PARIS — While it may be too ambitious to sum up the entire impact of the fashion industry on animal welfare in one film, director Rebecca Cappelli attempts to do so with her documentary “Slay.”
The film, which premiered in Paris last week, shows the effects of the skin trade — a.k.a. leather and fur — in a wide-ranging investigation touching on everything from animal welfare, workers’ rights and the environmental destruction it causes making its way through the fashion and luxury goods supply chains to end up as handbags, shoes and trim.
“We all know that for most of the luxury brands, a lot of their profits are coming from skin, especially leather, and so when we say that, it’s just a fact,” she said. “But this is not an anti-fashion film. It’s not about one particular brand. It’s about finding solutions.”
The film takes her across the world. In Brazil, she explores the deforestation that is taking place to make way for cattle that end up as leather, and in Italy, she shows how the hides are sanitized and tanned. In China, she explores the industrial fur industry as well as illegal trading of endangered animals, and she highlights the unregulated trapping industry in the U.S., among other touchpoints.
The title “Slay” is a play on the slang definition of the word, as well as the darker origins of its original meaning. The film was an independently financed effort that took Cappelli three and a half years to make. Spanning seven countries, it takes a deeper look at the impact of the fur, leather and wool industries on animals, the planet and people.
And while sustainability might be a buzzword used by brands in their marketing, the film demonstrates that the issues are interconnected in ways that are often glossed over. Cappelli attempts to demystify those connections.
“When it comes to sustainability and ethical fashion, there is a blind spot — we do not speak about the animals that are used in fashion, and we do not speak about the impact that using animals has on the planet and the people who work in the supply chain, or live in the communities that are affected by these industries,” she said.
Cappelli said that very few brands have animal welfare policies, and a 2020 report from welfare organization Four Paws found that only 21 percent of brands had traced their animal-derived materials. The film makes the argument that sustainable fashion should include animal ethics, since animals are the origin of most of the fashion and luxury goods industry’s most profitable products.
Citing U.N. numbers, the film notes that one leather bag equates to over 10,000 square feet of cleared land, and that 80 percent of Amazon deforestation has been for cattle grazing. She also busts the myth that leather is a byproduct of the food industry, when that is often not the case with high-end luxury lamb and calf skins.
Traceability is an issue, since cows often are bought, sold and moved several times, and their skins can change hands, obfuscating the supply chain before export.
“Because of the lack of traceability the conclusion that we came to, through myself working and with several nonprofit organizations, is that it’s actually impossible to guarantee this skin is not coming from deforested land,” she said.
Eighty percent are sent abroad to be processed into a commodity, with the second-largest market being Italy. Cappelli follows the trail as it goes to tanneries which then sell on to fashion brands for bags and shoes. In undercover scenes, tannery owners namecheck many common high street and high-end brands that publicize their sustainable credentials but allegedly purchase from untraceable sources.
These are just some of the first scenes that tackle the fashion industry’s supply chain problems, before she moves on to the illegal trade of endangered animals and fur farming of dogs in China, and wild trapping of foxes and raccoons in the U.S. in some scenes that lay out the impact — and cruelty — at the heart of it.
The film also touches on the health implications for workers in and around the chemicals of the tanneries, particularly focusing on India and Italy, as well as the treatment of migrant workers who largely staff the facilities in Italy.
“From my perspective, it’s about connecting stories, sharing facts and information that may be not available to the wider public, and also storytelling and connecting with individuals. That individual may be an animal or that individual may be a worker in an Italian tannery or in a tannery in India,” she said about the film’s various points of view. “It’s more about making what is not visible today visible so that we can kickstart a dialogue and a conversation in the industry.”
One touchpoint is her personal journey from an animal-loving kid to an adult fashionista who wore furs without making a conscious connection. Ultimately consumers don’t see the impact of materials when animals are disregarded and commodified, she argues.
“We need to look at it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but I believe we must be able to have uncomfortable conversations to move forward and evolve. We need to sit down with this data, the science, this information, but also our feelings about this,” she said.
The documentary features scenes of visits to fur traders with rows of cat pelts, as well as footage of animals being trapped and beaten and Cappelli’s visit to a fur farm with hundreds of dogs in cages. Europe isn’t let off the hook. Even though several countries have banned fur farming, Cappelli visits mink farms in Poland, where it still occurs and explores how fur is often mislabeled in the European market.
“My goal with the film is also ultimately to operate a cultural shift to understand that skins are not a ‘material’ — they are the skin of an animal,” she says.
The film also examines wool production, and the impact industrial farming has in Australia and New Zealand, including being a major greenhouse gas emissions source for those countries even though it is often touted as a sustainable fabric.
“Slay” wraps by examining alternative materials, including corn- and sugarcane-based polymers that can be converted into new textiles, including Ecopel faux furs.
It’s a big-picture view of very detailed issues that are both environmental and ethical in the fashion industry. The film, which is now streaming on the Waterbear documentary platform, is not only focused on speaking to the industry but to consumers as well.
“Essentially we’re talking about massive issues that span countries, and we need to be realistic on what is feasible in the short term,” Cappelli said. “We show the truth without accusing anyone and without judging anyone, but to say these are problems [in our industry] and let’s look at it together.”