The New Fashion Initiative

Skin in the Game: A History of Concern and Industry Deception

This post is part two in a four-part series written by Joshua Katcher – fashion designer, educator, and author of the award-winning book Fashion Animals. In this series, Katcher examines how the fur and leather debate became a debate about plastic. Don’t forget to check out part one!

How did plastic become the primary focus of the debate around replacing fur and leather when the data shows that plastic is not the single worst material for the environment? And how did concerns for torturing and killing animals get deemed sentimental and misguided or left out of the mainstream sustainable fashion conversation almost entirely? 

Answering those questions isn’t easy, but we can start by going back a couple hundred years. Advertisements for “fur and leather substitutes for humanitarians” and shoes that were “built entirely of vegetable substance and contain no animal matter whatever” appeared regularly in a London magazine between 1899 and 1913. Samples, from synthetic sealskin coats and imitation reindeer gloves to artificial leather shoes, faux karakul hats, and bristle-based substitutes for egret feather plumes, were on display at the Humane Dress League’s London headquarters over 100 years ago. Even before that was “Gunby’s artificial leather,” invented in 1824. This was essentially any cloth coated in boiled linseed oil, lampblack, white lead, and pipe-clay. Similarly, a patent for “artificial leather,” filed with the United States Patent Office in 1858 by Samuel Whitemarsh of Boston, described a woven cotton coated in saturated linseed oil and burnt umber. These fauxs sent leather industry reps into a tizzy. In 1915, an editor from the Leather Manufacturers Association called these innovations “a misnomer and a fallacy.”

It turns out that the pursuit of cruelty-free fashion is nothing new. “For the use of furs, skins, and murdered millinery, there is in these days of substitutionary and supplemental manufacture no necessity and therefore no adequate justification,” read an 1899 excerpt from Herald of the Golden Age. Back then they called it “hygenic” or “humanitarian” fashion. Today, we call it vegan fashion. The goal is the same as the Humane Dress League described in 1910: to end the “needless and cruel slaughter of animals and birds in order to procure skins, furs, and feathers for use as dress materials.”

Criticism of animal cruelty in fashion is also not just a product of the 1990s anti-fur movement. Josephine Redding, Vogue’s first editor-in-chief (who was responsible for the name Vogue), wrote a column called Concerning Animals from 1900-1910. In it, Redding unapologetically confronted the fashion industry for hunting animals to extinction for skins, furs and feathers, or “trappers skin[ning] animals alive and also leav[ing] them to suffer for days from agonizing wounds and hunger and thirst.” Celebrities of the day like actress Minnie Maddern Fiske formed Bands of Mercy to conduct anti-cruelty education internationally. Vogue reported on her work, quoting an activist pamphlet of the time called, “The Cost of a Skin,” when they printed “[furs] are no more essential to human welfare than toothpicks or diamonds. Doing without them may cause inconvenience sometimes, but it cannot cause anything worse… I cannot express myself when I get to thinking about these things, these terrible crimes that man is inflicting year after year on millions of his poor, helpless brothers.” And Vogue was certainly ahead of it’s time when in 1908, it argued that “animals have reflective capacity which qualifies them to be classed as reasoning beings… animals have intellect, as have men.”

FUR INDUSTRY DECEPTION

In recent years I’ve seen how the fur industry has used its money and influence to divert attention away from a problem they cannot fix: over 100,000,000 animals suffer and die specifically for fur every year. Most of them languish in small wire cages on fur factory farms and are subjected to industry-standard killing methods like anal-electrocution, bludgeoning and gassing. For companies that source fur from trapped animals (about 15 percent of fur on the market), animals like coyotes have their paws and legs crushed in steel jaw traps where they sometimes struggle for days until the trapper returns to shoot, bludgeon, drown, or asphyxiate them. So when a wave of anti-fur legislation began building momentum in the United States while major luxury brands from Gucci to Versache switched to superior innovations in faux-fur and retailers from Net-A-Porter to Bloomingdales, like dominoes, began adopting fur-free policies, powerful fur industry trade groups strategized quickly to deceive and deflect. 

