Fur Might Finally Be Cancelled — But Red Paint Didn’t Do It
How fur went from necessity, to status symbol, to persona non grata. But in the face of sustainability, does fur have a future once again?
Some punishments fit the crime, while others spiral out of proportion. We get it, there are actions that deserve to be cancelled, but for some people, the slightest slip-up can be life-ruining. With Cancel Cancel Culture, Refinery29 will examine the implications of "cancelling" public figures whose fuckups — major or minor — were put on trial in the court of public opinion. We'll also pose the question: Is it finally time for cancel culture to be cancelled, too?
To put it simply, the past couple of years haven’t fared well for the fur industry. If this new decade is anything like the last — where everyone from Kim Kardashian West and Queen Elizabeth II to the entire state of California have denounced it — could we be on our way to seeing the eventual death of fur in fashion?
We’ve been witnessing major shifts in the way fur is perceived, without a doubt. Long considered a luxury item, one with a heavy history of controversy behind it, it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve seen so many big names in fashion drop it entirely, and at such an increasingly rapid pace. Since 2016 alone, brands such as Armani, Gucci, Prada, and Chanel have vowed to stop using it — while major retailers such as Yoox Net-A-Porter Group and FarFetch have banned the sale of it, along with Macy’s joining by 2021.
In 2018, InStyle became one of the first major fashion magazines to ban fur from its pages, and even Anna Wintour has been quoted saying that, while she supports the upcycling of vintage fur, that she thinks it’s both fashion houses’ and publications’ responsibilities to be ethical and follow best practices. Additionally, whole cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco issued fur bans, which has led to California banning the sale and manufacturing of fur entirely by 2023.
So what is fur’s place in fashion in the year 2020? Is it on its way to truly being “cancelled” — and does it even deserve to be? First, let’s take a look at what led us here.
The war on fur is nothing new. While animal rights legislation, concerning both the animal pelt and meat industries, dates back to the 1600s, the activism against fur we’re most familiar with began with the anti-sealing protests of the ’70s that fought to end commercial seal hunting, primarily to protect the baby white seal that was heavily sought out for its coat. This eventually led to full-on anti-fur activism. Once PETA was founded in 1980, anti-fur campaigns and protests became a regular part of pop culture — and were even considered to be chic in the ’90s.
Animal activists typically use shock tactics to get their points across, and horrific images of factory farms and entrapped animals have been in our brains ever since these anti-fur campaigns began. While it’s up for debate whether it’s the norm for activists to splatter fur-bearing bystanders with red paint à la that infamous Sex and the City scene (Ashley Byrne, PETA’s associate director, tells Refinery29 that while she’s heard reports of this, she’s never seen it happen), we do know that some celebrities have allegedly been victims. And, uh, who could forget the time Kim Kardashian West was flour bombed by an activist who called her a “fur hag” (you know, before she had her favorite furs remade into faux).
It hasn’t always been this way, though. Look back to a few decades before the inception of PETA, and wearing fur wasn’t always equated with animal cruelty. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It’s widely known that since ancient times, fur was used for a practical purpose: warmth. And by the time the 1900s arrived, it was also a symbol of wealth and success.
Every Hollywood starlet from the early 1900s up until the ’60s wore it. It’s hard to picture Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gábor, or Diana Ross not draped in a glamorous fur. Guys and Dolls contains a song proclaiming a woman’s emancipation from her toxic boyfriend called “Take Back Your Mink.” In 1968, one of the most popular fur campaigns to date launched: Blackglama Mink's “legend” ads, which ran through 1994 before being relaunched in 2001. These ads featured some of the biggest stars throughout the decades, including Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Naomi Campbell, and many, many more.
While the birth of PETA and the various anti-fur campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s have been considered the beginning of the decline of the fur industry, especially as some high profile designers began banning fur altogether during this time (though, that’s not to say there weren’t resurgences over the years), the entire movement seems to have been picking up major speed recently.
At the same time, the fur industry has claimed to take measures to become more ethical, ensuring that animal welfare has been taken into consideration through working with groups that promote the responsible use and keeping of animals. “The fur industry supports such organizations internationally and has worked with them over the years to establish rules and regulations that prevent the trade in endangered species and mandate standards for animal care, feeding, housing, and veterinary care,” says Keith Kaplan, the director of communications and public policy at the Fur Information Council of America. It has also made claims supporting fur trapping as an ethical means of protecting endangered wildlife and preventing disease.
