Animal Cruelty in the Fashion Industry

Animal Cruelty in the Fashion Industry

Michelle Gee


Humans have been using animal skins and furs in clothing for centuries. With a growing demand for fur and leather over the past century, apparel produced from animals has gone from being functional to being fashionable. Mass production of fur and leather items has created a harsh system of fur farming, trapping, and skinning which has sparked uproar among animal rights activists. With the current demand for animal apparel, approximately 31 million animals are killed in fur farms each year.[1]

History of Animal Products in Fashion

Before gaining recognition in the luxury fashion market, fur and leather were adorned by ancient civilizations as a means of combating the elements. Civilizations living in colder climates often relied on animal fur for survival. In warmer climates, leather often provided the material for necessary clothing and tools. The abundance of fur and leather products was mainly due to a lack of other means. Cotton fibers as well as weaving techniques were not yet present.[2]

It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that animal fashion products began to be mass produced. Around this time, fur gained its status as a luxury good and as a result, fur farming began. By creating fur farms, it was a way that fur producers could guarantee sufficient stock. It wasn’t until the 1960s that fur began to receive a negative connotation.

In 1977, Bridgette Bardot became the first celebrity to actively participate in a campaign against animal skins. The campaign she was a part of was sponsored by Greenpeace and pushed for end to the clubbing of seals for their skin. Despite the formations of anti-fur and skin movements, it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that the anti-fur and skin campaigns began to have an effect on the industry.[3]

The Process

Leather is created from various skins or hides of animals. After removing the hides/skins from the animals, all of the excess flesh is scraped off. The hides/skins are then hung out in a refrigeration system and shipped to a tanning facility. Through the use of chemicals, all hair remaining on the hides/skins is removed. They then undergo a process called “pickling” where they are soaked in a solution that results in softer leather.[4]

After this process, all hides/skins are tanned using a chemical substance made from either vegetables or chrome. The hides and skins are soaked in a vat of the substance for hours until the solution has fully penetrated. Any excess water is then wringed out and all pilling that occurred is shaved off. The leather then undergoes a “setting” process to guarantee it is fully dry. The leather is softened and finished to the desirable texture.[5]

Majority of minks, foxes, and other animals used for their fur are now raised on fur farms. The conditions on fur farms have been compared to those on animal farms used for meat production. Almost all the animals are born and die on the farm. The animals are kept within small cages that prohibit movement almost all day. Being confined to small cages does not only have physical effects on the animals, but mental effects as well. Animals generally don’t fare well in confinement and suffer from stress and nervousness.[6]

The animals are often killed through anal electrocution or neck-breaking since it prevents any damage to the fur. To cut costs, the animals don’t receive any type of anesthetic and it is not uncommon for the animals to be skinned while still conscious. When producing one mink coat, it requires approximately 60 to 80 mink skins to form the coat. Almost 80% of the minks harvested for their skin are from fur farms. This shows just how many animals are raised in fur farms for the sole purpose of producing a nice coat or accessory.[7]

Karakul lambskin has received much attention, as it is considered the cruelest form of fur harvesting. Karakul lambskin comes from baby lambs that are either still within the womb or are only a few days old. Generally, the pregnant mothers are killed and then the baby is harvested from the womb and skinned. If the baby is just born, it is usually skinned within a few days of life.[8]


PETA is the world’s largest animal rights organization and was founded in 1980. The company’s website states that “thorough investigative work, consumer protests, and international media coverage, PETA brings together members of the scientific, corporate, and legislative communities to achieve large-scale, long-term changes that improve animals’ quality of life and prevent their deaths.”[9]

The non-profit organization focuses on four major areas that include factory farms, clothing, entertainment industry, and animal research laboratories. They provide additional resources for individuals about getting involved, caring for injured animals, practicing vegetarianism, and other animal related issues. PETA’s work brought about the first animal cruelty case where the defendant was jailed due to experimentation on laboratory animals.[10]

PETA Achievements

In 2008, PETA attempted to spread awareness through retailers by organizing sit down meetings with various companies about the use of mulesed wool in their clothing. After having these meetings, PETA was able to get companies to pledge that they would only source wool that came from regions where mulesing is illegal. Some of the companies who pledged were H&M, American Eagle, Timberland, Aeropostale, Talbots, People Tree and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Since its start, PETA has also gotten many retailers and brands to forgo the use of any animal furs. In 2005, the Inditex Group, which is the parent company of Zara, banned the use of fur in all of its 100 companies. Other notable retailers who pledged to go fur-free after pressure from PETA include Forever 21, JCREW, Ann Taylor, Polo Ralph Lauren, Nicole Miller, Burton Snowboards, H&M, Calvin Klein, Gap, Inc., Charming Shoppes, J.C. Penney, Nike, Cole Haan, Urban Outfitters and Mango.

