Friend, Foe, or Frock: Animal Rights in Fashion
Briana N. Laemel
Animal Rights In Context:
On the rare occasion individuals think about animal rights, they often do in relation to the food industry. What should come to mind is the cruelty, corruption and lack of credibility of slaughter houses, factory farms, and small-time butchers alike. However, all too often the public turns a blind eye to the wrongdoing of meat and poultry producers. In a society where animals equal food, it is hunger and greed – not logical, rational thought or compassion – that drives motives, jades opinions and encourages ignorance, all of which contribute to the idea that animals are food, and certainly not our friend.
Today, it is not surprising that such little concern is given to animal rights in terms of the fashion industry considering the precedence appearances takes within our culture. Fur, leather, wool, and silk are used in excess, and animals, who, in essence, are unwillingly forced to supply textile manufacturers, mass-producers, designers, and the like with their bodies and secretions are subjected to unrelenting abuse and mutilation. This horrifying abuse is unacceptable considering the socially responsible alternatives fashion industry leaders have access to today. Despite these endless options, most continue with their unethical practices that violate animal rights on countless levels.
Regulations could easily correct such issues; however, very few, if any, have yet to be enforced. Those that have been enacted are often misleading, and yield very little power against industry practices that have been in place for centuries.
Animal Rights as an Issue of Corporate Social Responsibility
In terms of Corporate Social Responsibility, the issue of animal rights, namely in fashion, is often overlooked. Seemingly more important issues, such as labor rights in the workplace, regularly take precedence, as such are noted to be of a more pressing matters. However, despite this common misconception, issues of animal rights are just as much a part of Corporate Social Responsibility as anything else.
Proponents of fur, leather, wool, and silk often speak little of their role in evading issues of animal rights. Hardly any note of where the skins and subsequent textiles came from, and even less identify by which means their textile was derived. Consider that each year, “millions of animals are killed for the clothing industry,” and regardless of if “the clothes come from Chinese fur farms, Indian slaughterhouses, or the Australian outback, an immeasurable amount of suffering goes into every fur-trimmed jacket, leather belt, and wool sweater.” Facts like these are universally unknown, thus the ignorance of the consumer is not to blame, but rather those working tirelessly to conceal their actions.
Ultimately, animal rights in fashion becomes an issue of Corporate Social Responsibility because of a notable disconnect, epitomized by the notion that what those encouraging the use of animals for fashion purposes tell us about their doing hardly compares to what actually occurs in this vicious cycle on a daily basis. By improving Corporate Social Responsibility as it pertains to animal rights, the truths, the tales, and the transitions of such a pertinent issue will certainly become clear, as will the need for radical reform.
The Facts (and Fictions) About Fur Farming:
By definition, fur farming is “the practice of breeding or raising certain types of animals for their fur.” These animals, who have never known a life in the wild, are bred on-site, where they “spend their entire lives confined to cramped, filthy wire cages.” At present, there are no regulations for fur farms, thus owners hold ultimate power over the animals they breed. Animals raised on fur farms – namely mink, fox, and rabbit – are caged in open sheds that provide little protection from the elements. As a result, the animals often fall victim to pests and disease, brought on by their inability to continuously adapt to seasonal climate change. Because fur farms are often so overcrowded, pests and disease spread quickly, and contagious cases such as viral enteritis and pneumonia are regular occurrences, in addition to the fleas, ticks, and lice seeking refuge on the pelts. Often, the pests and diseases go untreated. Animals are then left to die, infested both internally and externally.
Yet the “natural” death of animals on fur farms is hardly something owners pity. Those killed by disease, or the stress induced by that disease, eliminate one task to be performed by said fur farmer and thus money can be saved. But for those who survive, a similar fate awaits. Animals spared for their fur are often subject to a death that is both cruel and unusual. Because furriers, much like many other manufacturers, seek to reduce cost and increase profit, they invoke the cheapest (and often the cruelest) killing methods known to man. Suffocation, anal and vaginal electrocution, gassing, and poisoning are just a few of the legally-practiced methods. Despite their apparent harshness, these specific methods remain legal. In many cases, it has been argued that the mentioned methods kill said-pelt bearing animals quickly, instantaneously even, and thus reduce potential suffering. However, a recent PETA investigation of a Chinese fur farm found that many animals were still alive and struggling after electrocution or gassing; some were noted to have hearts beating for five to ten minutes after they had been skinned. Skinned alive in many instances, these animals are left to die amidst the unbearable pain of their pelts having been removed entirely. Unfortunately, for these innocent animals, furriers are unmoved by the cruelty attached to their work. But why is this so? For furriers, only one thing matters: the condition of the pelt upon removal. A fur farmer’s method of choice, though predominately a factor of cost, is also impacted by the potential damage that method may inflict not on the animal, but on the animal’s pelt. Skinning animals alive is often practiced to encourage the pelt’s overall contour and fur retention.
After all is said and done, it is quite clear that the inner-workings of fur farms are anything but ethical – and certainly not socially responsible. However, individuals continue to encourage the manufacturing, production, and eventual use of fur for garments of both high and low fashion, which leaves the question: is ignorance really bliss, or is the truth about fur farming something so many individuals miss?
