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China: The fur and the furious

CN) China Daily: The fur and the furious

Posted by: "Dave Neale"
Fri Mar 2, 2012 12:51 am (PST)

The fur and the furious

By Doug Meigs <>

March 2, 2012 - 11:59am

The long crimson dress flowed like a torrent of bloodied puff-balls. Dyed, shaved and meshed with various fabrics, the model's fur clothing revealed little clue to a species of origin. Subsequent runway models' coats flaunted similar vestigial tails and pelts from minks, foxes and other unidentifiable furbearing creatures transported onto the catwalk of the fur fair.

Despite the convictions and best efforts of animal welfare activists, the global fur industry refuses to go away. Instead, it seemed to be evolving and getting bigger at the Hong Kong International Fur and Fashion Fair. The four-day event, dubbed "the world's largest fur fair," began on Feb 25 at the cavernous Convention and Exhibition Centre.

New fur designs have already extended their appeal to younger consumers. Experimental production technology has developed lighter fabrics, brought in crazy colors and funky cuts. The bulk of the fair's most popular garments will inevitably head to high-end boutiques and chain outlets in the frigid mega cities of Northeast China, Russia and South Korea.

The fact that furbearing animals don't reside in Hong Kong's subtropical climate hasn't stopped the Special Administrative Region from becoming the preeminent trade hub for the global fur industry. Veteran fur dealer Tim Everest said the local fair began in 1982 and quickly became an industry leader.

Everest is the managing director of Cyril Murkin Ltd, a furrier with offices in Hong Kong and London. The company supplies top-brand fashion houses such as Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Jil Sander.

Hong Kong alone contributed an excess of 75 percent of the world's fur imports and exports in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Fur Federation. The local federation represents 150 manufacturers, fur dressers and skin dealers with businesses concentrated in the Hung Hom area of Kowloon, while factories are located throughout South China.

Furriers have suffered persistent setbacks during the past several decades. Everest, also an adviser to the local federation, said the ascendance of the animal rights agenda in the 70s and repeated financial crises created major hurdles.

"We realized for survival, we had to tie ourselves more to the fashion industry," he said. "Once fashion embraces fur as the fabric of the future, then there isn't enough fur around." Surrounded by the silky smooth pelts on display at his company's booth, Everest exuded optimism.

The 49-year-old British national has been in the fur industry for more than 30 years. He moved to Hong Kong in 1980. Fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, he is also versed in the history of Chinese furs. "In the early 1900s, Shanghai was the place that was really rockin' and rollin'. If you wanted a fur garment that was the place to go. There was nothing in Hong Kong, certainly no fur industry," he said.

Cyril Murkin, the founder of Everest's company headed for Hong Kong in 1962. London's fur establishment didn't know what to make of it. Hong Kong's fur market was embryonic. But change came swiftly, within the decade, droves of bourgeois artisans fled the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), bringing their means of livelihood - fur craftsmanship. Colonial Hong Kong's latent textile and toy factories created fortunes, opening a market of well-to-do residents able to afford luxury goods. Fur demand soon boomed and that was that; Hong Kong's fur trade was flourishing.

Chinese buyers at the recent Hong Kong fur fair reconfirmed that there is a continuing industry growth trend nationwide. Attendance at the fair vouched for that. Of the fur buyers attending, 3,171 were from the mainland, representing 40 percent of the total 7,865. Koreans, Russians, Japanese and Americans were well represented, too.

Everest said fur provides fashion designers with a creative design tool that raises the prestige (and dollar value) of clothing lines. Animal rights groups take a different position. They say fur carries the stigma of animal cruelty and reflects an immoral choice by consumers who buy fur products.

The activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that fur is an unnecessary luxury in an era when modern fabrics could meet the market demand without taking animal lives. The organization's regional arm, PETA Asia released an online announcement and press release to coincide with the opening of the 2012 Hong Kong Fur Fair.

The new PETA campaign is titled "Get a Feel for Fur: Stick Your Finger in an Electrical Socket." It shows a fox trying to escape from a neck snare before fur farmers electrocute the animal. The shock footage purportedly comes from a new PETA investigation of Chinese fur farms completed this winter.

Such ads are standard with PETA, an organization notorious for its viral digital media campaigns featuring hidden camera footage, celebrity testimonials and sexually provocative publicity stunts. Recurring slogans range from the pithy "Fur is Dead" to the literal "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur." The nonprofit group was founded back in 1980 in the United States. It opened an office in Hong Kong in 2005.

Representatives have since sprung local protests that got them ejected from several local fashion events. The group hijacked a fur seminar during Hong Kong Fashion Week in 2008; sat in cages outside the fur fair in 2010; and leading up to the Year of the Rabbit, scantily clad activists shivered in their underpants while being interviewed by journalists on a crowded pedestrian street.

The Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (HKSPCA) is an animal welfare non-profit group with a much longer local history, dating back to 1903. Fur is not the HKSPCA's focus, but its deputy director Fiona Woodhouse said the group has hosted some anti-fur awareness events during the past three or four decades.

