FUR COMMISSION USA COMMENTARY, DECEMBER 11, 2000
As the new millennium dawned, a stampede began. With fashion designers, writers and other trend-setters cracking the whip, a herd of leathers, suedes, shearlings and furs charged down the catwalks of America and Europe, and straight out the doors of trendy boutiques. One year later, the stampede continues unabated, but how far have the consumers who buy these creations come in terms of understanding animal-based clothing, and in particular fur?
Without doubt, the stigma of political incorrectness that surrounded fur during the 1990s is fading, but before it can be laid forever to rest, there’s some muddled thinking that needs to be cleared up.
“Shearlings will be particularly popular,” predicted one writer last March, after viewing a collection from Stella McCartney featuring “shearling with faux fur for Chloe.”(1)
Shearling with faux fur? If ever there were a combination that epitomized society’s confusion over wearing animal hides, shearling and faux fur could be it!
Shearling is not wool. It is sheepskin – the pelt of a sheep that has been killed to satisfy a human need. And since it still has all those long hairs attached, it is, in fact, sheep’s fur.
Faux fur, in contrast, is a petrochemical political statement. It imitates the pelts of animals with long hairs attached, but no animal or other organism was directly killed to produce it.
So what does this half-organic, half-synthetic creation say about the designer, and what message does it convey to consumers? McCartney has done pro bono work for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), and is the designer of choice for many fellow vegetarians, so some people take her selection of materials seriously.
Says McCartney, “I try not to work in leather too much, because I’m a vegetarian.”(2)
But the fact remains that she does use leather, which is simply a cow’s pelt with the hair removed, and she does use a sheep’s pelt with the hair still attached. So what’s the deal with the faux fur?
Waste Not, Want Not
McCartney’s confusion is based on the erroneous idea that the production of fur from carnivores is separate and distinct from human food production, and therefore “unnecessary”. Leather and shearling, by contrast, she sees merely as “by-products” of human food production. Thus, even though they are not necessary in themselves, they should not be wasted – or so the thinking goes.
Meat-eaters can feel good about wearing leather, right? Since we’ve already eaten its muscles and a few internal organs, what could be wrong with wrapping its hairless hide around our feet and shoulders? Waste not, want not.
Meanwhile, the McCartneys of this world try to assuage their moral qualms about wearing certain animal hides by telling themselves that at least the animals were eaten, even if it was by lowly, misguided meat-eaters!
A New York Times columnist summed up this muddled thinking as follows: “Unlike fur, leather is a by-product of meat. Many people sympathetic to the plight of furry little chinchillas seem to draw the line at cows and sheep, whose flesh is also put to use.”(3)
The first question we should ask is: what happened to all the parts of the slaughtered sheep thatdidn’t end up in our wardrobes or on the end of our forks? If making use of the hide that dinner came wrapped in makes us feel good, shouldn’t we also care about what happened to the rest of the animal – the head, legs, hooves, entrails, tail, bones, and nether regions?
Landfills are an obvious and unacceptable option for these “leftovers”. In many countries, our pet dogs and cats are the principal scavengers beneath our dinner tables. In some countries, leftovers are fed to pigs and chickens, or used as organic fertilizer for crops.
In fur-farming countries, there’s another option: feeding a good percentage of these animal remains to domesticated carnivores, thereby producing another level of products for human use.
By cleaning up the scraps from our dinner table, domesticated mink and fox form an integral part of the human food-production chain. They live off the remains of Bossy the Cow after she’s given her all producing milk, or the steer raised for his prime steak, or the sheep and goats raised for food, fiber or both. Add in all the leftovers from fish production, and expired eggs and cheese, and you can imagine how rich a diet can be for carnivores living among us.
An average farmed mink consumes 20 times its body weight annually, while a fox consumes 30 times, transforming all those parts of grazers that humans won’t touch into a valuable product. Next time you see a beautiful, full-length mink coat, try seeing it instead as 2.5 tons of recycled waste that won’t be clogging up landfills!(4)
And in addition to the fur pelts, the carcasses of these carnivores yield secondary products and by-products such as mink oil, protein meal, and ingredients for cosmetics, paints, tires and glue, while their feces are used for organic fertilizer.
Primary, Secondary and By-Products
The second concept we must grasp is how a farmer makes a living by selling primary and secondary products, and how the value of by-products made from “leftovers” can reduce operating costs and make farming a little more profitable.
For example, shearling, or sheep’s fur, and leather are very important primary and secondary products for farmers world-wide. They are not always “by-products” or even secondary products of meat and dairy production, but can be primary products.
