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Inside the Growing Global Fur Industry

From auctions to activists, BoF goes inside the $40 billion fur industry’s relationship with fashion.
Raccoon dogs at a fur farm, fur, Fendi Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: PETA, Saga Furs, InDigital
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United KingdomAlexander Wang will; Ralph Lauren won't. Saks Fifth Avenue will; Selfridges won't. American Vogue will; British Vogue won't. The fashion industry is deeply divided on whether to participate in the global fur trade, a market worth more than $40 billion a year that employs over one million people, according to the first study to take into account retail sales, fur farming and production, commissioned by the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF), which represents national fur trade associations and organisations, and released in 2014 by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Italy.

In the last few years, according to the IFTF, global fur sales have more than doubled, from $15.6 billion in 2011 to $35.8 billion in 2013. The primary driver of this growth is increased demand from China, which has offset the effects of wider economic instability and the impact on consumer preferences of years of high-profile animal rights activism.

Another current running through the market is menswear. After taking menswear off the catwalk in 2009, Fendi — known for its extravagant furs and leathers — brought back its menswear shows for Autumn/Winter 2012-13 and, last year, launched its first standalone menswear boutique in Paris. Fur also appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2015 men's shows of brands from Hood by Air to Burberry Prorsum. According to the Fur Information Council of America, men's fur fashions have "experienced significant gains in sales" and now make up almost 5 percent of total fur sales.

Brightly coloured and patterned furs are also booming, both real — created by brands from Roksanda to Saint Laurent — and faux, led by labels like Stella McCartney and London faux fur brand Shrimps. "In the past there have been a lot of negative associations with faux fur that it loses its quality quickly, can look cheap and is a throwaway fashion," said Hannah Weiland, who founded Shrimps in 2013. "But increased customer demand for faux fur has pushed the technological development and innovation forward at a fast pace."

In the last few years, fur has been adopted in luxury markets with warmer climates for the first time as technologies that combine fur with other textiles — such as fusing it to felted wool or weaving together fur fibres and silk — have given birth to lighter versions of the material, while laser cutting has increased the use of fur trim. According to Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Trade Federation, there are now 400 fur-selling stores in Dubai, where summers have an average high of around 41 °C.

"People in the fur industry realised, unless we learn how to dye our product, unless we learn how to make our products more flexible and lighter, we're going to end up in a situation where you only ever sell fur coats once a decade to somebody who needs to keep warm," said Oaten. "It's become like any other fashion fabric."

But fur is not like any other fabric. Faux fur aside, the journey to finished product begins with animals — namely minks, foxes, rabbits, chinchillas and raccoons — which are killed for their pelts. Most fur is farmed, though some animals are caught in the wild using traps. As a result, no other material divides public opinion in quite the same way.

Fur farming is illegal in Austria, Croatia, England and Wales. In the Netherlands, fox and chinchilla fur production is banned, while mink production is legal. In 2012, the Dutch Senate passed a ban on mink production, but the measure overturned in 2014, after a court in The Hague ruled that the ban would have a serious financial impact on breeders and did not outline how it would compensate them.

“The fur industry is an unregulated, unaccountable, ethics-free business,” said Mimi Bekhechi, director of the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Foundation. “Animals are killed in the most horrifying ways — often through anal or vaginal electrocution, gassing or poisoning. In the wild, animals are caught in bone-crushing leg-hold traps. They may suffer for days, slowly dying from hunger, thirst, disease, blood loss and predation.”

Investigations by animal welfare groups in Norway, Denmark and Finland have yielded footage of cramped cages containing animals with bloody sores and raw wounds (often self-inflicted, according to Joh Vinding, campaigns director at Danish animal protection organisation Anima, as the animals “essentially go mad”), lameness and corpses left in cages with living animals. Footage filmed by Swiss Animal Protection, an animal rights organisation, showed canines being skinned alive at a Chinese fur farm.

Those in the fur trade argue that conditions have changed, with the implementation of more industry regulation concerned with the humane treatment of animals. “The farmers who produce in the United States take animal welfare as the highest priority,” said Michael Whelan, executive director of the Fur Commission USA. “Over half of our budget goes into animal research — what's best for the animals.”

Fur auction house Saga Furs, for example, has a farm certification programme that goes beyond national animal welfare standards, as well as a traceability system that can track a pelt back to the farm that produced it. According to Saga Furs, farms are regularly inspected by independent outside auditors.

