Editorial: Why fur sales soared

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2000:

On page 21 of our March 2000 edition ANIMAL PEOPLE reported that U.S. retail fur sales soared 30% in 1999, according to the Fur Information Council, reaching $1.57 billion––the highest mark, by far, since 1988.

As we pointed out, $1.57 billion in 1999 dollars is still 30% less than $1.85 billion was in 1988 dollars. The fur trade remains well short of recovery––but that made no difference to millions of animals who were bred to be killed on fur farms or were trapped this past winter, as furriers gambled that fur is back, and bid raw pelt prices up to their highest level since an erroneous rumor of a comeback sparked a pelt-buying frenzy in 1994-1995.

The furriers may be wrong again. Some resurgence may have been inevitable after fur sales crashed––briefly––in late 1998, during the first few weeks after the Humane Society of the U.S. disclosed the widespread use of dog and cat fur in low-priced garments imported from Asia. On the one hand, more designers showed more fur this winter on New York runways than in any winter since 1989; on the other, the fashion industry has often guessed wrong before, and as the Melbourne Age pointed out, viewing global fashion trends from Australia, fur did not seem to return to vogue in most of the other major fashion theatres.

The most depressing aspect of the seeming U.S. fur comeback is not that one of the cruellest of industries is aggressively fighting for survival––for instance, by subsidizing literally hundreds of young designers. That was only to be expected. Likewise, it was to be expected that as the fur trade waned, it would rally a time or two.

The really depressing part is that by now there should not have been $1.57 million worth of demand left in the U.S. for fur garments. After making remarkable gains aganst fur during the late 1980s, the animal protection community for a decade squandered momentum. Cupidity, indifference, and badly chosen tactics have now put opposition to fur back where it was in 1975 and 1955. Then, too, the fur trade seemed to be on the verge of total collapse, yet recovered to record profits.

In 1955, however, there were no strong anti-fur organizations. The national humane organizations were still afraid to touch fur and even hunting as issues. They did almost nothing while hunters took over Defenders of Wildlife in 1957, founded eight years earlier to oppose leghold traps, and turned it into a “neutral” organization which not only does not oppose trapping but even encourages it when it allegedly contributes in some manner to the conservation of species. By 1959 the only anti-fur message left in visible public distribution was the Walt Disney cartoon feature 101 Dalmatians.

The animal rights movement was just getting started in 1975, and took a long time to effectively address fur. For more than a decade, anti-fur campaigns focused––as usual––on the methods of obtaining fur, e.g. leghold trapping and seal-clubbing off Atlantic Canada, even as the ranched fur sector rose to take over three-fourths of the U.S. retail market. Trapped fur sales fell after 1981, and the Atlantic Canadian offshore seal hunt was suspended for 10 years after 1984, but total fur demand continued to rise.

Only after the campaign focus shifted to “Don’t wear fur,” beginning in late 1986, did the fur trade seem worried. By 1988, most animal protection groups seemed to realize that “Don’t wear fur” was the message that worked. “Don’t wear fur” is clear, simple, and easily remembered. More narrowly focusing on one aspect or another of how fur is produced allows furriers to pander to various forms of denial, such as the pretense that fur-trapping is essential to the livelihoods of indigenous people (whose share of combined U.S. and Canadian pelt production is circa 3%) and the fiction that fur “ranching” is okay because the methods parallel those used to raise animals for meat.

The most successful anti-fur campaign ever may have been “The Shame of Fur,” deployed by the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1988, using photos of women in furs who were hiding their faces. After the fur sale collapse of 1989-1990, however, “The Shame of Fur” all but vanished. “Shame of Fur” literature and billboards were still sent to grassroots organizations, if they were willing to pay the cost of putting the materials before the public, but HSUS’ own anti-fur activity and investment seems to have been limited to sending fundraising appeals to people who were already known donors to animal protection causes.

If HSUS did any significant anti-fur outreach during the 1990s, it eluded our notice. HSUS did, to be sure, win anti-leghold trap legislation via initiative in Arizona, Massachusetts, Colorado, and California. The California victory was less than it could have been, however, because an exemption granted to nuisance wildlife trappers and trappers employed by government left most trapping done in California unaffected. Any licensed “nuisance trapper” can still use the supposedly banned leghold traps and snares. Voters, however, mistakenly believe that cruel trapping methods have been abolished.

The HSUS anti-dog-and-cat-fur campaign has meanwhile had mixed results. Instead of suppressing fur sales in general, it seems to have told buyers to avoid cheap garments and instead buy mink. It also seems to have reinforced the habit that most Americans still have of differentiating between the suffering of pets and that of “wildlife” or “livestock”: dog fur may be gauche, but coyote and fox remain acceptable to many people.

