Article: Fur and Leather: Ethics, (fake) tears and sustainability
I make machinery for the fur and leather clothing industry and so did my father before me. I was born and raised in a social environment that appreciated natural clothing materials like wool, silk, cotton, leather, fur. I learned to grade the different properties and qualities fur, I learned the methods of breeding, animal farming and harvesting. I learned to love this trade and its people. So, you can say I am biased in my views of how environmentally friendly or ethical, natural clothing is. Maybe so, but I nevertheless decided to write this article because I have inside knowledge of this industry on matters that have been misrepresented to the general public. I consider myself an expert on the field and like an expert, I will speak of the facts, not beliefs nor stories that a friend of a friend told someone about a YouTube video they watched. Another important piece of information about me: I love animals, I kept pets since the day I was born. I also love humans, I don’t despise or wish harm for any human being, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with their views on any matter.
There is a lot of pressure by groups and organisations, that ask from the public to stop wearing natural fur and leather articles, others ask for a complete ban in animal farming for fur products. Sometimes they even ask for a complete ban in selling natural fur articles. Their voices are joined by other -more radical- groups that ask for a complete ban in animal farming altogether, including cattle, sheep, and chicken farming and a complete ban for the sale and consumption of meat. Surrounding all the above, is the greater eco-thinking movement, that shows the planet struggling to cope with industrial pollution, CO2 emissions, global warming, water and soil pollution, animal and plant species extinction. Academics, TV shows, documentaries and all major environmental organisations like Greenpeace, WWF, and others all point to the same direction.
The receivers of these messages, the general public is confused. Information comes from all different directions. Add to the mix all social media, like Facebook and Tweeter, the easy and unaccountable spreading of fake news. Now you can see why there is so much controversy over a matter that should be relatively straightforward. It all comes to one question: are natural fur and leather products good or bad for the environment and all the animals and people that live within it?
The quick answer is that natural fur is good for the environment. But I am sure you want a justification for this. Let’s start with the main concern of the public. How does fur production affect the environmental balance of our planet? The main animal used for fur coats is the mink. The mink is bred in mink farms. For the animals to be of any value to the farmers they must be healthy, happy and well fed. They can only live together with their families since if you mix them with others they start fighting. Remember, the slightest scratch or bite will ruin the final product. We need them calm, unstressed and of course healthy. They only eat fresh food. They are fed the by-products of chicken and fish that are not suitable for human consumption. This food would end up in a landfill or would be burned if it wasn’t used in mink farming.
And now the most emotional part, putting down the animal. It is always sad to take a life of any creature, whether insect, mammal or even plant. All animals that are used for their fur, are put down in the most quick and stress-free manner. It usually involves a gas that causes a euphoric sleepiness. No, there is no drama involved, no pain, no biting. No, the animals are NEVER skinned alive. NEVER! This is sick and illegal and whoever did it has nothing to do with the fur clothing industry. There is absolutely no reason to do such a horrible act. Well, there is only one reason I can think of: some activist organisation wanted to film a gruesome act just to turn the public opinion against the furriers.
The general public receives the information without thinking too much. They don’t ask why? How? They don’t investigate further. What if I told you that more pain is inflicted upon these animals by the activists in order to film some moments of agony and share them on their Facebook page, than by any other person working in the fur sector. What an irony, the people who claim they fight for animal rights, cause the most pain on them just to gain some publicity.
It is no coincidence, that having no solid arguments for any serious harm on the environment and on animal welfare, the major argument of the activists opposed to the fur clothing is focused now on the “ethical” aspect of using products derived from animals. Ethics is probably the vaguest term in the whole human philosophy. It is such an ambiguous term, that it can include or exclude any human interaction. In the end, what is deemed “ethical” is a very personal matter.
Nobody appointed me as the all-knowing judge, to tell anybody what they should wear or eat or drink or how to speak or how to treat people or other living things. I am just another human being trying to live my life the best I can. But let’s see for one moment what alternatives are left if we exclude real fur, wool, leather and other animal products from our lives. Does anything come in mind? What would you use in your wool sweater if not wool? What would you fancy wearing on your feet if not real leather? What jacket can protect you from a harsh cold whether if not natural fur? You probably guessed it already, it’s the synthetic Petroleum derivatives such as Polyester, Nylon, Rayon, Viscose, Polyacrylics, Polyamides, etc. Is this the “ethical” choice?
