NEW YORK, United States — In the spring of 2016, a group of top-tier fashion executives convened in midtown Manhattan for a closed-door meeting. The conversation centred on the treatment of animals and the ethics policies they had in place. It was clear that many brands felt more pressure than ever to cooperate with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — the international non-profit organisation widely known as PETA. “Look at what PETA did to angora,” one executive said. “They virtually wiped it out.”
Indeed, in 2013, PETA took on the trade in angora rabbit fur in what proved to be one of its most successful campaigns, releasing a video of a rabbit in China — the world's top producer of angora wool — being tortured and mutilated, its fur hand-plucked from its body. In the months after the video was released, more than 100 major brands suspended their use of angora rabbit wool, according to PETA, including Calvin Klein, Gap, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Topshop, Uniqlo and Zara. Most have continued with the ban.
Indeed, sales of angora rabbit wool — not to be confused with the fleece of the angora goat, also known as mohair — have decreased dramatically since PETA launched its campaign. In 2010, China exported $23 million worth of angora rabbit wool, according to the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. In 2015, that number was down to just $4.3 million. Countries with cottage industries in angora — including the UK, France, Italy and Germany — have also seen exports decrease. In 2015, Germany exported just $2.7 million worth of angora, down 67 percent from $8.2 million in 2010. Meanwhile, Italy, a major importer of angora and the country best known for its fabric mills, bought just $2.1 million worth of angora rabbit wool in 2015, down 77 percent from $9.2 million in 2010.
One glance at the PETA video — which has been viewed nearly 1.9 million times — makes it easy to understand why a brand would choose to ban the use of angora. What it contains is truly horrifying. And yet, the issue is complex. Some designers and brands still argue that angora can indeed be harvested in a humane and ethical fashion — shorn from the animal instead of plucked — but find it increasingly difficult to find angora wool to buy and fear public shaming from PETA, whose influence has grown with the rise of social media.
Many people didn’t know what angora was, or they thought it was synthetic. There was no awareness.
Of course, PETA releases videos and images of animals being cruelly treated on a regular basis. Why was the 2013 angora campaign so instantly successful? “The response we got from the public was that [many people] didn’t know what angora was, or they thought it was synthetic. There was no awareness,” explains Yvonne Taylor, senior manager of corporate projects at PETA UK. “The method of live plucking was such a shock to people. Thanks to social media, people were sharing it. Yes, we were sharing this footage with retailers and designers, but a lot of it was coming from their customers as well.”
To be sure, the greatest offenders were Chinese suppliers, which employ live plucking. Most farms in Europe and the United States say they simply give the rabbits a haircut, a practice they liken to shearing sheep. And some smaller, more ethically-minded operations claim they have seen an uptick in sales since 2013. Eric Stewart, the executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, breeds angora rabbits on his Pennsylvania fibre farm. He says he has seen an increased interest from independent designers — particularly those who deem themselves “eco-friendly.”
“I don’t have to advertise,” says Stewart, who prefers using manual scissors over electric shears to cut the fur. “I can guarantee that we are responsible and sustainable in harvesting, and that adds value to our product.”
Items that were once a status symbol are fast becoming a badge of shame.
Yet others believe that there is no way to ethically shear a rabbit for commercial purposes. “With angora, it’s very difficult to keep rabbits together and how they would naturally be in nature,” says Ambika Conroy, an independent designer who raises sheep and goats at her farm in the Catskills in the US. Conroy has also raised angora rabbits for product, but has more recently looked for ways to improve her process. “It’s a couple of years out, but I’m trying create rabbitries that are communal so that they can come in and get a haircut, like sheep.”
But such a process is difficult to scale commercially. “When you’re running [angora fur] through machines, you have to have a consistent product,” says Stewart. “Colony reared rabbits are chewing at each other. Particularly with angora rabbits, you’re not going to get a marketable product.” He also argues that, as natural prey, rabbits “like the security of vertical walls.”
There are designers who agree with Stewart, although they choose to either avoid angora altogether or use it quietly. Many Italian luxury goods brands, for instance, continue to use angora. After all, angora is a unique fibre. It is at once silky, soft and fuzzy, and can create a new dimension in knitwear.
But PETA’s impact on the use of angora is notable and reflects a shift in the way the fashion industry views the organisation, which, in the past, has often been painted as self-righteous and extreme in its beliefs. Today, there’s no doubt that these beliefs are becoming more commonplace and more difficult for brands to ignore. “I definitely think people are far more aware of what they’re buying, eating and wearing than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” Taylor says. “Items that were once a status symbol are fast becoming a badge of shame.”
More than ever before, the fashion industry is listening to what PETA has to say. And with the angora market in free fall, the organisation has set its sights on goose down and is in the midst of an investigation of goose farms in China. Topshop, Whistles and Reiss have already banned the use of down in future collections. “It’s all being helped by the success of our angora campaign,” Taylor says. “The new generation of [consumers] want to know what exactly it is they’re buying.”