Are You A Hypocrite When It Comes To Fur?

Before recently bouncing down the runways of Marc Jacobs, Thakoon, Altuzarra, and Alexander McQueen, fur has been freshly reinterpreted into edgy silhouettes and colors — in other words, not your Upper East Side dame's mink. The number of fuzzy accessories available online (think purses and collars) has almost doubled in the past year. That comeback is bound to irk animal-lovers everywhere, which may not be entirely fair — how many of us pause before purchasing leather? 

When Lady Gaga had to go on the defensive this year for wearing a fur coat, she said, “I am choosing not to comment on whether or not the furs I purchase are faux fur pile or real because I would think it hypocritical not to acknowledge the python, ostrich, cow hide, leather, lamb, alligator, 'kermit,' and not to mention meat, that I have already worn.” Yes, little monsters, leather is made from animals, too   

So, why are the two often treated so differently? “Leather is such a ubiquitous product that it is almost invisible as an ethical transgression,” Professor Marylyn Carrigan of Coventry University in England, who specializes in research on consumer ethics, said in an email. “Further, we eat meat, so for some consumers it is acceptable to use the ‘byproduct’ of eating animals.” She also pointed out the importance convenience plays in our decision-making. “It seems easy to give up fur on a moderate budget, but more difficult to give up wearing leather.” 

Katherine Schafler, a psychiatrist in NYC whose clientele includes high-powered women, says, “It’s provocative to wear fur. There is something ostentatious about it; it’s a wealth statement. Whereas with leather, it’s more socially acceptable to not notice the leather binding in your Isabel Marant ankle boots.” Which is to say, some folks would rather not give so much thought to the issue of leather versus fur. “People minimize their choices,” Schafler says, “because they realize that if they had to choose one or the other side, it would be too extreme.” In other words, it’s easier to explain why leather is just not the same as fur, than it is to become a vegan.

The biggest reason why Carrigan says people continue to buy leather while trash-talking fur is naïveté. “People often make assumptions about the responsibility of products, i.e. that somebody somewhere up the supply chain is looking after the ethics for them,” she says. Spoiler alert: That's not really the case. It’s time to look the subject of leather versus fur with as much objectivity as possible. Keep reading, as we unpack some of the most common (and misguided) assumptions about fur.

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Argument #1: The production of fur is cruel.
There’s no refuting the video evidence of animal cruelty perpetrated by the fur industry. It’s a problem. Unfortunately, this sort of cruelty isn’t limited to fur production. Stella McCartney refuses to use leather in her designs, and she shows you why in this graphic video for PETA. On the other hand, minks in Denmark have a quite tolerable life and humane death. This video of a Denmark fur farm shows the minks being gassed in a quick and painless procedure after being raised in spacious cages. Not to say that spacious cages are an equivalent to running around in the wild and swimming in rivers, mind you, but many pigs in the U.S. could only dream of such a luxurious lifestyle. Of course, not all fur farms adhere to this standard. One in Montreal has been a repeat offender when it comes to animal cruelty.

If you have coyote around your face or a super-soft beaver coat, it was likely trapped after a lifetime running free through the wilds of the north. But, problems arise here, too. Leg-hold traps are considered so cruel that fur from animals trapped using them is banned in the EU. Those traps are still overwhelmingly used in Russia and North America.

That’s all to say that without more information, you can’t be sure that your leather jacket involves more or less cruelty than a fur coat. “The furs I use are potentially more ethical than the leathers,” points out Titania Inglis, a New York City-based designer who produces her clothing as sustainably as possible. “I don't know much about the farms that my leathers come from. The tanneries use lower-impact methods, but I don't have any information about how the animals themselves are raised.”

That’s normal. Pick up most any leather fashion piece or accessory, and there is no information about where the leather is from or what animal it came from, just where the item was made. Fur garments, on the other hand, are quite specific about their origin: There's rabbit and lamb from China or Spain, mink and calf hair from Italy, coyote from the U.S., goat hair from South Africa, mink from Denmark and Canada, and fox from Finland. (Fur production is banned in the EU.) Based on that, you can make an educated guess.
Argument #2: Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry.
Here in America, leather is one of several byproducts of the cattle industry. (You might find this list of cattle byproducts and their uses either fascinating or horrifying, depending on whether or not you’re a vegan.) Anti-fur advocates like to say that leather is a "co-product" of the beef industry and very valuable in itself, thus encouraging the raising and slaughtering of cattle. A representative from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association disagreed, saying in a frank phone conversation that it wouldn’t be worth it to raise a cow just for leather, at least in the U.S. where Cattle ranchers and farmers earn only about $100 per animal — or approximately 4.5% of the total value of the animal — from the sale of the hide. If you ever eat beef, lamb, or veal, and you are a nose-to-tail person, by all means, buy leather products.

