Bear Necessities

A vintage coat leads ISOBEL PRITCHARD to question: is it ever okay to wear fur?

fur fur industry Haribo mink vegan vegetarian

I admit it. I gave in to a massive craving for gummy bears this August. And yes I enjoyed the gelatin-y goodness, almost as much as a bacon sandwich. Apart from this minor Haribo-related crime, I would consider myself a fairly ethically conscious vegetarian. The issue of fur always seemed fairly clear cut to me.  As it does to 93% of the population.  I did not see the glamour of having a dead rodent draped around my neck. Whilst undoubtedly it would provide a practical advantage of warmth – since I’m not an Inuit; and since I live in England, not Alaska – this did not provide a convincing argument. A woolly jumper will do just fine, thanks. 

And yet, as if from nowhere, temptation appeared in my happy, harmonious vegetarian Eden, in the shape of a vintage mink coat at a cut price. The prospect of an outdoor party on a chilly night with a strapless dress. Ethical dilemma hit. My ‘part-time vegan’ friend boasts a beautiful fur coat. Her reasoning: ‘It’s been dead for 60 years already, I’m only recycling’. She also pointed out that the use of chemicals in the production of faux fur is damaging for the environment. By this reasoning could I justify the purchase? Could I remain snug all evening and secure in my conscience? Another friend, from good farming stock, had no qualms in advising me to buy it; ‘Mink are pests’, he told me. But then he would have no qualms about stuffing a beef steak down my throat either.

Recently, even the Ministry of Defense faced criticism for using bearskin for the Queen’s Guards’ caps. Coronation Street’s Kate Ford got naked for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as part of a ‘bare skin; not bear skin’ campaign. When questioned, Ford said, ‘I think it’s despicable of the Ministry of Defense to use taxpayers’ money to fund this cruelty overseas when there are synthetic furs available.’ Does she have a point? 

It is a tricky one. Surely in buying even a second hand coat I would be buying into a fashion item. Whilst of course I don’t imagine for one second that my clothing choices would immediately be copied by my mass of fans and followers, the very nature of ‘fashion’ is that it spreads. We buy into a trend and in doing so we perpetuate a trend. In wearing the fur coat, I would surely be promoting the fur industry. An industry which still kills animals for our vanities.  My vanity. But is this industry really so bad? Clearly it’s been given an incredibly bad press by pressure groups and campaigners.  The British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) paint a different picture of themselves (well, they would really). With the slogan: ‘Fur – the natural, responsible choice’, they claim to meet accepted animal welfare standards, condemn animal cruelty and not to trade in endangered species. So is it really that different from other forms of farming? I’m not convinced.  

Whilst the BFTA claims to represent 95% of the British fur trade, what about the other 5%? Aside from this seemingly insignificant proportion, there are bigger questions about whether they can regulate this globalized market which has made it impossible to know where these products come from. China supplies more than half the fur of the USA. Chinese fur farms are unregulated. Gruesome stories emerge from these farms; tales of animals being skinned alive. Undercover investigators from the Swiss Animal Federation concluded, ‘Conditions on Chinese fur farms make a mockery of the most elementary animal welfare standards. In their lives and their unspeakable deaths, these animals have been denied even the simplest acts of kindness.’  Fur farming has received further criticism of cruelty due to practices of anal and genital electrocution, inadequate shelter and malnutrition. 

The University of Michigan has also just discovered that the process of producing a real fur coat in fact uses twenty times more energy than the faux fur version.  Any ‘green’ excuse for my purchase withered before my eyes like a damp squib. As I gazed longingly at the coat, I knew that it could never be mine. It would be hypocritical in the extreme. Whilst I’m not fully convinced by the extreme animal activists, I couldn’t rationalize eating a tofu burger whilst wearing a dead animal. Somehow it seemed inappropriate. Anyway, I hear that alcohol provides an ethical alternative to the warmth of fur?