In 2009, Karl Lagerfeld, the designer behind high-end fashion houses Fendi and Chanel, famously declared that in a culture of meat-eating and leather use, “the discussion of fur is childish”, implying that the contentious product would continue to be sent down runways.
Last week, in an apparent U-turn, and just ahead of its Metier d’Arts show in New York, Chanel announced that it would cease using exotic skins and fur in its collections. “We are continually reviewing our supply chains to ensure they meet our expectations of integrity and traceability. In this context, it is our experience that it is becoming increasingly difficult to source exotic skins that match our ethical standards,” read a statement.
Environmental and cruelty concerns
A few days earlier, respected naturalist David Attenborough sent out a dire message at the United Nations climate change summit in Poland. He said that humans are facing "our greatest threat", and described climate change as a "man-made disaster of global scale". Addressing world leaders, Attenborough spoke of the need for urgent action for change, to prevent what he described as "the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world".
Simultaneously, the United Nations Environment Program released an article pointing out that the fashion industry produces 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, declaring that “textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally, and it takes about 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans”.
Clearly Chanel’s timing is prescient, coming in the midst of a tangible shift in consumer thinking, which is moving away from products deemed environmentally unsustainable. Two sectors to come under particularly close scrutiny are the meat and fur industries, given that anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet can view footage taken inside slaughter houses and fur farms. These videos expose uncomfortable truths that had hitherto been hidden away. In a pre-digital age, out of sight was out of mind.
Now, however, the readily available statistics and often deeply disturbing imagery have led to increasing numbers of people searching for cruelty-free alternatives. The fashion search website Lyst reported a 47 per cent rise in searches for ethical fashion, for example, with terms such as “vegan leather”, in 2017.
A growing trend
Many big-name designers have declared themselves fur-free, including Gucci, Coach, Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Diane von Furstenberg and Versace. Donatella Versace told The Economist: "I don't want to kill animals to make fashion. It doesn't feel right", while designer Tom Ford turned away from fur after becoming vegan. The London Fashion Week for spring/summer 2019 was completely fur-free, and both Burberry and Jean Paul Gaultier have recently shunned the product. Chanel, however, is the latest – and by far the largest – fashion house to come out against fur, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) claiming victory after what it describes as a decades-long campaign.
The trouble with exotic skins
In fact, Chanel has gone one step forward and decided to steer clear of exotic leathers, too. Exotic skins are considered the pinnacle of luxury, and as such carry the highest retail prices. For example, the Chanel website currently lists the Gabrielle Small Hobo bag in calfskin at Dh15,500, while the exotic python version costs Dh23,630.
Despite Peta documenting grim conditions at factories supplying skins to the French house Hermès as recently as 2016, the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction was an Hermès diamond-encrusted crocodile skin Himalaya Birkin, which sold last year for £253,700 (Dh1.1 million).
Unlike family pets, farmed animals are legally listed as property, and therefore not covered by animal welfare legislation. At present only four countries worldwide (including England, India and France) have mandatory CCTV cameras in abattoirs, while the United States has gone in the opposite direction, making it illegal to film inside a slaughterhouse.
Worldwide, it is estimated that one billion rabbits, and 50 million other animals (including mink, fox, coyotes and dogs), are killed each year for the fashion industry, including 10 million wild animals and 66,000 baby harp seals snared in traps. Social media platforms are filled with shaky footage of animals being trapped, electrocuted and skinned, while footage from Eastern Europe show animals deliberately overfed to produce larger pelts, while others languish, diseased and miserable-looking, in wire cages exposed to the elements. In China, which is one of the top producers of fur, there is a lack of even basic animal protection legislation, with growing evidence that animals are routinely skinned alive.
While Chanel’s use of fur is tiny compared to other brands such as Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior and Saint Laurent, interestingly, it is the highest profile house to ban exotic skins to date.
Compared to a cute-looking rabbit or fluffy Arctic fox, lizards, snakes and stingrays are not conventionally attractive, making it harder to garner support. Yet, ironically, the skin industry is rife with poor welfare standards. Most crocodile skin originates in Thailand, Zimbabwe or Zambia, where animals are often kept in solitude inside cramped concrete pens, to prevent fighting and damage to the valuable hide. Vietnam alone farms 30,000 crocodiles per year, with the Nile crocodile being the most prized for its soft belly skin, while small crocodiles are called “watch strap”, in reference to where their hides end up. Lax laws result in unchecked hunting of wild reptiles, piling further pressure on many already endangered species.
In an attempt to regulate the industry, Kering (the group that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent) built its own python farm in Thailand in early 2017, but with such high premiums per skin, illegal hunting shows no sign of slowing down. By their very nature, snakes, crocodiles and stingrays are difficult to harvest, and unblemished skins are rare. Thin and delicate, snakeskin is hard to remove, and cases of the reptile being force-fed water to swell the body and ease the process, abound. Although barely 36 months old when harvested, crocodiles are capable of inflicting severe wounds, so the process is focused on incapacitating the crocodile, rather than killing it, raising the gruesome spectre of many being skinned alive.
A glimmer of hope
Stella McCartney is set to announce a United Nations fashion industry charter to promote sustainability in Poland, and the hope is it will be supported by leading names from both ends of the fashion spectrum. Speaking to The Guardian, McCartney explains: "Fast fashion is responsible for the lion's share of environmental impact, so [those brands] are the most important element in effecting real change." The aim is to help fashion labels reduce their carbon footprint without disrupting business.
With companies such as Modern Meadow and VitroLabs both pioneering lab-grown skin – including ostrich, cow and crocodile, albeit on a small scale – and bovine leather capable of being textured and coloured to replicate many exotic skins, it seems like the time may be up for the exotic- skin trade. However, with an estimated 196,000 workers dependent on the crocodile-skin industry in Indonesia alone, clearly intelligent solutions are the order of the day. While Peta has vowed to use Chanel’s declaration to leverage the other big fashion houses to follow suit, it seems that there is much to be done to offer a truly cruelty-free future.