Yet, animal rights activists claim that this isn’t quite the case, stating that even with these measures in place, there truly is no ethical source of fur. “Even the so-called certified systems the fur industry is peddling include cruelly locking wild animals in cages, trapping them in archaic leghold traps in the wild, and anally electrocuting them,” says P.J. Smith, the Humane Society’s director of fashion policy. “If all of this is the best the industry can offer, imagine the worst.” And according to Byrne, even fur obtained as waste from the food industry is considered a “co-product” more than a by-product, supporting another problematic industry with a history of animal cruelty and pollution.
And so the war rages on.
However, as we enter a new decade — one that boasts a more conscious generation of millennial and Gen-Z consumers and growing concerns of climate change — the fur wars have taken on a new focus that goes beyond just ethics and animal welfare: sustainability. And, well, that’s where things get a bit more complicated.
In terms of eco-consciousness, fur is “an environmental nightmare,” says Byrne. “Most fur is produced on fur farms that are factory farms, and factory farms are one of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution and emissions that cause climate change and producing toxic chemicals that leach into waterways and soil.”
With that said, faux fur has its own slew of sustainability issues. It’s typically composed of petroleum-based synthetics and plastics, which pollute our waterways with micro plastics and end up in landfills for centuries to come.
For this reason, some will argue that real fur is the more sustainable option. Over time, it begins to biodegrade, unlike its plastic alternatives. Additionally, real fur pieces tend to live a longer life before being tossed away by their owners, as faux products today tend to be much more trend focused rather than timeless. “Real, natural fur coats are typically kept for 30 years or more, passed down as meaningful heirlooms from generation to generation or sold as vintage furs worn or repurposed,” says Kaplan. “Fake fur, on the other hand, is usually kept for six years or less.”
The future is bright for animal-free options, however, as textile companies work to make faux fur a much more earth-friendly option. As Smith explains, increased demand for products that are both humane and sustainable has led to companies developing new textiles derived from recycled or plant-based materials. The latest innovation is Koba, the first bio-based faux fur by textile manufacturer Ecopel. Because Koba is derived from 37% plant-based materials, it significantly lowers the impact that standard faux fur has on the environment, reducing energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions by 30% and 63%, respectively. Officially launching this year, we can expect to see it in the upcoming collections of Stella McCartney and luxury faux fur label Maison Atia.
The same goes for faux leather, as textile manufacturers continue to innovate. “Instead of skinning cows, they’re growing collagen and cell-based leathers; they’re making leather from pineapple, mushrooms, and by-products of the wine industry,” says Smith. Piñatex, a pineapple-derived textile, has become a popular earth-friendly leather alternative. Not only has it grown in popularity among sustainable fashion brands, but it’s also made its way to the luxury market, used by the likes of Chanel and Hugo Boss.
Speaking of leather, similar arguments have been raised about it and its faux alternatives. Leather has another complicated history of animal cruelty and environmental havoc, yet we’re not seeing runway designers, or entire states, ban the use of leather, at least not at the rate that we’ve seen them ban fur.
“I suspect it comes down to cuteness,” says author, journalist, and host of the Wardrobe Crisis sustainable fashion podcast Clare Press. “Look at a picture of a fluffy Angora bunny in a cage versus one of a cow in a pen. Or a crocodile for that matter. We are hard-wired to want to protect the cute thing — fluffy animals, babies. So maybe the marketing against fur has been more effective, but it’s also low hanging fruit.”
However, even if society continues to attempt to completely “cancel” fur, we’re not going to see it disappear entirely. Tom Fitzgerald, fashion critic and one half of Tom + Lorenzo, explains: “While there’s definitely a social, cultural, and most importantly, consumer-driven move away from wanting to see fur used in fashion, there’s no denying that the luxury end of fashion is driven by wealthier, older consumers who tend to be less concerned with trends and social shifts.” And sure, maybe we won’t see animal fur used on the runways of Gucci or Versace, “but certain runways will still see plenty of fur.”