The first single issue anti-fur group, Lynx (a group from Britain), provided promotional materials to the HKSPCA in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Lynx was busy redefining the campaign tactics used by subsequent anti-fur groups and other crusading environmentalists. Lynx's founders hired musicians and celebrities for testimonials and created visually shocking images. For example: a model dragging a blood-soaked fur coat with the slogan "it takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat but only one to wear it."

The British group succeeded in changing public sentiment in the UK, but it was bankrupted by a libel case stemming from a fur farm investigation during the early 90s. By then, public sentiment had changed. Britain finally outlawed fur farming in 2003.

"Maybe the anti-fur movement hasn't been consistent and awareness is falling off. Maybe now the younger generation is not as educated, or a trend of economic circumstances has made fur a luxury item within reach of more people," said Woodhouse, lamenting fur's return to fashion.

The era of animal rights activism represents a relatively new and small portion of the deeper history of the fur trade, one of the world's longest-running globalized industries. It was the fur trade that helped to set off the exploration of much of North America. Outposts eventually grew to towns and cities along rivers and bays. The Hudson's Bay Company remains the oldest commercial corporation in North America.

Hudson's Bay Company sold its fur auctions only a few decades ago. The auctions continue today under new ownership. In the late 80s, fur farming associations bought the New York and Toronto auctions, and by 1992, they consolidated into the North American Fur Auctions (NAFA). A handful of other auction houses also existing in North America and Scandinavian countries are also seeing good years. Representatives of those auctions traveled to Hong Kong for the recent fur fair.

The 2012 NAFA auction in early February recorded record sales, surpassing the heyday of the Hudson's Bay Company. Total sales amounted to $322 million in farmed and wild fur, said Diane Benedetti, NAFA's vice president of marketing.

Ever since the mid-19th century, fur has come from both farmed and wild fur. Most fur today is farm-raised, as in China.

PETA has a litany of complaints. It claims cramped cages cause psychological disorders and physical abnormalities in wild animals not adjusted to life in confinement. It fumes that laws to protect animal welfare are not always enforced; and that animals are cruelly slaughtered. PETA condemns trappers who capture animals in the wild because traps are inhumane, with numerous reports of animals chewing off their limbs to escape. Traps also result in the unnecessary deaths of household pets and non-targeted wildlife.

"Wearing fur is already something that so many people look down on. It's just an industry that's sinking so quickly. They're doing everything they can to get sales back up. But young people today are just too socially aware to buy into it," said PETA Asia Campaigner Ashley Fruno.

Everest disputed Fruno's claim, citing evidence of rising sales. Growing sales of fur garments suggests increasing acceptance of fur, he countered. The trend worries Asia-focused animal rights group ACTAsia. Many consumers simply don't realize they are buying fur products or how the fur is obtained.

In a phone interview from London, ACTAsia Director Pei F Su cited industry and government sources, showing that China has been the world's largest fur processor and manufacturer for more than a decade. China became the world's primary consumer of fur products in 2008 with nationwide demand taking off, as European and American demand slackened with the onset of the global financial crisis.

ACTAsia has launched a campaign to fight the growth of the fur industry. Starting in December of 2011, its "NO Fur China Campaign" began providing informational materials, posters and stickers to more than 50 animal welfare groups around the country. The campaign, with the microblogging site acting in partnership, has elicited support from more than 100 celebrities, writers and media personalities throughout China.

Pei founded ACTAsia in 2006 after helping to coordinate a fur farm investigation that exposed the practice of Chinese farmers skinning raccoons alive. During the previous investigation, she worked with Swiss Animal Protection and the Taiwan-based EAST International. They videotaped the skinning of raccoons alive in fur farms in Hebei province and posted the videos online. She said farmers skinned animals alive to work faster and preserve fur quality.

Researching the practice of skinning animals alive on fur farms has inspired Pei's continued work with China's fur trade. She wants to warn young people of the inhumane methods used to obtain fur and advocate for a national animal welfare law.

Animal husbandry and wildlife protection laws both exist in China, but Pei said neither law ensures animals with adequate minimum living conditions. A group of Chinese academics drafted an animal welfare law in 2009 that also included humane slaughter requirements, but the draft was not approved.

Everest said the fur farming practices in China are by no means perfect, but they are improving. He said it would be impossible to expect a complete overhaul of standards. In fact, he said the International Fur Federation is eager for China's fur farmers to improve the animal welfare of farmed fur animals. The result would be better quality garments.

The International Federation offers an Origin Assured label for garments coming from countries with high quality fur farming standards. Chinese fur garments do not yet qualify.

Everest said the fur industry invests millions of dollars in research for the well being of farmed and trapped furbearers. "That's something that the animal rights activists don't want to tell you," he chided.

Or maybe the hardcore activists just don't care.

"We always have plans for taking down the fur industry," said Fruno, the PETA Asia campaigner. "Every protest that PETA does and every celebrity advertisement that we launch is just another nail in the fur industry's coffin."

David Neale
Animal Welfare Director
Animals Asia Foundation
Tel: +(44) 1579 347148
Mob: + (44) 7764 161981
Fax: +(44) 1579 347343

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