PETA has also held many protests outside of fur/leather retailers as well as fashion shows. As expected with PETA, the protests usually feature many naked protesters adorned in signs. The most recent protest occurred in London and featured the slogan “Bare skin, Don’t wear skin.” Two women stripped down to their underwear and marched along the street carrying a sign bearing the slogan. [11] The next day the same to women dressed in “sexy” police outfits and carried signs that said “Animal Skins are a Fashion Felony.” The girls then proceeded to write up “fashion felony” tickets for pedestrians wearing leather or fur items.[12]

PETA Campaigns and Celebrity Endorsements

One of the main fashion campaigns that PETA currently has running is “Donna Karan: Bunny Butcher.” PETA launched a separate website for the campaign that resembles the Donna Karan website. The website features Donna Karan clothing with blood smears and pictures of bunnies being skinned and killed in the background. In addition, one can find various graphic videos of conditions of fur farms in China, where Donna Karan sources her furs. PETA chose to launch their campaign against Donna Karan after attempts were made to reach out to the company. When Donna Karan decided to continue using rabbit’s fur after learning about fur harvesting methods, PETA then decided to take action against the company.[13]

The “Rather Go Naked” campaign is one of PETA’s largest and longest running campaigns. Over the years, many celebrities have posed nude for the organization in attempt to combat fur wearing. The advertisements feature the phrases, “Fur? I’d rather go naked” and “Be comfortable in your own skin and let animals keep theirs.” Over the years, the campaigns have featured Chad Ochocinco, Khloe Kardashian, Eva Mendes, Kat Von D, Stephen “Steve-O” Glover, Pamela Anderson, and Dennis Rodman. The most recent celebrity to pose nude for the campaign advertisements is Cornelia Guest. Guest is a New York City socialite. PETA hopes that the advertisement will target other socialites since this is still a large market for fur items.

PETA has recently launched their “Exotic Skins” campaign which is similar to their “Rather Go Naked” campaign which began in the 1990s. The “Exotic Skins” campaign features celebrities who are body painted to resemble the skin of an exotic animal. The campaign advertisements feature the slogan “Whose skin are you in?” In addition to the advertisements, Joaquin Phoenix created a video for PETA’s campaign that depicts the skinning process used on snakes, alligators, and other reptiles. [14]

In addition to all of these marketing campaigns, PETA also runs an annual campaign that accepts fur donation. After committing to living fur and leather free, it is likely that most people will still have some fur and leather items around the house. PETA launched this campaign so that people could bring in their old fur and leather items to be donated to the homeless who may need coats or warm garments during the winter. Although the cruelty has already taken place, at least the products are being used to help others.

PETA’s Tactics and Criticisms

“Ultimately, the controversy around PETA may have less to do with the organization than with those of us who stand in judgment of it- that is, with the unpleasant realization that ‘those PETA people’ have stood up for the values we have been too cowardly or forgetful to defend ourselves.” – Jonathan Safran Foer[15]

Majority of the reason why PETA has become such a well recognized organization can be attributed to its methods of achieving its goals. Almost all of its campaigns against fur and other animal skins feature fully nude women. Recently, PETA announced that it will be purchasing an .xxx domain. They are hoping that their “soft-core” porn/activism website will only increase their popularity.

In response to PETA’s “sexy” advertisements, many feminist groups have openly protested PETA campaigns due to their objectifying of women. One feminist blog, Equal Writes, feels that despite its agreement with what PETA is trying to achieve, PETA is doing it at the expense of women. Animal rights are an important cause that can be fought for without naked women. The “Rather Go Naked” advertisements are not the only cause of outrage for feminists groups. Many disgusted at recent advertisements featuring female porn stars that aim at promoting pet owners do get their pets neutered. One particular PETA commercial was actually considered too sexually explicit and was banned from the Super Bowl.[16]

When not using sex as a selling factor for its causes, PETA tends to resort to “scare” tactics. These scare tactics vary in content and are the main source of criticism against PETA. Perhaps one of their most disturbing tactics involving fur was when they had thrown a dead raccoon on to Vogue Editor, Anna Wintour’s lunch. They have also taunted her by sending maggot-infested organs to her office.