Let’s see the product life cycle of the alternatives to natural fur. Somewhere in the world, either on land or in the open sea, a drilling platform is pumping out a black liquid that comes from decomposed plants and animals that lived tens of millions of years ago. Assuming it all goes well -and there is no major leak into the surrounding area- this material is transported by huge pipes, ships and trucks to big refining plants. Following complex chemical reactions this liquid becomes solid chunks of plastic. Other chemical compounds are added to give it specific properties, including colouring agents and then, it is transferred in other factories where these solid beads of plastic are turned into fibers that are woven in different kinds of fabrics that look like silk, cotton, wool and fur. The same beads of plastic will go through a different process to become artificial leather.
Huge piles of this material are once more transported to clothing factories (most of them are in China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh) and using intensive labour, they are made into clothes. These clothes are yet again transported to shops all over the globe to be sold. For every 6kg of such materials you wash, as much as 750.000 microfibers escape and are released into the water polluting rivers, oceans and drinking water irreversibly. And finally, when you dispose of synthetic clothing, most of it will end up in a landfill where it will need thousands of years to decompose, or it will be burned, releasing several toxic fumes and quite a lot of CO2 into our atmosphere.
Maybe the price is the key factor. Synthetic clothes are much cheaper to buy than natural clothing. It’s true. The cost of production is much cheaper, the raw materials don’t have to be cultivated, bred, fed, or cared for by anyone, you just drill deep enough and there they are. Plus, nobody pays the real cost of proper disposal. Bury a natural fur coat in your garden and will completely decompose into the soil in a few years. Do the same with a synthetic fur and you can be sure it will stay there for thousands of years, generation after generation, unable to be turned into anything that the natural processes of the planet can re-use. Waste management is a big problem for all kinds of plastics, including synthetic clothing items. If the consumers had to pay the real cost of proper disposal synthetic clothing items would not be as cheap compared to the natural ones.
A thought about the future. Scientists and academics are all repeating one word: sustainability. Only by using materials that are able to re-generate over and over again, in a way that does not create waste when their life cycle ends, do we serve the common goal for a better living environment for us and our children.
The people involved in natural fur clothing are not completely innocent. I can tell you about the excessive use of drinking water for raising the animals, the tanneries that in some cases use harmful chemical substances, the high energy consumption for the processing of leather and fur, until it is made into a clothing item. I can even go further back into the past and can tell you about the excessive hunting of wild animals that reduced their population dramatically and brought many of them, in the brink of extinction. Are these ethical practices? Certainly not.
A lot has been done in the last few decades. Most countries have extremely strict legislation in force on how to properly manage wildlife and under which conditions animals must live in the farms. The fur exhibitions and traders all over the world do not exhibit or handle any animal products that are not properly certified. In fact, any animal product that does not meet the animal welfare criteria is immediately confiscated. Reduction in energy consumption and water management is imposed on farms, tanneries and fur clothing factories all over the world. We are not perfect, we are just better than the synthetic clothing industry.
A piece of advice for those who care about the animals and the environment. Do whatever you believe is right. Do you feel bad about wearing a natural fur coat knowing that animals were farmed for their fur? Don’t wear it. You could always choose to wear fur or leather that comes from animals that would be raised anyway for their meat, for example sheep, goat, cow, rabbit. Are you uncomfortable with that also? You could go for natural clothes made of wool, cotton or linen. Just don’t be fooled into buying plastic clothing materials marketed as “eco-friendly”, or “vegan” or “green-fashion”. This fashion is not green, it’s as black as the oil that is used to make it. I am not against using oil in general, there are millions of useful applications for this precious limited resource. I just want to set things straight, when it comes to synthetic clothing items, it harms animals and people a lot more than the natural products do.
More actions must be taken to ensure animal welfare and environmental sustainability. But let’s agree on one thing, natural clothing products are more sustainable and more eco-friendly than the synthetic ones. Oh, and -if you ask me- they look far much better on you than their plastic imitations too!
Written by: Konstantinos Tsiopoulos, 11/12/2019