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November 2003
The One That (Almost) Got Away

Why the Fur Trade is Coming Back and What We Can Do About It
By Norm Phelps


The campaign against fur ought to be a slam-dunk. Fur is demonstrably, absolutely unnecessary. There are a multitude of synthetic fibers that are warmer than fur, just as comfortable, and don’t rot in a rainstorm. Even better, they don’t smell up your house and attract bugs if you forget to put them in cold storage during the summer. And if a cab sprays you with dirty slush as it accelerates past your upraised hand, you’ll have one less thing to be upset about—the synthetics can withstand pretty much any glop that New York City traffic can baptize you with. There isn’t even a fashion benefit to fur. Faux fur can be virtually indistinguishable from sable, fox, mink, shearling, and other popular furs. In fact, dead animal fur has only one advantage over faux: it is a lot more expensive, which makes it irresistible to people whose self-esteem depends on other people knowing that they spend obscenely large sums of money for no better reason than to impress the kind of people who are impressed by people who spend obscenely large sums of money for no better reason than to…well, you get the idea.

Landmines in America
Fur is as cruel as it is frivolous. About 15 percent of the fur sold on the world market comes from wild animals, mostly in the U.S., Canada, and Russia. Intended victims suffer a prolonged, agonizing death, but the traps used on them are indiscriminate—they attack anyone and everyone who steps on them. The first resident of The Fund for Animals’ Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary was a cat who crawled to the ranch house dragging a steel jaw trap on her leg. She survived and lived a long, happy life, but the leg had to be amputated. Michael Markarian, president of The Fund, calls traps “the landmines of the American outdoors.” Trapping is time and labor intensive and delivers a product of unpredictable quality and quantity, which is why 85 percent of furs on the world market come from farmed animals.

Ranches of Nightmares
Fur farmers like to call their operations “ranches,” hoping to conjure in the public mind fantasies of happy animals roaming an open range. In reality, farmed fur-bearing animals live their entire lives crowded together in wire pens. No matter how many generations have been captive bred, their nature is to roam free over a wide territory. Unable to fulfill their innate needs, they literally go insane, spending their days and nights behaving neurotically, with constant head bobbing, endless, futile pacing, and self-mutilation—a nightmare that ends only with death.

A Rebounding Market
Retail fur sales in the U.S. peaked in 1987 at $1.8 billion; and by 1991, had dropped to $1.1 billion, largely because of efforts by animal rights organizations to educate the public about the cruelty of fur. In the mid-90s, however, the fur industry began turning a corner, and by 2002 sales had rebounded to a 15-year high of $1.7 billion. From their low point in 1991, retail sales have climbed 54 percent.

The reason for the rebound was a radical change in strategy by the fur industry. Instead of emphasizing full-length coats (“your grandmother’s fur coat,” as the industry now disdainfully refers to them in advertising aimed at young, hip consumers), the focus is now on trim and accessories: there are fur-lined jackets, fur-lined boots, fur collars, cuffs, and purses, even fur-trimmed bikinis and sunglasses! And now that harmless-appearing trim has accustomed the public to the idea of wearing fur, boutiques catering to young shoppers are featuring fur jackets by popular designers. Meanwhile, the decline in the sale of full-length coats to women is softened by their popularity with men, a fashion made popular by hip-hop icons for whom conspicuous consumption is a status symbol.

Trim and accessories have not only helped fur to shed its image of “cruelty for vanity,” they have brought fur within the reach of consumers on a budget, and are now featured by major outlets shopped by middle America, such as Burlington Coat Factory and J. C. Penney. According to the Fur Information Council of America, an industry trade group, fur trim now accounts for $500 million dollars in retail sales annually, or about 29 percent of the industry total. But that number grossly underestimates fur trim’s share of the retail market.

When the fur industry announces sales figures, it lumps goods and services together—sales of new garments, storage costs, and the costs of garment repair and garment remodeling. Analysts believe that the retail sale of new full fur garments accounts for only 60 percent of the total. Since essentially all of the ancillary costs—cold storage, repair, etc.—are borne by owners of full fur garments, total retail sales of new fur amounted to $1.2 million, of which $720 million was for full fur garments and $500 million for trim and accessories. Therefore, trim and accessories accounted for just over 40 percent of all retail sales of new fur.

Countering the Counterattack
This new strategy by the purveyors of cruelty for fashion calls for a new strategy by the activist community. In the 1990s, we thought that fur was dead, figuratively as well as literally. Confident that we had won, we turned our attention to other issues. The first thing we have to do now is get the word out to grassroots activists everywhere that fur is sneaking past our radar camouflaged as trim on innocuous-looking cloth and synthetic garments.

Next, we have to make the public understand that those innocent appearing bits of trim come from animal suffering and death. Fur is fur, and it is cruelty for vanity whether it is a full-length mink coat or a synthetic bomber jacket with fur collar and cuffs. The most popular trim is fox fur, and an estimated 90 percent of the six million foxes killed worldwide for fur are killed to make trim. We have to make trim and accessories the focus of a reinvigorated campaign against the cruelty of fur. If the market for fur trim collapses the way the market for full-length furs collapsed a dozen years ago, millions of lives will be saved every year, and the fur industry will suffer a blow from which it will be hard put to recover.

Our challenge today is to recapture the energy of the anti-fur campaigns of 15 years ago. All across the country, animal rights groups are taking action to expose the new face of fur as just one more mask for cruelty. PETA has two coordinators in New York working on fur campaigns. The Fund for Animals’ “Neiman Carcass” campaign, carried out in cooperation with grassroots groups around the country, is aimed at making the upscale Neiman Marcus department store chain a fur-free zone from Beverly Hills to White Plains. The Animal Protection Institute, In Defense of Animals, The Humane Society of the United States, and a host of groups too numerous to name are hard at work regaining the ground lost during the 90s.

As I write this near the end of October, activists are gearing up for Fur-Free Friday demonstrations from coast to coast. The Fund for Animals is preparing to launch the largest anti-fur advertising blitz in recent memory, targeting cable stations such as MTV, VH1, E!, TNT, Oxygen, and Lifetime; magazines such as The New Yorker and Gotham; theater playbills from Broadway to Lincoln Center; and newspaper ads and posters on the campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Fur is back, but so is the animal protection community, and we all need to get out and prove that in the United States of America, compassion is still the fashion.

Norm Phelps is a program coordinator at The Fund for Animals, He can be reached at For information about The Fund’s “Neiman Carcass” campaign, or to get leaflets or door hangers, visit or contact Pierre Grzybowski at or (301) 585-2591, ext. 204.


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