But in the last two decades, just like clothing manufacturing, fur production has shifted East, where regulation is weaker and poorly enforced. In 2014, Hong Kong accounted for 70 to 80 percent of the world’s total fine fur exports, according to PwC. In 2014, China produced 35 million mink pelts, while 1.9 million came from Russia and 7.5 million came from the US and Canada combined. Jay Bai, sales manager at Xing Ji Fur ltd, a fur trading company based in the Hebei province of China, agreed that China’s fur market is shifting towards domestic production. “The biggest recent change in the Chinese fur market is a sharp decrease in importation from overseas markets,” he said.

“In China, the market is harder to regulate,” said Mark Oaten, who added that regulation of global fur farming is highly fragmented. “My frustration as CEO of all of this is trying to bring as many of these programmes as I can and to try and drive a common or global standard. That’s not easy — it takes time.”

"We're very aware of our ethical dilemma," said Gerlandina Bassani, designer at Mr & Mrs, a five-year-old Italian fur label stocked by Matches Fashion, MyTheresa and Browns. Due to the challenges of finding a source where "you're guaranteed that the process of production is ethically controlled," she said the brand "tend[s] not to go to Asia."

Fur pelts are sold largely at auctions, held by auction houses such as Saga Furs and Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest auction house for mink, which expects to offer a record 27.4 million skins this year. At auction, fur prices are governed by a range of unpredictable factors — cold winters can spike demand and increase prices, while anti-fur campaigns by organisations like PETA can lead to protests and boycotts, knocking sales. “It changes all the time,” said Michael Whelan. “Right now, there is a lot of fur on the market and that's just because the demand has been so high over the last couple of years.”

Further along the supply chain are the dressers and dyeing companies, which clean, soften, tan and preserve the furs before they are bought by fashion labels. “There’s a lot of strategy involved, because you have to see what’s going on in the market, what the prices are and then find the right auction,” said Gerlandina Bassani. “The sourcing, the producing, the designing, they really all have to go together. It’s not as easy as getting 100,000 metres of cashmere.”

According to the IFTF, last year, more than 70 percent of shows at New York Fashion Week featured fur, as did 60 percent of shows at London Fashion Week. Yet some of the world’s largest fashion companies have gone fur-free.

In 1994, Calvin Klein stopped producing furs after activists graffitied the company's offices and Klein met with PETA members, who showed him footage of fur livestock being slaughtered. According to a statement from the designer at the time, "the fur segment of our business simply did not fit with our corporate philosophy any longer."

Ralph Lauren went fur-free in 2006 and Tommy Hilfiger followed in 2007, also after pressure from PETA. H&M Group, Inditex (which owns Zara), American Apparel, Topshop and Zalando are all part of the Fur Free Alliance's Fur Free Retailer Program. Net-a-Porter, Selfridges and Liberty are all fur-free.

“Back in 2005 we decided there was no place for fur in our stores and it was the right decision. Now, ten years in, we continue to stand by the policy from a both an ethical and commercial point of view,” said Anne Pitcher, managing director of Selfridges. “The designers we work with understand our no-fur policy; we have found there is always either another way to excite our customers or source a credible faux fur alternative to offer.”

Nonetheless, the fur industry is keen to forge links with fashion. Fur auction house Saga Furs runs a competition at the London College of Fashion, challenging students to design a fur garment. Saga provides the fur — for free — and the winners get an internship. The British Fur Trade Association's national design competition saw a 50 percent increase in applications this year, according to its chief executive, Mike Moser. "We work with and nurture young talents. We give them opportunities with bursaries," said Mark Oaten, whose International Fur Trade Federation runs a similar sponsorship competition with designers. "We have projects running in most countries where we will offer to go into those countries and help train young designers."

This kind of sponsorship extends to fashion shows. Kopenhagen Fur sponsored Copenhagen Fashion Week in 2013 and hosted the opening show. According to Joh Windig, “We had companies that had never used fur, would never have used it, and suddenly they had to include it, because, that way, they got a free fashion show.”

“The reality is that in an ideological battle, you’re never going to win,” said Mike Moser. “Fur’s an easy target because fur is still seen as a preserve of the super-wealthy.”

“It’s just an issue of choice,” added Mark Oaten. “What that does mean is that more than any fabric, we have to work really hard with our designers and with our retailers and with the big brands to show that we’re meeting high standards. I welcome that pressure.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 8 June, 2015. An earlier version of this article misstated that fur farming is illegal in the Netherlands. It is not. Fox and chinchilla fur farming is illegal in the Netherlands. Mink fur production was banned in the Netherlands in 2012, but the ban was overturned in 2014.

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