recent year for which he had data — came to $1.53 billion, off 9.5 percent from 2000. He noted that the economic slowdown and dropoff in luxury spending following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also influenced the decline. However, he noted that in 1992 — another year in which the U.S. economy was in a downturn — Americans spent about $1 billion on fur, indicating that the overall industry has grown over the past decade.

PETA in 1990 started its "I’d rather go naked than wear fur" advertising campaign, which has featured photos of everyone from the pop group the Go-Go’s to Pamela Anderson wrapped in nothing but signs.

Through the Nineties, the organization focused on designers and its campaigns influenced the decision of top names including Calvin Klein to drop out of the fur business. Other designers, such as the vegetarian Stella McCartney, have become known for not using animal products, both fur and leather, in the lines.

But in recent years, PETA has focused more of its efforts on consumers, recognizing that it’s dollars that ultimately drive the business.

Butler, the campaign coordinator, said of apparel designers, "There are some who don’t give a damn about animal suffering or the environment, but ultimately, it will come down to sales."Retailers said that, for some consumers, the question of whether to buy fur is driven solely by fashion — cruelty doesn’t factor into their thinking.

While declining to comment on PETA, a spokesman for Dallas-based Neiman Marcus said, "Fur has been an important trend for fall and the customer is certainly responding to the trend. Our customers respond to fashion trends and one of those certainly is fur."

For his part, Butler said PETA feels confident that Americans’ attitudes will slowly change on fur. All 50 states currently have laws on the books dealing with the treatment of pets and domestic animals, and while the standards of what constitutes "cruelty" vary, there are many common standards through the country — for instance, most Americans would agree about not eating dogs, and many would agree that watching dogs fight to the death for amusement is cruel.

Butler pointed out that the U.K. in the late Nineties made mink farming illegal out of concern that the practice was cruel, given that minks have never been domesticated and in the wild live solitary lives. He said he believed that sort of attitude could catch on in the U.S.

"As with any social reform movement, its advocates grow stronger and dissenters grow weaker," he said. "People’s attitudes change over the years."

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