With global consumers rejecting animal fur as fashion, Chinese fur farms see their profits plummet

By Southern Weekly - Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/14 19:03:26

China’s younger generation no longer finds fur fashionable

The Chinese fur industry is experiencing a chilly winter this year due to a sharp decline in sales

Younger generations of Chinese are increasingly aware of animal welfare issues

Fur farmers are calling on their industry to introduce more humane methods of skinning animals

Animal furs hang in a shop in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province. Photo: VCG

As a resident of Northeast China where women hold a particular fashion interest in fur clothing to withstand the region's brutal winters, Su Yun has made her own rules: she works at a mink factory, yes, but refuses to wear fur.

She knows that some animal rights activists have long protested against the use of fur as fashion for the industry's cruelty. This resistance now permeates the fashion industry itself. Several Italian luxury fashion brands announced this year that they would stop using animal furs.

In China, in just the past two years, fur industry profits have plunged. In 2016, mink fur sales dropped 41 percent. Fur sales figures are not optimistic this year, either, according to Huang Yanjie, director of China Leather Association.

Mink coats that once sold for 10,000 yuan ($1,513) in China can now be purchased for only 3,000 yuan.

Huang told the Southern Weekly that about 5 million people involved in the Chinese fur industry are currently experiencing a "chilly winter" due to the global backlash against animal pelts and furs for clothing.

He noted that an important reason behind this widespread resistance is that people tend to believe that animals are being skinned alive. "But according to normal operations in the industry, it's impossible to rip furs from living animals," he said.

To correct people's misunderstanding, many Chinese fur farms have been making an effort to improve animal rights, especially the way the creatures are executed, in a bid to revive the industry. But long-held prejudices against leather workers and furriers have thwarted their efforts.

A fur shop's owner waits for customers in Jiaxing. Photo: VCG

'It's too cruel'

In 2005, a video clip showing a raccoon hurled onto the ground and skinned alive circulated online. The video regained attention recently and aroused heated online discussions about the industry's cruelty of animals.

Reports determined that the footage was taken at a fur market in Suning county, Hebei Province. Later, the Suning government declared that this was only "an individual case." In February of that same year, China's fur industry made an official announcement that the video "failed to show a real and whole picture" of Chinese furriers.

But among the younger generations of Chinese, many are no longer willing to purchase fur after watching the video.

In random interviews recently conducted by Southern Weekly, more than half of all interviewees said that they had seen similar videos of Chinese furriers or leather workers mistreating animals.

One woman in her 20s said that she stopped wearing fur coats after seeing that Suning video clip. "It feels like I'm wearing these poor abused animals' corpse. It's too cruel!"

Mark Rissi, director of the 2005 documentary Fun Fur that the video clip was extracted from, told the Southern Weekly on November 8 of this year that the clip was shot by a Chinese coworker. He confirmed that it is common to kill animals this way in that region. "Other media exposed this, too," he said.

Huang believes that the video "seemed to be manipulated by the director." He said that, in fact, skinning animals alive will harm the value of their fur.

Correcting past mistakes

China's fur business can be traced back to the 1960s as a method to earn foreign exchange through exports. The country first imported live minks from the former Soviet Union and later from the US. The minks were mainly raised in State-owned farms.

At that time, fur and especially mink as a Western symbol of "luxury." Fox and raccoons were also raised for their fur.

This trend spread to China in the late 1980s, when an increasing number of Russian women wearing fur coats began appearing on the streets of Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, which borders Russia.

After China joined the WTO in 2005, Xu Jiabao, Su's boss, was among the earliest Chinese entrepreneurs to tap into the fur industry. Xu visited a fur farm in Denmark and brought back superior "Danish mink," which became quite popular among fashionable, upper-class Chinese women.

Back then, as the global market demand exploded, many fur farms were exploring standardized production modes to raise mink. Some fur farmers also raised mink at home to maximize their profits, with hundreds of minks cramped in small cages, according to Huang.

"We've made mistakes in the past. But the achievements that Western countries have made in animal welfare also weren't accomplished in one day. As long as we find remedies, it's still a good thing," said Xu.

According to a Chinese industry guideline released in 2016, mink should be executed via a "smothering method" or "medication," while raccoons and foxes should be killed via "electric shock" to alleviate their pain.

At Xu's fur farm, mink are "mercifully" killed with carbon monoxide, 200 mink at a time, which suffocates them within five minutes. The dead animals are then skinned for their pelts.

According to the guideline, skinners must wait 30 minutes to make sure the animal is truly dead before removing their hide.

When reporters visited a fur market in Suning county in November, sellers of fox and raccoon furs said that the animals had been executed via "electric shock."

"Raccoons die quickly without suffering, so it saves our time," said a seller.

New changes

In 2016, Xu showed a video of his fur farm at an international fur exhibition in Greece, which he hoped would change the international society's negative opinions toward China's fur industry.

On the policy level, China's first animal welfare guidelines were released on November 11, which stipulated evaluation principles and methods for animal and fur farms.

Huang said that the government made a similar guideline before, but it lacked any punishment or enforcement mechanisms. "Also, it's important to educate farmers and guide them."

To motivate farmers, different appraisals are being enacted. One appraisal is to choose international models for fur farms. Chinese fur farm owners were invited to visit countries like Denmark, Finland, Canada and the US to learn from and communicate with their foreign peers.

To satisfy customers' demand for transparency, model farms in China are also pushing forward a traceability system based on the type used by their Western counterparts.

But Guo Li, spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in China, said that the "fur industry has nothing to do with humanity."

Guo believes that animals caged in small spaces their entire lives suffer from mental and physical disorders. "They often eat their own limbs and hit their heads against the cage. Some mothers even kill their own babies right after they are born," he said.

Xu agreed that minks must be raised in a quiet, peaceful environment. If they are disturbed by human breeders, the mothers may instinctively eat their pups. "With a scientific breeding method, this is avoidable," he said.

Who is right?

Many detractors say that the only reason people are showing compassion toward small animals like mink and fox is because of their cute looks.

Fashion tycoon Karl Lagerfeld likewise said in a 2009 interview that "In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish."

He said that hunters in the north "make a living having learnt nothing else than hunting" and "killing those beasts who would kill us if they could."

Guo said that it is impossible to avoid abuse in the fur and leather trade. "It's also cruel to kill animals with poison gas or electric shock."

He said that, as the attitude of China's younger generations toward fur has undergone fundamental changes in recent years, people no longer see hurting animals as cool or fashionable. "The power of consumers should never be underestimated," he added.

Guo's team proposes zero-tolerance of all fur as fashion and has called on the Chinese people to resist any use of animal pelts and hides in their daily lives.

Some animal rights activists have been wearing animal-shaped clothing dyed in scarlet to symbolize animals whose furs are ripped off. Others have constructed sculptures of animals with thousands of needles injected in them to protest their torture in the trade.

Huang hopes that these animal rights activists "don't make use of moral standards to bring other people physiological pressure."

"I think most people don't agree with abusing animals. But for farmers in this industry, it's a way for them to make a living. Most Chinese fur farms are located in economically backward regions, where life is hard," he added.

But consumer resistance has taken effect worldwide.

Huang emphasized that, while consumers have the right to make their own decision and animal rights activists have the right to express their opinions, they shouldn't place these opinions on others.

Southern Weekly - Global Times

Newspaper headline: As the fur flies

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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