PETA has also aimed their scare tactics at children who are the most impressionable. At one point PETA had distributed pamphlets to various school children with titles such as “Your Daddy Kills Animals!” However, PETA recently decided to target children in a more “appropriate” manner. The organization launched PETA 2 and PETA kids which have the same values as PETA but leaves out the disturbing imagery and scantily clad women. PETA 2 is geared to tweens and teens. They interact more through social media and feature online games. The separate website also features lifestyle advice such as DIY vegan beauty routines.

PETA kids leaves out all the negativity and instead tries to promote a healthy relationship between children and animals. The website features animal-friendly games, such as Revenge of the PETA tomatoes. The game has kids toss tomatoes at fur-wearers who sneakily try to hide behind buildings. The website also makes a point of referring to animals as “someone” instead “something.” By giving animals more human qualities, it is easier for children to understand why it is important to treat animals well.

PETA’s launch of PETA 2 and PETA kids has actually helped to eliminate some of the controversy that was initially aimed at their attempts to “scare” children into cruelty-free lifestyles. It is often not the missions that PETA aims to achieve that are the spark of controversy, it is the way they go about achieving them. The PETA’s tactics have not necessarily converted people to their cause, but have made the non-profit a globally known organization. As philosopher Nathaniel Branden had set, “The first step towards change is awareness.”[17]

The Rise of Fur

During the 1990s, PETA’s “Rather Go Naked” campaign made a huge impact on the fur industry. Since they were able to feature numerous celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson, in their campaigns, it created a mass shift away from fur use. It was not unlikely for fur wearers to be harassed on the streets and splattered with paint because of their choice to wear fur. However, the public uproar soon died out and now fur is making a huge comeback in the industry.[18]

Large mink coats may not have the same popularity that they once did, but fur is now being used more in accessory items and trimmings. As a result, more people are able to afford fur items. According to the Fur Information Council of America, the overall fur sales rose by 3.1% in 2010 compared to the previous year. Part of the increase is also attributed to fur now being marketed to a younger consumer whose focus has shifted away from animal rights towards sustainability issues. A professor at N.C. State University’s College of Textiles even states that “When it comes to issues in fashion, her students are more interested in sustainability – whether dyes are polluting the water, transportation of products and overall carbon footprint of the fashion industry.”[19]

The fashion industry marketing and justifying their use of fur and animal skin products by branding the products as “green” and “ethical” is a fairly new approach for industry. The industry has used this type of green washing to enhance the fur trades public image. Majority of consumers debating a fur purchase may be more likely to support the purchase if they believed it was a better sustainable choice. In theory, fur and skins are more sustainable than over textiles because they are bio-degradable and don’t require chemicals or pesticides to be produced. However, during the process of tanning leathers and dying furs, many toxic chemicals are used. According to an article in the Daily Mail, “the World Bank ranks fur processing as the world’s fifth biggest toxic metal polluter.”[20]

Despite the toxic metal pollution, fur industry leaders continue to market sustainability. Designer Tom Ford is actually quoted as saying that fur is an important luxury good because it provides people with “the ability to enjoy things that haven’t had a destructive impact on the planet or on other people.” His careful wording takes the focus off of animals and places it unto other matters. However, this can be seen as hypocritical since animals are a crucial part of the planet.[21]

The Origin Assured Mark is the newest method for consumers to identify where their fur comes from. The mark is regulated by the International Fur Trade Federation and is used to assure the origins of fur items. The mark is being marketed as a way to provide consumers with transparency into the fur market. The transparency is somewhat limited though. The mark is used for items that come from manufacturers who follow their country laws regarding fur harvesting. In majority of countries, the laws surrounding fur harvesting are extremely lenient and therefore very easy to uphold.

The Fur and Skins Legacy

Fur may have once served a purpose to humans who wore it. It provided them with necessary warmth to survive colder climates. However, with new synthetic fiber available today, warmth is no longer an excuse to adorn fur. A potential reasoning for the continued purchase of fur is its status symbol. Within western society, it is often in grained culturally that fur symbolizes wealth and success. Although fur is now affordable for a much broader market, the status symbol is still there. Consumers may not be aware of the psychology behind their purchase, but wearing fur makes them feel of a higher status regardless of whether the item costs a few thousands or less than a hundred.[22]

Despite what some may believe, wearing animal products has become “trendy” again. It may be easy to forgo wearing a fur vest, but it is much harder to be convinced to sacrifice a $200 pair of Ugg boots. Why is one choice easier than the other? This can be attributed to the fact that Ugg boots have become a huge trend over the past five years. They are present in almost every shoe store and on the feet of almost every woman between 10 and 30 years old. It’s easier to follow the crowd than to try to fight against it.