In 2019, the Fur Information Council of America paid people to testify against a fur ban at a California hearing. Fur industry reps instructed people to lie to New York City council members about where they lived. The fur industry claims that bans on sales of new fur are a racist attack on Black culture (an argument to which the irony of an industry mostly owned by and benefitting white Europeans is not lost). That same year, the fur industry spent almost $1 million on lobbyists and organizers in NYC alone. The white employees of some of these organizers were photographed and called out by activists like Jabari Brisport of Voters for Animals Rights and Omowale Adewale of Black Veg Fest as they thrust fake homemade posters opposing the fur ban into the hands of Black congregants from Harlem. Rev. Johnnie Green bussed congregants to City Hall to stage a protest with the promise of a chance to win a $250 American Express gift card. The Intercept and the New York Daily News reported on all of this fur industry astroturfing, yet many politicians are still nervous about supporting something being marketed as racist. 

I asked Kimberly Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Ryerson University, whether the wearing of fur coats is especially important for the black community, as fur industry lobbyists and Rev. Green have argued.

“Pastor Green pushed an outdated narrative that fur provides a sentimental value within the community – a narrative applicable to the Baby Boom generation (and older) that relies upon wearing fur coats and accessories to signal upward social mobility and respectability,” she explained. “This narrative needs to be put to rest. It represents one of the ways that Black, traditional religious rhetoric has not been useful when it comes to serving the new generation’s best interests politically.”

I also spoke with Unique Vance and Aaron Luxur to get their take on this issue. Unique, who is a slow-fashion advocate and works at the Center for Biological Diversity said, “The fur industry had to pay Black people to protest the ban and incite false claims of racism to boost their case. But the vast majority of us support the ban.” She added, “The notion that a fur ban would be racist is utterly ridiculous. The fur industry has targeted poor Black people to use as props on the wrong side of the fight for justice.”

Luxur, a fashion designer based in Los Angeles agreed, stating, “We cannot separate our work for climate justice or ethical apparel from that of animal rights. We’re passionate about sustainable fashion and want to create a world where animals aren’t used as status symbols or adornment – especially when those systems and symbols are a reinforcement or reflections of white supremacy”.

Vance, along with Luxur, are social justice advocates who co-founded Vegan Voices of Color (VVOC), highlighting the stories of Black and Indigenous People of Color. They take an intersectional approach to their activism, stating that defending animals is “intricately tied to our struggle for social justice and total liberation”. They agree that “we can work toward eco-conscious designs that omit the furs and skins of our beautiful fellow earthlings”. 

In addition to weaponizing race, the fur industry successfully sold the idea to journalists and social media influencers that it’s not really about animal cruelty. Instead, the industry saw an opportunity to position themselves as environmental heroes in a two-sided battle between fake plastic fur and natural, biodegradable fur. The International Fur Federation (IFF) feigned concern for the environment when they ran billboards in Times Square with an image of a faux-fur clad model leaving a trail of oil-slick and the slogan, “Fake fur is plastic. Fake fur harms oceans.” This built upon years of propaganda aligning fur with words like “natural,” “biodegradable,” and “sustainable” – claims they’ve actually been punished for by the French Board of Advertising Ethics (JDP). A 2018 fur advertising campaign, “Natural Wonder: Sustainable, Ethical and Irresistible Fur” was denounced by the IFF as “misleading,” and “not supported by the data.” 

The fur industry has successfully taken a growing disdain for cheap, plentiful, single-use plastic and drawn a line from that directly to faux fur. For eco-minded folks, the debate seemed muddied. “Which was worse,” countless journalists and fashion content creators asked their readers (often prompted by industry press releases), “natural fur or plastic?” as if these were the only two possible options. 

