Can sustainability save the dying fur industry in Europe?
Coronavirus has meant a difficult year for Europe’s fur industry, with mass culls and breeding bans. Could this be the beginning of the end for fur production in Europe?
In November, six countries (Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the US) reported they had identified mutated variants of COVID-19 on mink farms. Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer, found that people living near the farms had been infected by these mink variants. Fearing the mutations could jeopardise future vaccines, the Danish government announced a cull of its 15 million minks and banned mink breeding until 2022 to prevent the variants from spreading further. The Dutch government was also quick to act, announcing all its mink farms would permanently close by March 2021, fast-tracking an existing ban due to start in 2024. Ireland ordered the nation’s three mink farms to cull all of their 120,000 animals, signalling a likely end to Irish fur farming after years of debate and delay. It might appear as if fur farming has reached the point of no return.
But if any industry can claw its way back, it’s the fur industry. The European fur trade has endured years of criticism and negative public perception over animal cruelty and environmental issues, and yet always finds a way to respond and carry on.
The UK was the first European country to ban fur farming in 2000 in response to overwhelming public support to end the practice over animal cruelty concerns. Other countries have followed, banning fur farming altogether, implementing trade bans or adopting stricter welfare regulations. But despite the growing restrictions, Europe is still one of the main sources of fur clothing.
In 2018 there were 4,350 fur farms in 24 European countries, according to industry group Fur Europe. Denmark has the largest number of farms with 1,500 farmers producing approximately 19 million mink skins annually. Poland, Finland, Lithuania and Greece are the next biggest producers. Exports are worth hundreds of millions of euros annually, with China, Russia and Canada among the biggest export markets.
To combat criticism and appeal to increasingly eco-conscious consumers, the European fur industry has rebranded itself as a sustainable alternative to fast fashion. But can fur farming ever really be considered sustainable? The answer is complicated, and the available information – produced by either animal rights groups or the fur industry – isn’t exactly objective.
Let’s look at the arguments on both sides.
“Fur is renewable and biodegradable”
The industry group Fur Europe’s website describes fur as a ‘sustainable fashion material’, thanks to its renewable and biodegradable qualities. As a natural resource that can be quickly replenished, fur could be considered a renewable resource, although this view might be overly simplistic. Fur biodegrades faster than typical faux fur alternatives made from plastic-based material like polyester and acrylic, which can take more than 1000 years to break down. And unlike synthetic materials, fur doesn’t release tiny microplastic fibres into the environment that end up everywhere.
“Fur is a role model for sustainable fashion because consumers do not want to throw it away”
The industry says fur garments are inherently sustainable because they are designed for longevity and are commonly repaired, remodelled and reused rather than thrown away. Clothing waste is a huge problem, with an estimated 350,000 tonnes of used clothing landfilled every year in the UK alone. But research shows people are less likely to throw clothes out if they think the material has value. Fur coats have traditionally been popular heirlooms, nostalgically passed down through families, and there is an active resale market. It’s definitely more sustainable to buy clothes you’ll keep and wear for a long time, but it’s very difficult to assess whether this is the reality for fur garment owners.
“Animal welfare standards are too low”
Activists have been campaigning for decades against fur farms, accusing them of animal cruelty. They say the conditions (animals with natural territories of 30km2 kept in small cages) and practices (killing methods such as head-to-tail electrocution) on fur farms are unethical. In recent years, the industry has responded by introducing their own animal welfare programmes to raise standards on European farms.
WelFur is an animal welfare programme initiated by the European fur sector. The programme assesses farms against twelve animal welfare criteria including absence of hunger and disease, comfortable housing, and demonstration of social behaviours. To qualify for a WelFur certificate, farms are inspected by independent assessors during each of the three production phases in the certification year. Farms are visited once every following year to maintain the certificate.
Since 2020, the major fur auction houses only sell skins from Europe that are WelFur certified. But animal rights groups have criticised the programme for not doing enough to raise animal welfare standards, calling it a “cynical PR tool designed to make animal cruelty acceptable”. They argue that in the wild, searching for food in water (mink) and digging (fox) are considered important natural behaviours, but the WelFur programme does not take these needs into account. They claim that as WelFur evaluation combines different welfare measures into an overall score for each farm, it obscures individual measures that can hide serious welfare problems.
Activists also uncovered what appears to be an obvious conflict of interest in the certification process. A report from an animal welfare organisation found that the Finnish Fur Breeders’ Association is a major stakeholder in the company responsible for auditing Finnish fur farms, despite the industry claiming all assessments are undertaken by an independent third party.
Critics say that even with these certifications, there’s no guarantee cruelty isn’t continuing behind closed doors, as recent footage from a Polish fur farm (with animals being beaten to death with a metal rod) clearly showed.
“Fur farming has a huge environmental footprint”
Anti-fur campaigners say the environmental impacts of fur farming are another reason to end the practice. A study (commissioned by animal rights groups) assessing the impact of mink fur production, found that the climate change impact of 1kg of mink fur is at least five times higher than other textiles due to the impact of feed production and emissions from manure. Mink are fed a mix of chicken and fish offal, by-products of the food industry that have their own footprints, but it’s the sheer quantity of feed each mink requires that creates the problem. It takes around 20 mink to make a fur coat. One mink eats about 50kg of feed over the course of its lifetime, so that’s one tonne of meat-based feed per coat.
All that food quickly becomes manure, mainly used as fertiliser, which releases methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide into the environment. And fur continues to consume energy even after it’s been sold to the consumer. To prevent them from drying out, fur garments need to be kept in climate-controlled storage facility during the summer.
But the fur industry disputes that their impact is any worse than the rest of the fashion industry. Their research found that faux fur alternatives have a greater negative environmental impact than real fur due to the energy and resources required to manufacture synthetic fibres and fabric.
“The fur trade has a severe impact on biodiversity”
Animal rights groups warn of the damaging effect fur farming has on biodiversity when animals find their way into the wild. American mink, raccoon dogs, muskrats and coypu are all non-native species that were originally introduced to Europe for fur farming and have now established themselves in the wild. These species compete with and predate native wildlife, leading to the depletion and even extinction of native species. American mink are the worst offenders, having found their way into more than 20 European countries. They are extremely effective predators and have severely impacted ground-nesting bird populations, rodents and amphibians. In the UK, predation by the American mink has led to the rapid decline of the water vole.
It’s clear from the events of the past year that fur farming poses a serious risk to human health. Fur may seem like a sustainable material due to its natural origins, but the environmental impacts of farming it outweigh any perceived benefits. And although ethically it may not seem so different to farming chickens or cows, the predatory animals commonly farmed for fur have far more complex behavioural needs. It’s likely impossible for the industry to fulfil these needs while remaining profitable – as was the case in Germany where higher welfare regulation made fur farming unviable.
Keeping thousands of animals in close proximity provides the perfect breeding ground for disease, and no amount of welfare regulation will change that. It’s likely that increasing regulation and bans in Europe will only move fur production to places with even lower welfare standards, like China where prices shot up after the cull in Denmark. Conditions on fur farms are not dissimilar to the live animal market in Wuhan where the novel coronavirus is widely believed to have originated.
The reality is fur farming can never be considered sustainable if farms are ticking time bombs for new viruses.