The Continuing Fight

Despite a rise in fur and leather sales, there are still efforts being taken to try to steer fashion away from animal cruelty. The Humane Society recently hosted a fashion design competition for students at various Art Institutes. The competition was titled “Cool vs. Cruel” and required students to create a vegan garment. Students were told to look at recent runway show and choose a garment made using either fur, skins, or leather. The challenge was then to recreate the garment with vegan alternatives. The winner of the competition re-modeled a Fendi coat.[23]

The Humane Society has also taken steps against fur by taking legal action against eleven different retailers who have mislabeled fur items. According to the Humane Society, the retailers have made false claims on their websites that specific garments are made of faux fur. Some of the garments listed as faux fur actually list animal fur on the inside label. The society has filed previous complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and claims that the false labeling has been going on for awhile. Majority of the falsely labeled items are made in China where real fur is often less expensive than faux fur. [24]

Some designers and brands have continued to be fur-free despite the decline in attention. One designer who has always maintained a purely vegan fashion line is Stella McCartney. In a newspaper interview Stella McCartney had said that “There’s nothing fashionable about a dead animal that has been cruelly killed just because some people think it looks cool to wear. The continuing use of fur is still a real problem in the fashion industry and there is an issue with people out there assuming that fur trim is fake when most of it is real.”[25]

Over recent debate, West Hollywood is in the process of banning the sale of fur products within the city. The bill passing makes West Hollywood the first city to ever ban the sale of fur. The idea was brought about by local animal rights groups and has gained recognition due to the views of many people within West Hollywood. The city has been known for its “cruelty-free” mentality. Although they know that consumers will travel the slight distance to neighboring cities to purchase fur items, they are hoping that it will be enough to provoke people into questioning the morality behind fur.[26]


“In today’s world of virtually unlimited choices, animal exploitation is simply unacceptable. We can eat better, educate ourselves better, clothe ourselves better, and entertain ourselves better without torturing and killing animals.”[27] Animal use in fashion is an unnecessary cruelty that can easily be fixed. Through recent advancements, faux-furs and faux-leathers can be found almost everywhere and often have qualities similar to their real counterparts. Fur and leather do not provide any functional benefits that can’t be provided through other means. It seems that for some, the cruelty towards animals is just the price to be paid for a fashion statement.



[1] Hanan, Julie. “Fur-Free Friday becomes a Thanksgiving Tradition.” Examiner. November 4th, 2011. <;.

[2] “The History of the Fur Coat.” Fur Fashion. <;

[3] “Leathers, Feathers, and Furs: A Fashion History.” The Ohio State University. <;.

[4] “The History and Process of Leather.” C.C. Leathers Inc. <;.

[5] “The History and Process of Leather.” C.C. Leathers Inc. <;.

[7] Owen, Jonathan. “The fur trade: Bloody Fashion.” The Independent. November 26th, 2006. <;.

[8] Owen, Jonathan. “The fur trade: Bloody Fashion.” The Independent. November 26th, 2006. <;.

[11] “PETA Protesters show some skin.” London Community News. November 3rd, 2011. <;.

[12] Macaluso, Grace. “Sexy PETA fashion police protest in downtown Windsor.” The Windsor Star. November 4th, 2011. <;.

[14] Lloyd, Lauren. “Lauren Vandervoort Gets Naked then Painted in PETA’s ‘Exotic Skins’ Ad.” Laist. October 20th, 2011. <;.

[15] Safran Foer, Jonathan. “Eating Animals.” New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.

[16] Thomson-Deveaux, Amelia. “Why Vegetarian Feminists are upset with PETA.” EqualWrites. May 25th, 2009. <;.

[18] Owen, Jonathan. “The fur trade: Bloody Fashion.” The Independent. November 26th, 2006. <;.

[19] Johnson Martin, Adrienne. “Fur goes smaller and still sells.” News Observer. November 3rd, 2011. <;.

[20] Penman, Danny. “Is ‘Ethical Fur’ the Fashion Industry’s most cynical con yet?” Daily Mail. March 17th, 2011. <;.

[23] Gram, Karen. “Art Institute Students show they care with flair: Fendi-inspired coat nets finalist spot in faux-fur contest.” The Vancouver Sun. November 8th, 2011. <;.

[24] Binkley, Christina. “Warning: Faux fur may not be so faux.” The Wall Street Journal. November 22nd, 2011. <;.

[25] Owen, Jonathan. “The fur trade: Bloody Fashion.” The Independent. November 26th, 2006. <;.

[26] WeHo News Staff. “Support for Fur Ban Depends on POV.” WeHo News. November 7th, 2011. <;.


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