It’s important to note that the fur industry stands firmly behind plenty of brands that use synthetics, while simultaneously decrying those same materials when they are in the form of faux fur. Companies like Moncler and Nobis’ expensive fox fur or coyote-trimmed coats are made with lacquered-nylon or nylon-blend shells. The ubiquitous coyote-trimmed Canada Goose uniform is lined with nylon, and the shell contains polyester. Even pricey fur brands like Dennis Basso use polyester to line their full-length mink coats. Thread is often synthetic, as are brand labels, interlining, fusible, pocketing, and even zipper tape and elastic waistbands, or rib-knit cuffs or collars. Then, there’s the massive amounts of plastic bags and cheap hangers used at garment factories to protect coats during manufacture and transport. Ever further up the supply chain is the fossil fuel-dependent factory farms leeching excess nitrogen and phosphorus into aquatic systems, resulting in toxic eutrophication. After animals are killed and skinned, their pelts are treated with carcinogenic formaldehyde, hexavalent chrome, alkylphenol ethoxylates, azo dyes, chlorinated phenols (PCPs), and other petrochemical components that process and preserve them so they look pretty and don’t rot. A 2014 study even found traces of these dangerous chemicals on fur trims in Italy intended for children. Many expensive furs also require energy-intensive refrigeration during warm months. A 2013 Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on mink fur and faux fur was conducted by Dutch research organization, CE Delft. They examined manufacturing, cold storage, cleaning, and life of the garments, and found that faux fur is almost five times less harmful than mink. The overall conclusions of the LCA were: compared with other textiles, fur has a higher impact on the environment per kg in 17 of the 18 environmental categories, including climate change, eutrophication and toxic emissions.” 

The fur industry’s own study on biodegradability showed that only a modest fraction of the “real” furs used for the experiment biodegraded (from 6.6 percent to 25.8 percent ). The “real” fur processed with chemical dyes almost didn’t biodegrade at all. But where does the fur industry imagine furs would end up biodegrading anyway? If mink or fox fur is thrown away and ends up in a landfill, like most things, it will not biodegrade there. Even if a system existed to compost fur (which there does not – but there is a system to recycle faux fur), or fur wearers threw their old coyote hood-lining, mink stole, or fox earmuffs into their backyard compost piles, it could negatively impact an otherwise healthy ecosystem due to the presence of all the chemicals mentioned above used to process those pelts. 

The use of faux furs in general certainly isn’t exceeding the production of synthetic athletic sneakers, yoga pants, carpets or even plush toys, yet the fur industry has managed to take the anti-plastic and microfiber zeitgeist and focus it onto a very small and somewhat unrelated target (about 0.1 percent of the 80 billion garments produced annually), but a target that is threatening their bottom line nonetheless. If the fur industry was truly concerned with the use of synthetics or plastics, they wouldn’t be singling out faux fur – they’d stop using synthetics in their own supply chains. It’s clear this is about protecting their profits and the worldview that animals are “gifts of nature” intended for our use, as the greenwashing furisgreen.com website declares.

Essentially, the fur industry correlated microfiber pollution with faux fur. It’s helpful to know that most faux furs get washed about once a year, typically with instructions to hand-wash or use cold water (and faux leather items like shoes and bags almost never get washed). The idea that microfibers from these items are making their way into aquatic ecosystems is blown out of proportion, especially in comparison to the fur industry’s very real impacts on aquatic ecosystems from being a top polluter of heavy metals to toxic eutrophication from fur factory farm runoff. The real culprit of microfiber pollution is fast fashion and frequently washed synthetic items like polyester sportswear and fleece.

What the fur industry has done is relentlessly divert the conversation from animal cruelty and rationalize fur factory farming by exploiting popular concerns about plastic pollution and the public’s lack of knowledge about fashion supply chains. In other words, the only way to claim that the fur industry is “natural” is if you don’t ask how everything is actually made, and as long as their processes remain a total fantasy. 

Stay tuned as we continue to explore this issue!