Fur Industry Now Calling Itself 'Green,' but Hype Doesn't Hold Up

green police furDid you know that fur is green? I hadn't heard it either, but then I visited the Fur Council of Canada's "Fur is Green" website and was set straight. "Like leather, suede and shearling, fur is a natural product, a true gift of nature," it says. "At a time when we are all trying to be conscious of how our lifestyles affect nature, fur is an excellent choice."

First-time visitors might think they've happened across a parody site (Canada is where they club baby seals to death for their fur, after all), and they'd be at least partly right. I talked to Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council, and he explained, "We've learned from animal rights groups like PETA. Are we being a bit provocative in the way we say it? Of course. But people are talking about green living, so we thought they'd be interested to hear what we had to say."

Herscovici told me that PETA has captured the agenda, so the idea of fur as sustainable hasn't caught on. Canada's fur trappers don't have a voice, he said. I suggested perhaps a naked trapper demonstration was in order, and Herscovici added the idea of a trapper calendar.

furBut despite the fun and games, fur is serious business. I contacted the Humane Society of the U.S., which has ample resources on the fur trade, especially in Canada:

"Fur farmers and trappers kill millions of animals -- including dogs and cats -- for their fur each year. About half of these animals die specifically for fur trim. ...On fur factory farms around the world, millions of raccoon dogs, rabbits, foxes, chinchillas and other animals spend their lives in wire cages only to be killed by anal electrocution, neck-breaking or in gas chambers. Raccoon dogs have been documented to be skinned alive, and this type of fur is widely sold in the U.S., commonly falsely advertised or labeled as a different animal or as faux fur. It is also commonly not labeled at all."

Well, that's not so nice. And remember this is the fur industry in Canada, where more than a million seals were killed for their fur in the last five years. Some 97% were less than three months old when they were killed.

But maybe it's unfair to bring in the iconic baby seals so early in the story. Let's hear why fur is green before we go further with facts about the trade.

"There are two main reasons why fur is green," Herscovici told me. "First of all, to use the jargon of ecology, it's a very good example of responsible and sustainable use of natural resources. If you're green, you should commute on a bike, recycle at the curbside...and wear fur. What a lot of people don't realize is that every serious conservation organization supports the sustainable use of wildlife as a natural resource."

When I asked for a name, he gave me the World Wildlife Fund, so I checked on the group's view on the seal hunt. Herscovici is absolutely right: "WWF is not an animal welfare organization," the group says on its Canadian website. "We support the hunting and consumption of wild animals provided the harvesting does not threaten the long-term survival of wildlife populations. WWF has never opposed a sustainable seal hunt in northern or eastern Canada."

And actually, the issue is complicated in Canada, because according to Nature Quebec, there are more than five million seals and "an increase in the seal population could endanger the North Atlantic cod stocks."

So what's the second reason fur is green? "Fur is a long-lasting product," Herscovici told me. People wear their fur coats for 20 or even 40 years, then they pass them down from one generation to the next. After that, there's often a form of recycling -- they take old fur coats and turn them into useful products." Fur is also "natural," he said, disparaging the "synthetic" alternative, which he said is just like plastic bags (a petroleum product).

According to Fur is Green, the fur industry is "artisanal," and "small scale." Herscovici claimed that all the fur-bearing animals that have been hunted for 400 years, since European traders first started taking pelts, are still around. But that's disingenuous, because if trappers had their way, the ubiquitous beaver would have gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.

According to "A Brief History of the Beaver Trade" at the University of California at Santa Cruz, trapping in North American took off in the 17th century after European beaver populations were decimated by trappers. Because they were physically the same, "the American beaver was an easy substitute for the near-extinct European beaver," the site says. North American beavers became locally extinct in the 1800s, and if fashion hadn't shifted from beaver hats to the silk variety, this ambitious dam builder would be a historical curiosity.

Fur is decidedly not green, says Pierre Gryzbowski, manager of the Fur-Free Campaign for HSUS. "The fur production process consumes large amounts of fossil fuels and pollutes the air and water with toxic chemicals and animal waste," he said. "'Wild fur' causes environmental harm as well. Traps commonly used to catch fur-bearing animals from the wild are indiscriminate and may catch endangered animals as well as their target species."

Gray wolves -- an endangered species -- are frequently caught by mistake in traps, charges HSUS, and more than a dozen Canada lynx, a threatened species, have been injured or killed by indiscriminate traps in Minnesota since 2002. "Natural" is an odd term for the industry to claim, considering toxic waste produced from hide tanning and processing, and that only 15% of fur animals worldwide are wild, according to the International Fur Trade Federation's "Fast Facts." The other 85% are unnaturally raised on fur farms.

HSUS has produced a report and animated video on the environmental harm done by the fur trade, available atwww.humanesociety.org/furhurtstheplanet.

More evidence that it's wrong to call fur "green" comes from an early 1990s ruling by the Dutch Advertising Standards Authority, which upheld allegations of misleading advertising. It ruled that "considering the way fur is being produced, by means of unnatural catch in the wild, often by means of a leg-hold trap, fur farms and as byproduct of factory farming for the production of meat, it cannot be maintained that fur is 'ecological' ... According to the judgment of the authority, the production of fur has nothing to do with the natural relations that exist between animals and the environment they live in...

"Nor can the processing of fur be called ecological or environmentally friendly, since materials are used that damage the environment." (The ruling was brought to our attention by Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, a Washington state-based independent newspaper and web site that covers animal protection issues.)

Fur turns out to be not nearly as efficient in retaining body warmth as some synthetic materials, Clifton points out, and the above-mentioned toxic waste pollution resulted in several fines back when fur garment manufacturing was still often done in the U.S.

The improper handling and disposal of solvent-laden waste sawdust generated during manufacturing prompted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to levy $2.2 million in fines against six fur processing plants in 1991 because, according to an EPA press release, the "solvent-laden sawdust may pose a health threat to those coming into contact with it, and could cause environmental contamination if not properly managed." The solvents used "may cause respiratory problems, and are listed as possible carcinogens."

Clifton says the current green claims by the fur industry are just the latest hype circulated by Herscovici, a furrier and industry promoter for close to 30 years.

But Herscovici says the Fur is Green campaign is working. "People are calling," he said. "We're getting a good reaction. And fur is strong in fashion again. It's on all the major runways and all over the fashion magazines."

Herscovici isn't wrong about that, either. After decades in the wilderness, fur is back. It's just not green.

Green Police writer Sally Deneen contributed to this report.
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