A Member of 'People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (peta) Protests Wearing a Yellow Hazardous Material Suit with a Gas Mask and Holds a Signs That Reads 'Meat is Toxic Go Vegetarian' on the Street in Seoul South Korea 24 August 2012 Korea, Republic of SeoulSouth Korea Peta Protest - Aug 2012

Last year, animal rights activists were successful in California with the passage of AB44, which takes effect in 2023 and makes it illegal to manufacture, sell (or attempt to sell), display, trade, and donate (or otherwise, distribute) fur products in the state. And in New York City, anti-fur activists pressured lawmakers to introduce bill number 1476, which is to prohibit sales of fur apparel and accessories.

Both measures put a spotlight on the anti-fur debacle. But are these efforts misleading to consumers? More importantly, is the anti-fur movement – which is driven by dozens of “grassroots” organizations – part of a larger agenda that includes bans on leather, wool, and circuses as well as Foie Gras and meat consumption? The short answer is yes, but the issue is more complex than how the mainstream media portrays it.

Proponents of natural fur and those advocating for freedom of choice note that the anti-fur movement is riddled with hypocrisy and misinformation. Fur is low-hanging fruit, industry experts said, and makes for a simple target that can be sensationalized in the media and on social channels – despite the fact that natural fur is produced by humane methods and the material, unlike faux fur, is not harmful to the environment.

Keith Kaplan, a spokesman for the Fur Information Council of America, said the campaigns to ban fur “are about much more than animal welfare in the fur industry.”

“They are about animal use in all industries,” he noted. “They are about whether or not animal activists can be successful in convincing lawmakers to make a decision that forces people to accept an end of animal use of any kind.”

The most recent salvo in the activists’ fight lands as New York Fashion Week gets underway. A coalition of animal activists are seeking bans on fur as well as leather and wool – their next targets. Industry stakeholders describe the protesters as “animal rights extremists” who are launching campaigns that will have “harmful effects on designer freedom, fashion industry workers, consumer choice and sustainability.”

Getting lost in the cry against using fur, wool and leather, is the fact that these are natural materials that are more sustainable than plastic alternatives, which are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics also pollute. Research has found that washing just a few pounds of synthetic material can lead to the release of more than 100,000 plastic microfibers into the water supply. Microfibers also end up polluting oceans as well as harming fish and other wildlife who ingest it.

Industry stakeholders also note there’s no evidence that giving consumers less choice at the behest of animal activists improves a company’s bottom line. Indeed, it may be harming sales and profits. They cite Macy’s, which went fur-free last September and just announced the closing of 125 stores.

Fur demand, remains

For nearly half a century, activists have pushed their anti-animal agenda. “Since Henry Spira founded the first animal rights organization, Animal Rights International in 1974, thousands of animal rights organizations have been established around the world with the primary goal of eliminating all human uses of animals,” Kaplan said. “They seek to remove them from our dinner plates, clothing aisles and pet shops as well as circuses and medical research.”

Despite their best efforts, people continue to consume meat and wear leather as well as fur. Fur farmer and industry veteran Ryan Holt said “consumption for fur remains strong.”

And after four decades of pushing a vegan agenda, just 5 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves vegetarian while 3 percent say they are vegan, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“And despite claims that consumers are no longer buying fur, the cash register tells us a very different story,” Kaplan said. “If consumers were broadly opposed to fur, the free market would be sending that message through declining product sales. But that is clearly not the case, and so animal activists are attempting to force their agenda through the legislative process.”

Holt said the fur industry makes for an easy target by activists. With the proposed ban in New York City last year, the anti-fur activists attended public meetings, made headline-grabbing statements and put pressure on local elected officials. But Holt noted that the garment industry was opposed to the ban and was also backed by a diverse group of other supporters such as Hasidic Jews and African-Americans as well as Russian and Ukrainian cultural communities.

David Linkhart, fur trapper, said fur “was just the easiest target since it is not used by that large of a segment of the population and is not considered essential.” However, it is a thriving industry. Globally, the fur trade is a $40 billion business.

When asked, specifically, what was at stake with a proposed fur ban in New York, Timothy Grant, spokesperson for FurNYC, described it as “another nail in the coffin to the city’s neglected middle class – and mom and pops.” Grant said thousands of jobs are at stake, and “hundreds of small businesses, and billions in taxable revenues that fund social services for underserved communities.”

“The fur ban proposal is another way of legislating morality without any due consideration to fur’s superiority as a sustainable product, and instead leading the way for more plastic-based garments to be worn and later discarded to pollute our environment,” Grant explained. “As one of the few remaining fashion manufacturing centers in the Garment Center, this proposal is no less than a direct affront to hard-working New Yorkers and the survival of the fashion industry in New York City.”

So why is the debate centered on fur while wearing leather, or wool or eating meat is not discussed? “It is simple,” Kaplan said. “Fur represents luxury, and in an era of increasing economic disparity, it provides an easy target, stirring people to attack what is perceived to be a trademark of the wealthy. But make no mistake, campaigns against leather, wool and meat are all well underway. We’ve seen anti-leather and wool protestors and billboards during fashion week events for the past several years.”

And are elected officials and policymakers setting themselves up for conflict down the road? Kaplan said it was likely and noted that a growing number of municipalities are considering bans of Foie Gras. “With the precedence of the fur bans, when animal rights groups come back with campaigns to ban leather or meat, how will lawmakers say no?” Kaplan said. “How will they decide which animals should be saved from use while others are allowed for human consumption?”