Of course, the fluffy fashion exists outside the closets of wealthy Upper East Side ladies and celebrities. While many millennial and Gen Z consumers have turned away from the use of fur, it’s not uncommon to spot a young editor wearing a fur coat from millennial-favorite brand Saks Potts during Fashion Week, while powerful influencers such as BryanBoy continue to support fur, even going as far as putting out capsule collaborations with well-known fur labels.
So, does fur really deserve to be “cancelled” the way, let’s say, plastic straws have? Well, both sides of the argument have valid points, but full-on cancelling may not necessarily yield positive results, as Céline Semaan, activist, designer, and founder of Slow Factory, explains:
“The plastic straw law, although successful in consumer awareness, remains a small gesture, almost like a collective theater, that overall creates very little impact at scale. Banning and shaming fur, whether real or fake, might reduce the amount of illegal hunting of endangered animals used to make the products, but may also damage the communities surviving off of selling the by-product of the meat industry in regions that are known for sourcing leather and furs, such as Africa, Vietnam, and China. I would like to warn against the one solution fits all type of model, and banning the production of fur completely may not solve much but create a new amount of fur wasted instead of being utilized coming from an industry that isn’t yet ready to stop existing.”
For now, the only “solution” would be for both the fur and faux fur industries to majorly step up their game in terms of being better for animals, people, and the planet, as well as ensuring that these options are accessible to all brands that wish to use them. Faux fur is improving, but not to the degree that retailers will put plant-based furs on mass-market shelves. And while animal fur will never truly be cruelty-free, discovering actually ethical sources for it should be a priority for major fur houses.
And then there’s the argument for vintage fur. If a mink coat or fox stole already exists as a hand-me-down from your grandmother or is for sale at your local vintage haunt, wouldn’t wearing these be better than buying new or buying faux? Many would argue that they are the better option for a number of reasons, though it doesn’t necessarily make them a great option. Vintage fur comes with its own complexities.
There are plenty of reasons why someone who would never buy a new animal fur item would have no problem wearing a vintage one: It’s one of the most sustainable options, a way to follow a “nothing new” model of consumption, and keeping an otherwise forgotten piece of clothing out of a landfill and in use for decades to come. “Objects that are able to maintain or grow their value over time are the ones I consider sustainable, as they survive time, trends, and usage and are able to remain relevant and useful across eras,” says Semaan. It’s also, technically, pretty ethical: As Byrne explains, purchasing a vintage fur isn’t directly funding the fur industry itself or killing new animals.
But, by wearing a vintage animal fur, would you be keeping the demand for fur fashion alive, thus promoting and glamorizing the industry and its controversial practices and the many toxic plastic alternatives pumped out by fast fashion retailers? While this is currently a much debated topic, one side of the argument is that, yes, it absolutely does. So, what is one to do?
It really comes down to your own values and views. If you want to give an old article of clothing a continued life and feel good doing so, then do so. On the other hand, if it would bother you to (likely) have to constantly explain to people that your fur is, in fact, a vintage piece, then maybe opt for another sustainable outerwear option, such as a non-animal-fur coat made of recycled materials or vintage wool. If you can’t resell Grandma’s mink with a good conscience, arguing that whoever wears it next will be perpetuating the problem, know that there are plenty of other options than simply keeping it packed away in the deepest depths of your closet. For example, Press points out that there are organizations that repurpose old furs as bedding for rescued wildlife, which is a great (and TBH, much cuter) option.
At the end of the day, no matter who steps away from fur — whether real or faux, new or old — animal pelts aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and they probably will never cease to exist entirely. There will always be someone rich and famous promoting real fur. Take Cardi B for example. Do you think she’ll drop her consistently over-the-top looks — including floor-length feathers to court appearances — anytime soon? Probably not. And even while Kim Kardashian West has actively supported the anti-fur movement in recent years, that doesn’t mean the rest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan has followed suit. And while the runways continue to move away from real fur, animal-free options will likely continue to make their way down the catwalk, keeping this look en vogue.
As consumers, all we can do is to put in the work and do our own research when it comes to our choice in sartorial purchases. When you factor in what effects an article of clothing can have on the planet, animals, people, and ourselves, would you still feel good wearing it?