The meat paradox of fur and leather

The wearing of fur has long been a contentious fashion choice and has remained a divisive issue for designers and shoppers alike for decades. Instances of anti-fur protesters hijacking fashion shows and daubing red paint on fur salon windows are very much a present reality, despite the fact that the fur industry continues to grow in wealth and power year upon year. The continued popularity of fur, in spite of the deep ethical controversy surrounding it is somewhat baffling; even high-profile designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have condemned the fur industry for its cruelty and refuse to use fur in their designs. At the other end of the spectrum, however, there are labels like Fendi, which has its roots in fur fashion and chose to recapture its origins last year with an exclusively fur haute couture fashion show. This decision was rapidly condemned by PETA, which in turn prompted Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Fendi, to state his confusion surrounding anti-fur mentalities: ‘For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message.’

Is Lagerfeld right? Is everybody who steers clear of fur but can’t say no to a bacon cheeseburger au undeniable hypocrite? He is certainly not the first to raise such an argument in defense of the fur farming industry but this message has yet to be internalized by many designers. Defensible or not, it is fairly common practice to draw a line between the use of leather in fashion and the use of fur. A typical argument used to justify the consumption of leather products is that a cow’s skin is merely a by-product of an animal destined to be slaughtered for its meat. Surely since the cow is going to die regardless, wouldn’t we want to try our utmost to ensure that the poor beast didn’t die in vain?

Yet even a little research reveals this mass assumption to be, at best, seriously misleading. Sure, it’s true that the bulk of leather used for clothing, footwear and accessories is a by-product of cows raised for beef, but this is certainly not a universal truth. Often the sale of cow skins is actually more profitable for farmers than the sale of the meat and even when it’s not, it would probably be more accurate to describe leather as a subsidy to, rather than a by-product of, the meat industry. In short, the two work in tandem.

It is also important to remember that cow hide is only one variety of leather and the supposedly ethical mentality of “waste not want not” collapses when a material like ostrich leather is brought into the equation. Of course, ostrich steaks do indeed exist but you’d be hard-pressed to find it in your local supermarket or farm shop, whereas a trip to Harvey Nichols will no doubt render you multiple ostrich leather handbags and maybe even a pair of heels. The exact same can be said of crocodile and snakeskin. In the ostrich farming industry, the skin accounts for 80% of the bird’s value and so it seems that if you buy an ostrich leather bag you are directly contributing to the perpetuation of animal slaughter and not merely lessening the wastage of the inevitable.

Fur perhaps comes under a similar umbrella to ostrich and crocodile skin except from in this case, with the exclusion of rabbits, the animal carcasses are not used in human food at all. But that’s not to say that fur manufacturers do not dispose of these animals in the most cost-effective ways possible and the remains of foxes, minks and chinchillas often go into pet feed and fertilizers. The popular aversion to fur, then, possibly boils down to the fact that, no matter how economical their deaths, these animals are ultimately killed for superlatively cosmetic reasons.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am the farthest thing from vegan myself, I’ve actually sat and written this in a suede skirt. And yet I really do believe that I love animals; I feel a genuine attachment to my pets and would never want to be without animals in my life. So I feel like my consumption of meat and leather should bother me, but it just doesn’t. Why not? The answer, I would argue, lies in a phenomenon colloquially termed the “meat paradox” and psychologically termed “cognitive dissonance”. Basically, like many omnivores, I’m pretty adept at compartmentalizing the image of a duck on a pond and a duck on my plate. At the same time, I’ve steered clear of wearing fur my entire life for, dare I say it, “ethical reasons”. And this is ultimately the question that we are most interested in: Is it logically sound to condemn the incorporation of fur into fashion and yet refuse to give up your leather jacket and quit eating steaks? I don’t think it is and if that’s your attitude you’re probably a hypocrite. But don’t worry, at least there are quite a few of us.