For designers and retailers as well as influencers and consumers, Kaplan said it is important to recognize that the fur bans “do not reflect current consumer attitudes towards fur but are a direct result of the unsuccessful efforts of animal activists to convince consumers to stop buying fur as witnessed by the continued popularity of fur.”

Holt said since the mid-1980s, animal rights activists have been “trying to get consumers to stop wearing fur. And consumers have not responded in the way they wanted. So, now, they’re focused on taking ‘choice’ away from consumers.” Holt said the goal is to strip away the “buying opportunity from consumers.”

A Peta protest against the use of leather, on the first day of London Fashion WeekPETA protest, London Fashion Week, UK - 13 Sep 2019 London Fashion Week attendees will get an eyeful on Thursday when a group of PETA supporters will pour buckets of black 'toxic slime' over their heads to call attention to the hazardous waste associated with the leather industry. Signs on the buckets will read, 'Leather Is a Dirty Business' and 'Dump Leather'.

A Peta protest against the use of leather, on the first day of London Fashion Week.  Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock

A heated issue

What’s also discouraging – from both sides of the issue – is that over the past 40 years, the “conversation” about fur and its use has deteriorated, Holt noted. There’s no compromise, and the fur industry is faced with activists who see the issue in black and white terms. For their part, they’ve dug into an argument that animal welfare trumps everything else. And they’ve not come to the table to discuss anything else, which frustrates fur industry veterans such as Holt who are willing to educate and inform.

Kaplan said animal rights activists now “hold an uncompromising view that humans have no right to use animals for any purpose. They oppose any use of animals, even for food, vital medical research or as pets.”

“They often use extreme or sensationalist tactics to promote their ideology as well as factual misrepresentations, inaccurate statements and outright lies,” Kaplan said adding that these groups “employ strategies and tactics that are quite hypocritical in ignoring animal welfare.”

“They push for bans on hunting and trapping, ignoring the science that drives wildlife management programs and supports animal welfare by preventing rabies, distemper, starvation and predation,” Kaplan explained. “And to support a narrative of animal cruelty they create staged videos that require them to cause injury or even death to the animal subjects.”

“What consumers need to realize is that fur trapping is not only a harvest of renewal resources but an important part of scientific wildlife management,” Linkhart said. “Beaver flood cropland, timberland, roadways and home sites. Coyotes prey on livestock, pets and wildlife. Raccoons eat crops and damage buildings. Muskrats tunnel into dams, levees and creek banks. To protect people, pets, livestock, and infrastructure, these pests must be controlled. When fur trapping is either outlawed or discouraged economically, nuisance-trapping takes over. Then landowners, homeowners and taxpayers foot the bill, and the resource is discarded.”

“Banning fur does not save animals,” Linkhart added. “Hopefully informed consumers can understand this simple logic.”

Freedom of choice

The anti-fur groups are also ignoring the impact of plastic fur on the environment, which is another cause of frustration for Holt, Kaplan and others. “In an era when the public is overwhelmingly aware of the environmental and social costs of mass-produced fashion with sustainability a key concern, designers, influencers and consumers would be short-sighted to denounce a natural, renewal, recyclable product such as real fur that can last generations, replacing it with plastic materials and other synthetics in petrol based fake fur that poses a recognized and significant environmental threat,” Kaplan said.

Fundamentally, the use of fur by designers and the purchase of natural fur by consumers comes down to the issue of choice, and the freedom of U.S. consumers to decide for themselves whether to eat meat, buy leather or wear fur.

Grant said the issue is also mired by activists who lack facts “on the nature of the fur industry and its sourcing practices. You don’t ban restaurants because they sell steak, and in the same way, you do not ban an industry because it deals in fur.”

“It is not the job of politicians to police closets and limit the materials designers choose to work with,” Grant said. “What’s to stop the government from also giving into the activist’s increasing demands to ban leather, feathers, cashmere, wool, and silk? This is a first step in a slippery slope to ban other textile materials, regardless if they are sourced more ethically, regulated more strictly, and are proven to be more sustainable than the fossil-fuel generated, fast-fashion products they want as a replacement.”

A member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protests outside a Forever 21 store in Seoul, South Korea, 30 October 2019. PETA is calling on all shoppers to steer clear of Forever 21 until the chain store stops selling wool.Campaign for animal rights in Seoul, Korea - 30 Oct 2019

PETA is calling on all shoppers to steer clear of Forever 21 until the chain store stops selling wool.  JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/Shutterst

Kaplan said people overwhelmingly support the concept of individual freedom of choice. “There is no reason why wearing fur should be less acceptable than wearing leather shoes or a silk scarf, or eating meat, which all involve animal breeding programs for man’s use,” he said adding that the anti-fur movement has been a 40-year-old battle that has done little to change the mindset of most consumers.

Despite the bombardment, Kaplan said many consumers continue to purchase fur. “Consumers have listened, perhaps they have done their research on industry practices and they have made up their own minds,” he said. “They appreciate the beauty, warmth and durability of real fur.”

Kaplan and Holt said consumers are also clearly concerned about the environment and appreciate that fur is a natural, sustainable and renewable material – the better choice over mass-produced fake fur.

“We respect the rights of animal activists to choose not to wear fur or leather or eat meat,” Kaplan said. “Why should this small group of very vocal activists take away our freedom of choice?”

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