A few other organizations continued broad-spectrum anti-fur campaigning during the 1990s, but often with marked ineptitude.

Friends of Animals, for instance, had a potential winner in “The face of fur,” showing close-ups of several species commonly trapped or raised on fur farms. But FoA never amplified it effectively, while dabbling with other themes ranging from obscure to silly (does anyone remember “Furro?”), and focusing protest on reptitions of Fur Free Friday, which enjoyed greatest success in 1986-1988 as signature event of Trans-Species Unlimited.

Undergoing internal turmoil that became organizational collapse, TSU retitled itself Animal Rights Mobilization, left New York City, and faded from national visibility. FoA took over Fur Free Friday in hopes of rebuilding on the TSU foundation. But declining participation and media notice should soon have made plain that it was time for FoA and the cause to try new tactics, better suited to the times. As ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out, public opinion surveys had by 1996 established that annual protest events––in any cause––not only tend to lose steam, but tend to drain the energy out of the sponsors, even to the point of killing the momentum of the ideas they once boosted.

The “Fur Free Friday” demonstrations limp on, however, led now by the Animal Defense League, giving the anti-fur cause a distinctly shopworn look in an arena––fashion––in which novelty is everything.

People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals waged significantly sexier campaigns, but may not have made the right point. “We’d rather go naked than wear fur,” featuring seminude protesters, won headlines and air time around the world. Yet the attention came at the expense of making anti-fur activists look extreme, well beyond the socially conservative circles to which most fur garment customers apparently aspire. Further, given the choice of either going naked in midwinter or wearing fur, most people––even those otherwise disinclined to wear fur––would choose the fur, fearing the vulnerability implied by nudity (and the cold) more than whatever awkwardness they might feel about fur-wearing.

PETA made a critical strategic error when it hired numerous high-profile fashion models to pose for “rather go naked than wear fur” advertisements. Had the models felt strongly enough about the issue to waive their usual fees, their participation would have been a plus. But some, notably Naomi Campbell, did not. When the fur trade offered more money, Campbell switched sides. The easy inference was that the whole issue was money. Sports teams hire players at fancy prices to fill stadiums; PETA hired supermodels at fancy prices to get publicity. Morality didn’t seem to enter into the transaction, from either the profur or anti-fur perspective.

Organizing to fill the gap left by the failure of other national organizations to continue campaigning vigorously and astutely against fur, the Coalition Against the Fur Trade has to date seemed hellbent on repeating every mistake already made by others, while inventing more. CAFT has effectively recruited young people to participate in public protest, but early campaigns mainly targeted fur stores in the south and southwest, well outside the major markets. More recently, CAFT has put people on the streets in northern and northeastern cities. Still, the typical CAFT event accomplishes little beyond getting activists arrested, fingerprinted, photographed, and on public record as troublemakers. CAFT compounds that mistake by applauding mink releases from fur farms [mink who are not promptly recaptured by the farmers or killed by nuisance wildlife trappers usually starve, as they don’t know how to hunt well and few habitats can support a sudden large influx of predators], arsons of fur stores, and other outlaw tactics which, in net effect, amplify the message that people who oppose fur are––at best––fringe elements, not representative of the mainstream.

Fur is for slobs

The fur trade is not invulnerable. Anti-fur campaigners showed more than a decade ago that it can be beaten, by directly attacking the reasons why people buy fur, and eschewing tactics which do not contribute to the strength of the message.

To regain momentum, those who would oppose fur-wearing effectively would do well to study the socio-demographic profile and psychology of fur customers. A good place to start would be ”My Life In Furs,” by Jessica Willis, in The New York Press of January 12-18, 2000. Unabashedly vulgar, Willis relishes the notion that fur “makes a woman look fierce, like she’s been around [and] had to get way the hell around in order to get that thing on her back.” Equating possession of fur with possession of firearms, she admires fur-wearing “snarling divas,” scorning anti-fur activists as losers.

Willis’ tirade seems to cloak deep insecurity and a weak self-image. One could respond to it with a campaign which perforates the macho armor she imagines fur to be: “How is a fur coat like an oyster? What’s inside is cold and slimy. Oysters don’t make anyone sexier. Neither does fur. When you want to be sexy, wear your own skin.”

Fur-wearing is a statement of self-image. When protest tactics reinforce the tough self-image that the fur-wearers want, it is time to change tactics.

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