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Fur: sustainable resource or fashion faux pas?

Last Updated March 20, 2008

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Does this change your mind about fur?

After facing decades of criticism, Canada's fur industry is the latest group to tout itself as being green. Fur is biodegradable, durable and supports trappers who have a stake in protecting the environment, according to the Fur Council of Canada.

Models at a fashion show by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier in February donned wild furs with heads and limbs attached. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

"Fur itself is a natural resource, it's very well-regulated in Canada, there's no endangered species used," said Alan Herscovici, the FCC's executive vice-president said in March 2008.

"Some of these animal activist groups who say we don't need fur anymore, we have synthetics — but wait a minute, most of those synthetics are made with petroleum petrochemicals and petroleum, of course, is a non-renewable resource."

However, many fur opponents reject such arguments, saying buying fur raises serious ethical and environmental questions. While the FCC in March promoted trappers' connection to the land, critics noted that animal farms yield the majority of pelts used for clothing and accessories. Indeed, the value of ranch-raised pelts in 2005 tallied $90.2 million while the wildlife pelt industry was valued at $31.4 million, according to Statistics Canada.

Ainslie Willock, director of the advocacy group Canadians for Fur-bearing Animals, criticizes the FCC's campaign as being disingenuous. Willock says she believes the campaign has not been successful in swaying the public.

"It's just sheer opportunism. There's nothing about fur that is so-called green or environmentally friendly," she said.

"Clearly fur isn't green from a cruelty perspective and also from an environmental perspective and I find it highly offensive," she said.

Frigid winter spurs demand for Canadian pelts

Still, in certain segments, fur is becoming a hot commodity and Canadian trappers are benefiting.

Blustery frigid weather in Russia and China in the winter of 2007-08 has rendered Canadian furs a hot commodity. Trapper Samuel McLeod of Aklavik, N.W.T., says with fur coats now priced at $50,000, his pelts are accordingly selling for between 20 and 50 per cent more at auction.

Similarly, the Yukon Trappers Association said sales of the Yukon lynx have been promising, fetching an average of $300 a pelt.

"There has been some just phenomenal fur coming in and now with these prices coming up, it is getting a lot more encouraging," said the association's president, Wendy Fornier.

In haute-couture circles, fur is still a provocative matter. In February, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier made headlines with his new line which incorporated wild animal pets with heads and paws attached.

Conversely, designer and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaigner Stella McCartney has spoken out against the use of fur and doesn't use animal skin in her collections.

Is fur really green?

Consumers wading into the debate will find a spate of arguments on the merits and harms of fur. A counterargument meets every argument in the fur debate.

Activists in Moscow protest the fur industry in February 2007. A particularly cold 2007-08 winter in Russia and China spurred new demand for Canadian pelts. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

For example, many activists including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) cite a 1979 University of Michigan study that found the process of rearing ranch-raised animals consumes 20 times the energy as compared with a synthetic fur coat. Comparable studies taking into account technological advances have not since been conducted. Meanwhile, the FCC says that up to four litres of petroleum is used to make synthetic coats.

Similarly, the anti-fur lobby argues that furs are not eco-friendly because chemicals including chromium and formaldehyde are used to treat them. However, the FCC says that while small amounts of formaldehyde are used in the tanning process, fur pelts are primarily treated with natural products including table salt, water and lanolin.

Finding middle ground in the debate can be difficult. But at the very least, the campaign is spurring relevant and important discussions, says John Fryxell, a zoology professor at the University of Guelph.

Fryxell says that he doesn't subscribe to the idea that trapping is essential to maintain the health of wildlife populations but he notes that human use of animals can be sustainable. He also notes people who stand to benefit from wildlife tend to be active in protecting their habitats.

"Society needs to make judgments," he said. "What I find intriguing about the campaign is I think it generates some discussion about the relative merits of synthetics that we often presume are benign but that there is a definite footprint on our environment that is imposed by using non-renewable resources — I think we're all beginning to recognize that more and more," he said.

"On the other hand, there have been some very heated debates about fur trapping and those arguments also need to be taken into consideration.… It's not clear-cut one way or the other but we're going to have make choices between shades of grey."

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