Op-Ed: The confusion of fur-hating carnivores

Body-painted activists parade placards outside Fashion Week Australia calling on the fashion industry to drop the use of fur, wool, leather and other skins used by some designers, in Sydney on April 13.
Body-painted activists parade placards outside Fashion Week Australia calling on the fashion industry to drop the use of fur, wool, leather and other skins used by some designers, in Sydney on April 13.
(William West / AFP/Getty Images)

Come July, the Italian fashion house Fendi will present its first haute couture collection on the Paris runways, and every garment will be made of fur. “It's time to do the highest level of couture fourrure,” said creative director Karl Lagerfeld. He's not alone in this assessment: The price of pelts reached a record high in 2013, and two-thirds of recent fashion shows in London and New York have included furry pieces.

This high-fashion trend runs counter to a long campaign by animal-welfare groups, which have for 40 years painted fur enthusiasts as murderers. “I kiss his wet nose and my tears join his,” wrote the anti-fur activist Brigitte Bardot in 1977, of a baby seal she met in Newfoundland on the day before its slaughter. All this work has had an impact: Gallup surveys find that a sizable proportion of American adults — last year it was 37% — deem it “morally unacceptable” to buy and wear clothing made of fur. Put another way, about 100 million people in this country might call Fendi's new collection evil.

How does Lagerfeld defend his use of fur? It's not as bad as carnivorism, he says. “For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don't get the message,” the 81-year-old told the New York Times in February. “I think a butcher shop is even worse.”

He has a point. There's something weird about the way we bemoan the use of animals for fashion, as if it were any more disturbing than the use of animals for food. We could, of course, decry both the butcher and the fashion atelier. But in point of fact we don't: Gallup surveys find that just 1 in 20 of us are vegetarians (and not all vegetarians make that choice for moral reasons), meaning Americans are at least six times more likely to be outraged by the wearing of fur than by the eating of meat.

About the same proportion of us scorns wearing fur as having babies out of wedlock; both acts enrage a significant minority. Meanwhile, we're as untroubled by meat consumption as we are by the use of birth control; eating meat and wearing condoms are each deemed acceptable by more than 90% of adults. This fur-meat gap in moral fervor doesn't make sense; it suggests a major blind spot, if not an epidemic of hypocrisy.

Fur-hating carnivores have a ready set of arguments in support of their peculiar dogma. First, they view the wearing of pelts as inessential. We can easily make clothes from something else, they claim, like cotton, fleece or Thinsulate. “It's an unnecessary vanity product,” Pierre Grzybowski, the head of the Fur-Free Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States, said when we spoke the other day.

Fur may indeed be frivolous, in the sense that we don't need it to survive — but by that standard, so is meat. Most of us would get along just fine without a bite of beef or pork or chicken. If we might just as well be wearing cotton, fleece or Thinsulate, then we might just as well be eating lentils, soy and quinoa, too. You can sew a lovely coat without a speck of fur, but you can also cook a sumptuous meal without a shred of meat.

Those who eschew fur and eat meat might be inclined to say the latter is more functional, since it provides a useful source of protein. They ignore the fact that fur provides a useful source of warmth. And it has some real advantages even over well-made fakes: It's much better at absorbing moisture, say scientists, which makes it more comfortable to wear on damp winter days and in dry, hot weather too. Real fur also feels better than faux fur — it's cooler to the touch.

Between faux fur and fake meat, the latter might be the more convincing knockoff. For a 2010 study, the nutrition researcher Annet Hoek fed meals of chicken, tofu or the fungus-based meat substitute Quorn to about 90 people. At first, her subjects said they preferred the taste of chicken, but repeated exposure (and mounting boredom) changed their minds. By the end of the study, after 20 meals over 10 weeks, she found their preference for real meat had disappeared.

One might even say that fur is better at being clothes than meat is at being food. It's warm, it's soft, it's beautiful. These qualities are so desirable, in fact, that fur has long been deemed a luxury. As Thomas Hardy wrote in 1925: “‘I'm a lofty lovely woman,' says the lady in the furs, in the glance she throws around her on the poorer dames and sirs.”

For many, that's what makes the business so appalling: Instead of killing animals for survival, we're killing them for social status. Indeed, the data show that much of recent growth in the fur trade has been in service of the nouveau riche in Russia and China.

Let's not forget, though, that eating meat is likewise a habit of the well-to-do. In the U.S., meat costs about twice as much, per calorie, as beans or nuts or legumes. As the poorer countries of the world gain wealth, their diets shift from plants to animals. In 1963, the Chinese consumed an average of 16 grams of meat per person every day. (That's equivalent to half of one McDonald's hamburger patty.) By 2003, their consumption had gone up about 800%.

What about animal welfare? Grzybowski argues that the nation's several thousand fur farms are given little oversight. The Humane Slaughter Act, which specifies that livestock must be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow” before they're killed, does not apply to minks, Grzybowski says, nor chinchillas nor other fur-farmed animals. And anti-fur activist groups have documented some monstrous practices of the industry in China: In one video, the animals appear to be skinned alive.

Still, you'd have to be a Pollyanna to believe that similar iniquities don't turn up in the pipeline for producing meat, both in China and at home. While the Humane Slaughter Act protects cows and pigs, it does not apply to fish and birds. Consider that U.S. farmers kill about 9 billion chickens and turkeys every year, compared with just 3 million minks. In terms of total carnage, our love of eating poultry is 3,000 times more murderous than the market for our pelts.

Perhaps a simple species-ism is behind the fur-meat gap in moral judgment — a soft spot for soft critters. Yet even that explanation doesn't make much sense: Minks and chinchillas — animals akin to weasels and rats — wouldn't seem to be any more deserving of our love than a chicken or a pig: They're neither service animals, like dogs and horses, nor well-established pets, yet we treat their killing as a special crime.

Like fur, meat is inessential and luxurious. Like fur, its production may be fraught with brutal and obscene abuse. So Lagerfeld is right: Our morals are confused. Until we all agree that meat is murder too — until we've kissed the wet nose of a piglet and cried upon his snout — it might be best to keep our anti-fur obsession under wraps.

Daniel Engber is a science writer.

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