The Ethical Case for Fur

For animal-rights advocates, wearing the material has long been verboten, but with demand for it on the rise, there are options that help combat invasive species and reduce waste.

Talking about fur—the pelts of animals used for clothing such as coats, hats, and mittens—makes many understandably squeamish. There’s no denying the material’s origins: Fur was once the skin of a living creature. So it stands to reason that some people can't abide its use, just as some abstain from meat, milk, or any other animal by-products. Its detractors are passionate, and good at sharing photos, videos, and reports that highlight the ugliest aspects of the industry.

But regardless of public sentiment, fur's popularity only seems to be increasing. Between 2008 and 2013, global fur exports more than doubled, from $2 billion to more than $4 billion, according to data from the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

World fur Exports

(Data: International Trade Centre)

At the fall/winter 2015 fashion shows (currently underway in Paris), fur has appeared in aquamarine overcoats, Chewbacca-style slippers, and packs of plush fox collars. Karl Lagerfeld recently announced a new fur-centric show for Fendi.

With all this in mind, it might be time to have a more thoughtful conversation about the material, one that goes beyond simply for (or at least, “okay with”) or against, and acknowledges the ethical nuanced involved. Yes, some aspects of the fur industry are absolutely horrific; living creatures suffer miserably for the benefit of others. But the ugly truth is that this applies not only to fur, but to myriad other materials in the apparel industry—and sometimes the creatures suffering are human workers.

The question of whether fur can ever be an ethically sound fashion choice is one animal-rights activists effectively silence with a resounding “no.” But not all fur is created equally—on the other end of the spectrum of expensive, farmed fur is fur made from invasive species, wild animals, and roadkill, as well as vintage or repurposed material. Each type offers a compelling argument for viewing the fur-or-no-fur debate in shades of gray.

Fur at Joseph Altuzarra, fall/winter 2015 (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Just as some meat comes from wild animals—think venison or quail—so does some fur. Wild fur is less expensive than farmed fur, as the quality is difficult to control—a life (and death) in the wild can lead to scratches and irregularities in the animal’s coat. But some might prefer to wear the pelt of an animal whose days were spent frolicking in the woods over one that was raised in a cage.

Checking traps in Maine (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

The International Fur Trade Federation found that around 15 percent of fur comes from wild animals such as beavers, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and muskrats, as opposed to farmed. Labels often don’t specify if a piece is made from wild fur, but for those after free-range fur, the best bet is to look for skins of animals from Canada, the USA, and Russia, where most wild pelts come from. Many North Americans are already supporting the wild-fur trade: It’s wild-coyote fur that lines the hoods of those Canada Goose parkas currently stampeding New York City’s sidewalks.

Just as eating invasive fish has become a priority among environmentalists in the food world, using the fur of invasive animals could be a good way to make use of animals killed to protect fragile ecosystems. For a species to be considered invasive, it must be harmful to the environment and be non-native. In the coastal United States, the nutria—a large, semi-aquatic rodent with webbed feet, long tails, and carrot-colored teeth—is both.

A nutria (Roland Weihrauch/AP)

Since the 1930s, nutrias (originally from South America) have been gobbling up the wetlands of coastal Louisiana, contributing to land loss that approaches 25 square miles per year, along with billions of dollars. The rodents, originally imported by fur farmers, chomp on marsh plants at their bases, killing their roots. An area approximately the size of Delaware has already disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1990s, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries created an incentive program: They would pay registered hunters and trappers $4 for each nutria they killed. (The price has since been raised to $5.)

“I didn’t get into invasive-species management to kill animals,” said Michael Massimi, the invasive species coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a conservation coalition administered by the Environmental Protective Agency. “I’m an animal-rights advocate. But the damage they’re doing is existential."

Massimi said wetland damage has declined every year since the program was implemented in 2002, but that 90 percent of the nutria carcasses harvested—last season there were about 400,000—are discarded.