Fur, on the other hand, is sometimes a byproduct of food, and sometimes not. In China, where almost all of the rabbit-fur fashion originates, rabbit heads are a delicacy, so much so that they’re being imported from France because demand outpaces supply. Rabbit is also touted as an environmentally friendly protein source for developing countries. In Finland, all parts of the mink are used. (Vegans: You might want to refrain from riding the bus in Aarhus, Denmark.) Trappers aren’t above grilling up coyotes, either. In summary, cows are going to continue to be raised and killed whether or not you buy leather accessories. Rabbits are going to continue to be killed in China, whether you pick up those fuzzy pink fur earrings or not. But, if you ditch more expensive types of fur, you may actually save the lives of some coyotes and foxes.
Argument #3: Leather is practical, while fur is frivolous.
We know some Eastern Europeans who would vehemently disagree with you on this one. Since before the beginning of recorded history, fur has been the best option for surviving the icy winter up north. Canada Goose defends its coyote-fur hoods in part by saying it’s a superior technical material than faux fur, which is true: Wearing a fur coat in sub-zero weather is like walking around inside a heated apartment. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

If fur really is necessary for survival in extreme weather, why don't Patagonia or North Face use it in their extreme-weather gear? Some might prefer the look of a fur coat to a puffy one, but when debating the question of survival, that’s a non sequitur. To muddy the waters even further, the down used in puffy coats isn’t without its own problems; it is sometimes live-plucked from geese. (This also depends on where the down is sourced, so do your homework if this is a concern.)

Unlike fur, which you might encounter only during the winter and on just a few accessories, leather is almost essential to making comfortable shoes, high-quality purses, and long-lasting belts. Even vegans will acknowledge the tradeoffs in forgoing leather for alternatives, which often involve vinyl, PVC, or other low-quality materials that are quicker to fail or degrade. While more and more brands are popping up to serve the need, including Freedom of Animals, Crie de Coeur, and Beyond Skin, committing to a leather-free wardrobe is definitely more work.

Argument #4: Cute animals
!
This is perhaps the biggest and simultaneously weakest argument for hating on fur. It can be hard to explain away your rabbit-fur vest to your friend who owns a pet bunny, or come to terms with the fact that a fur scarf feels just like wrapping your kitty cat around your neck. Animal advocates are happy to use your biases for things with cute faces to get fur off the market. 

But, if man's best friend holds a special place in your heart, you’ll be upset to learn that your leather gloves could be made from Chinese domesticated dogs, which are bludgeoned and thrown into piles. 

It’s worth asking: Should the life of a bunny, mink, or coyote be more valuable than the life of a cow or pig, just because it’s super fuzzy and cute? That’s a philosophical question we’ll let you ponder. 
Bonus section: The environmental impact.
Leather-lovers, this is where we make life really difficult for you. The fur industry admits that fur is treated with formaldehyde (as is your hair when you get it dyed or straightened) to ensure it doesn’t decompose, but other than that, fur is touted as a renewable, natural resource. In fact, environmental advocates can’t seem to decide whether faux fur or real fur is more eco-friendly. On the other hand, Bangladesh, which exports more than $600 million in tanned leather each year, is home to notoriously toxic tanneries, which discharge their cancer-causing effluent right into waterways. It’s reportedly a living hell for workers there. (Two words: chrome holes.) What about human cruelty in fashion?

It’s not all bad for the leather industry. With some searching, you can find vegetable-tanned leather, and many countries like the U.S. and Italy have much higher (though not perfect) standards for dealing with the waste from chromium tanning. The sad truth is, without labeling, you often have no idea whether or not your shoes contributed to poisoning a waterway in China, India, or Bangladesh. 
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Okay, now what?
You might be wondering if your only options are to accept that you are an awful human being, or go vegan. Well, if you believe killing animals for human use is never okay, then yes, go vegan. But, there are some other options. Consider it the grass-fed approach to fur and leather: Only wear it if you know where it comes from. 

Some companies, like Timberland, have their tanneries certified. Gudren Sjödén offers vegetable-tanned leather leggings made from the byproduct of lamb production in the Faroe Islands. The Sway offers jackets and purses made from upcycled luxury leather. It’s not ready commercially yet, but a Missouri start-up is working on developing cultured leather, which is grown in a lab. It would still require tanning, but would skip right over the resource-intensive process of raising and then killing animals.

For fur, you could try wearing nutria, an unusually large invasive rodent that is tearing up the Louisiana wetlands. Or, shop Petite Mort by Pamela Paquin, who only uses roadkill in her designs. It’s hard to argue with fur and leather shoes by Brother Vellies; they’re made from the springbok, an overpopulated animal from Africa which is also used for food.

On the high end, Titania Inglis offers fur fashion from reindeer raised for their meat by the nomadic Sami tribes of Lapland. These hides are made in Europe using a low-impact, eco-tanning process, then sewn into made-to-order jackets in NYC. “I was drawn to the challenge of finding a way to incorporate it thoughtfully in my own collection by the fact that so many of my friends were craving fur,” Inglis says. “I only overcame my own instinctive revulsion at the idea by discovering an importer of beautiful, sustainably produced hides from highly ethical sources.” 

You might consider that oxymoronic, but at least she’s making a rational decision after considering all the facts. We could all stand to do that a bit more with our fashion choices.   
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