PJ Smith is the director of fashion policy for the Humane Society of the United States. He works with leading fashion companies—including Gucci, Prada, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Michael Kors, Farfetch, Armani, and InStyle magazine—to set policies that have reformed apparel supply chains and revolutionized the way the fashion industry views animals. His work was instrumental in the passage of the federal Truth in Fur Labeling Act, ensuring clear and proper labeling for all fur products sold in the U.S., and Assembly Bill 44, making California the first state in the nation to ban fur sales.
As the fashion sector faces uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19, it’s important to reflect on the industry’s role in the potential spread of disease and how it can come together to avoid future pandemics. An important part of the equation? Ending the fur trade.
The COVID-19 outbreak, in Wuhan, China, has been linked to live animal markets, also known as “wet markets,” where wildlife are kept and slaughtered on-site, creating a cesspool of animal waste, saliva, and blood that humans can easily come into contact with. While these markets include many wildlife species, used for almost everything from medicine to food, one sector of the Chinese wildlife trade is larger than all others combined: According to a 2016 report released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, 75% of China’s wildlife trade is dominated by fur production — and China is the world’s largest producer of fur products.
Animals — including raccoon dogs, foxes, and mink — are common sights at these markets, and all are potential intermediate hosts for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Time after time, we’ve been warned about the link between infectious diseases and animals kept in crowded, filthy, stressful conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 likely originated in bats before being transmitted to a mammal or bird and then to humans. In 2002, SARS, also caused by a coronavirus, originated from civets whose glandular secretions are commonly used by the perfume industry. In 2009, swine flu originated in factory-farmed pigs. And in 2012, the MERS outbreak transmitted via camels. In fact, an estimated 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (spread from non-human animals to humans) — and COVID-19 is no different.
Last week, mink on two fur farms in the epicenter of the Netherlands outbreak tested positive for COVID-19 after showing symptoms, including difficulty breathing, and experiencing higher death rates. Once the third-largest fur farming country in the world, the Netherlands banned fur production in 2013 with an 11-year phaseout. But with this latest development, there’s growing urgency to speed up the process and ban fur farming now.
Similar to wildlife markets, fur factory farms are not sanitary or humane. They are intensive confinement operations where undomesticated mink, raccoon dogs, and foxes are restricted for their entire lives unable to act out even their most basic natural instincts like swimming, running, or digging. These conditions can create psychological disorders, which cause the animals to constantly pace around the boundaries of their cramped cages and can lead to self-mutilation and cannibalism. And at the end of their short lives, the animals are either anally electrocuted, gassed, or beaten to death. Some animals are even skinned while still alive.
With human workers added to the mix, this creates the perfect setting for the beginning of another pandemic.
According to Christian Drosten, Germany’s leading COVID-19 expert, SARS “virus was found in civet cats, but also in raccoon dogs – something the media overlooked. Raccoon dogs are a massive industry in China, where they are bred on farms and caught in the wild for their fur. If somebody gave me a few hundred thousand bucks and free access to China to find the source of the virus, I would look in places where raccoon dogs are bred.”
Last month, Humane Society International released a paper titled Wildlife Markets and COVID-19, which calls for “immediate action to ban wildlife trade, transport and consumption for any purpose including food, medicine, pets or fur – particularly mammals and birds which are known to contract coronaviruses – in order to address the threat they pose to public health in addition to animal welfare and species conservation.”
Even though China introduced a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals for consumption in late January, animals used for their fur are exempt.
Fortunately, the fashion industry is already taking steps to move away from fur apparel and transition to other materials that are more humane and better for the environment. So far, Gucci, Prada, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Chanel, Michael Kors, Armani, Versace, Farfetch, Net-a-Porter, Burberry, among others, have announced fur-free policies. And last year, California became the first state in the U.S. to ban fur sales, which will bolster the demand for sustainable and innovative alternatives. Norway, Belgium, United Kingdom, and Austria have phased out fur production, and India ended fur imports in 2017.
Taking wild animals from their natural habitats and forcing them to live in cages is a recipe for extreme suffering. But for those unconcerned with the toll the fur industry takes on these animals, perhaps learning that there can be a human toll — that these farms could create conditions that increase the spread of COVID-19 and future pandemics — will finally convince them that this abuse needs to end.
With stylish alternatives available right now that can keep us warm and improve our impact on the world, it’s clear that fur is one item that ought to become a thing of the past—for the sake of animals as well as future generations of humans.