During the Parliamentary debate preceding the recent banning of fur-farming in the UK, it was pointed out that the value of lamb’s meat had fallen so low that some lamb breeders now derived the major part of their income from the selling of sheepskin. In economic terms, this means the pelt is the primary product. This scenario is common around the world, with valuable wool and sheepskin being exported to earn hard currency, and mutton bringing a lesser value at home.
For Australia’s Merino sheep farmers, the primary product has always been wool. Only towards the end of a sheep’s life is it exported, as a secondary product, to be eaten by humans.
Secondary products such as leather in the beef industry or mutton in the wool industry make an important contribution to farmers’ financial viability. And, depending on market conditions, today’s secondary product may be tomorrow’s primary product. Ban a secondary product and a farmer is going to be financially hurt. Or remove production sectors such as fur farming, which take sheep and cattle farmers’ “waste” and transform it into a primary product, and those farmers will incur new disposal costs, while the waste will go to landfills.
Indeed, all sheep and cattle farmers breed their animals for one primary product which brings the best market price, plus one or more secondary products. A dairy farmer may pay his mortgage supplying milk to cheese or yoghurt producers, but when members of his herd are spent, secondary products such as hides bring in a little extra. This farmer, and every farmer, will also have need of a company that will take the “leftovers” and maximize their value by turning them into other products.
While farmers listened and cringed, the confused gentleman responsible for banning fur farms in Britain illustrated a McCartney-esque lack of understanding of this relationship.
“Mink pelts are not a by-product of the food industry, unlike leather, which, if not used in the footwear and fashion sectors, would be thrown away,” insisted Agricultural Minister Elliot Morley.(5)“Fur farming is distinct from food production,” he continued, underlining his ignorance. “If the primary purpose of keeping animals is the production of food, that provides a sufficient public benefit to justify breeding them for slaughter. That is so even if the production of fur or hide is a secondary purpose to the keeping of the animal. … A sheep farm set up for no other purpose than to produce fleece coats would certainly be prohibited by the Bill.”
Considering that every farmer tries to get value out of every aspect of his operation, these statements are misleading and insulting.
Eventually every sheep meets its maker, even sheep raised primarily for wool. When a sheep’s life as a wool-producer is done, it will be killed and its meat and skin sold. Provided a market exists for its “leftovers”, these will be sold too, if not by the sheep farmer, then by the business which bought the carcass.
The UK Agricultural Minister doesn’t know this? He has stated, “I am not aware that sheep are skinned in the production of wool.”(6)
Unfortunately, misinformed agricultural ministers regulating farmers to death appears to be the norm these days. Shame!
Abandoning the Contradictions, Embracing the Utilitarian
The reality is that the world has few gentleman farmers, such as Stella McCartney’s father Paul, who keeps sheep just for their aesthetic value. Most farmers and consumers enjoy the beauty of sheep on the hillsides but also appreciate their utilitarian values – their wool, pelt and meat – in feeding and clothing us.
Let’s hope next season the fashion writers and consumers look at the animal-based products on the runways with new respect. Let’s hope they see the beautiful animals behind the exquisite products and abandon the contradictions, embracing the utilitarian.
Take a long look and appreciate the fruits of the labors of those folk who feed and clothe us: suede and leather from cattle bred primarily for beef and dairy products; sheepskin, felt and wools from the Karakul, Merino and Awassi. And don’t forget the lowly goat: mohair from Angora, and fine cashmere wools from the Cashmere and Zhongwei breeds.(7)
And there on the runways, stalking the grazers, will be the magnificent carnivores bred on a diet rich from the “leftovers”: mink in pearl, mahogany and black, blue iris, sapphire, violet and more; fox in silver, fawn, platinum, amazing reds and more.
It’s a stampede on the runways and walkways of this Earth with animals, in all their diverse forms, giving us sustenance and keeping us warm and fashionable.
(1) Trish Donnally, fashion editor, San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 14, 2000. For more on McCartney’s muddled thinking, see Stella McCartney loses mind over bra, Deceiver.com, Aug. 12, 2008.
(2) CNN, Sept. 6, 1999.
(3) “Losing the fur war, PETA advances attack on leather,” by Nancy Hass, NY Times News Service, in the San Diego Union Tribune, Mar. 23, 2000.
(4) See Super Duper Recyclers, FCUSA commentary, October 1999.
(5) Daily Telegraph (London), Dec. 4, 1999.
(6) Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, Order for Second Reading, May 15, 2000.
(7) For information on these and other breeds, see Breeds of Livestock, Dept. of Animal Science, Oklahoma State University.