A nutria in the wild (Roberto Borea/AP)

Nutria fur, which, according to the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion, has “a velvety appearance after long guard hairs have been plucked, with colors ranging from cinnamon brown to brown with gray stripes,” was once worn by Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor, and had another moment in the fashion spotlight in 2010, when it appeared in collections by designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Billy Reid. But fashion is fickle, and demand has since slowed.

With a project called Righteous Fur, Cree McCree, a New Orleans-based writer and artist, is seeking to drum up the market again. “It seemed to be this really criminal waste,” said McCree. “These nutrias were being killed for the coastal-wetland control program, [which was] then just throwing them in the swamp.” At her periodic fashion shows, McCree sells items such as stoles, coats, messenger bags, and iPad cases. She also works with a local processor to prepare pelts for wholesale trade.

The New Orleans-based designer Kate McNee sells nutria headbands and slap-bracelet-style cuffs made from McCree’s Righteous Fur, but for now, McCree takes less than 10 percent of the incentive program’s nutria carcasses. Until more mainstream designers take up the mantle, invasive fur is still a sideline business.

Processing nutria fur in Galliano, Louisiana (Jonathan Traviesa)

Another more ethical alternative is fur made from roadkill. When the sustainability consultant Pamela Paquin returned to her native New England after several years working in Europe, she found herself overwhelmed by the animal carnage she saw on roads and highways. She looked at the data about roadkill in the USA—estimates range from several to hundreds of millions of animals killed by cars each year—and founded her company, Petite Mort Fur. She now sells hand-muffs, scarves, hats, mittens, and leg-warmers made from the collateral damage of American-car culture.

(Katherine Haddon/AFP/Getty Images)

Paquin’s company is still small—she skins the animals, makes everything herself, and likes to connect personally with each customer—but her ambition is huge. She wants to revolutionize the fur trade by making roadkill (which she calls “accidental fur”) a viable sector of the market.

The process of skinning the animals, said Paquin, is a labor of love: “It’s so intense. Quite often they’re partially frozen, so it can be a slow process. They’re beautiful. They’re beautiful. You can see their bodies and imagine their lives.”

Paquin wearing the fur of a black bear (Erik Patton)

She’s developing an app to help the Department of Transportation and wildlife officers track dates, species, and GPS coordinates of roadkill. The app would not only help her find the pelts for her business, said Paquin; it also would indicate problem areas for collisions, where land bridges or barriers could help protect animals.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which progressive designers uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals for fur may work with a material like Petite Mort’s. Already, Paquin is selling fur-pompom-topped beanies that are knitted by a local alpaca farmer, and priced to compete with similar models from Moncler and Gorsuch.

Another appearance by our bear from Maine at Trove in Weston this weekend.... Xo PMF

A photo posted by Pamela Paquin (@petitemortethicalfur) on

Beyond material made from roadkill, invasive species, and wild animals, there's vintage or second-hand fur, which allows customers to avoid directly supporting fur’s modern-day supply chain, and the brands that engage with it. Because fur has had so many heydays—the prim 50s, shaggy 60s, and over-sized 80s for starters—vintage stores are overflowing with the stuff, as are many grandmothers’ closets.

(Ray Stubblebine/AP)

For those who have inherited a fur that feels too old-fashioned to wear, but too precious and warm to get rid of, there are other possibilities. If the quality is still good—the coat feels supple and not dry or papery, and it’s not shedding hairs—there are lots of ways to repurpose the coat. A professional furrier can cut a massive mink coat into a slimmer shape, a cropped jacket, or even a vest and some mittens, earmuffs, or a hat.

If the thought of wearing fur on the outside just doesn’t appeal, there's always the option of lining a non-fur jacket with it. Vogue’s Alessandra Codinha tracked down the Vienna-based fashion label, Envie Heartwork, which lines parkas made from used military tents with recycled fur coats.

And if all else fails, there's even an animal-friendly alternative. The secondhand-clothing chain Buffalo Exchange accepts donations of real fur in any condition for animal rehabilitation centers, which use the material as comforting bedding for injured and orphaned animals.