Fur Farming Exposure and Concealment
Through the work of organizations like PETA, the cruelties of fur farming are gaining recognition in the public eye. Though, many counter organizations have actively sought to oppose these efforts. Fur is Green campaign is an instance of this. This campaign claims that “fur is a natural, renewable and sustainable resource,” meaning that because furriers “only use part of what nature produces each year without depleting wildlife populations or [damaging] the natural habitats that sustain them,” ecological balance is maintained. But these recent claims that fur is environmentally friendly are unfounded, and it is clear that the fur industry is not fooling anyone. According to Joshua Katcher, renowned ethical fashion expert, “Factory farming is factory farming. When you place a concentrated number of wild animals in an area that hasn’t evolved to deal with that concentration of waste – environmental disaster is inevitable.” Other such organizations claim that while fur farming may be misguided, fur used from wild caught animals, also known as free range fur, is more ethical because the animals have lived their lives free and natural in the wild. However, upon capture, these animals suffer a fate similar to that of their fur farmed counterparts.
Thus, while countless organizations seek to prove not only the viability, but also the ethical nature of fur use in fashion – going so far as to claim fur as being “green” – not one has succeeded at doing so. What these counter organization have succeeded at doing, however, it highlighting the disconnect between the actions of furriers and the words of those furriers.
The Lessons (and Lies) About Leather Manufacturing:
Leather and Animals Much like fur, which can be taken from countless animals, leather can be made from cows, pigs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos, and – in some instances, where animal rights are particularly neglected – even dogs and cats (17). These animals are slaughtered, but only after they have lived in a life of horror on a gruesome factory farm.
Much like factory farms that house cows and the like for food production, factory farms for fashion purposes are extremely crowded. The animals who reside in these farms are deprived of necessities, and often fall victim to abuses so cruel it becomes hard to believe that any human being could be capable of such acts. Castration, branding, tail-docking, and dehorning are done regularly, without painkillers. Many of these animals, upon slaughter, have their throats slit so quickly that the killer does not succeed at rendering the animal unconscious. As a result, many of the animals killed for their leather are skinned and dismembered while still conscious (17). Tens of millions of cows are killed in this manner each year, despite regulations trying to lessen the cruelty of slaughter. Although “the federal Humane Slaughter Act stipulates that cows should be stunned by a mechanical blow to the head and rendered unconscious before they are strung up” (17). However, as has been the case throughout, because time is of the essence the high speed of the assembly lines often results in improper stunning (17). Improper stunning, as with improper throat slitting, is an entirely unethical practice that leaves millions of cows in terror and to suffer unbearably as they are skinned.
In terms of fashion, while much of the leather used is derived as a byproduct of cows used for beef and milk, waste management and issues of sustainability should not surpass the welfare of the animals at stake. As PETA notes, “buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and slaughterhouses because skin is the most economically important byproduct of the meat industry” (17).
Leather, Animals, and the Environment Economical it may be, but environmental is it not. Despite the fact that using leather as a byproduct of factory farming reduces waste, the slaughter of animals and the subsequent manufacturing of their leather is hellish, specifically in terms of the fashion industry’s effect of the environment.
As in any case of mass production, natural resources are required at unfathomable amounts. Raising animals for food and leather “requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water, and fossil fuels,” all of which could be used for practices more ethical and environmentally-sound; namely feed, which could be used to solve hunger in many third-world countries (17). In addition to these natural resources, leather manufacturing specifically requires unbelievable amounts of energy and chemicals. These chemicals often end up in U.S. waterways, in addition to the animals’ excrement, and thus possess a toxic threat to both human beings and other living animals (17). The Environmental Protection agency has gone as far to consider the chemicals used in leather manufacturing hazardous, and yet still practices persist. Many countries known for their leather industries are out of governmental reach, and because issues of animal rights are – to a great extent – less important abroad, the abuse continues.
Although animal rights organizations have also worked to expose the cruelties of leather manufacturing, the skin is still used for fashion purposes. Producers, manufacturers, designers, and retailers alike turn their backs on the animals who should be seen as their compatriots. But rather, these animals are seen as merely a means to an end; an end that only benefits those “who profit from the misery and suffering of others” with seemingly less valuable lives than themselves (17).
The Questions (and Misconceptions) About Wool and Silk:
Wool To the standard shopper or fashion enthusiast, wool appears to be a perfectly ethical natural fiber, one free from the issue of animal rights. Often, such is assumed because the animals providing the fiber – namely sheep – are not slaughtered for their skin, as are those providing leather hides and fur pelts. However, while these animals may not face the same gruesome end as their friends of fashion, it is not acceptable to assume that those wool-bearing beings live wonderfully ethical lives.
Much like leather and fur, wool is an incredibly sought-after textile. Because of this, there is an incredibly strong market for the fleece and skin of sheep. As a result, these animals “are treated as nothing more than wool-producing machines,” (18) and shearers are not shamed for generating those machines. Shearers, although they do not kill their victims as do furriers or leather manufactures, are not shy from being equally as evil. Profit is, of course, their top priority; one that far surpasses the concern for their wool-bearing animals’ welfare. Shearing sheds are one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals, despite the common misconception that shearing is in fact healthful for these animals. Because shearers are often paid by volume, and not by hour, fast work is encouraged; regard for the wellbeing of these sheep being sheared is not even so much discouraged as it is ignored entirely (18). Sheep that survive the shearing process – many die from cuts and wounds result of fast work – are left with no remaining fleece. These animals often become ill, for without enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes, sheep are unable to provide themselves with insulation against both cold and heat (18).
But cruelty during the process of wool production goes beyond easily-avoidable shearing accidents and weather-induced illness. The cruelest, and one of the most common, practices of sheep shearing is known as mulesing. Mulesing is a process by which “huge chunks of skin and flesh are cut from the animals‘ backside, often without any painkillers” (14). This practice is done most often to sheep raised as merinos, who are bred specifically to have wrinkly skin, an attribute that encourages more wool per animal (14). Breeding merinos in this way creates what would actually be considered an unnatural overload of wool, were there any standards to protect sheep from shearing. This excess of wool “causes many sheep to collapse and even die of heat exhaustion during hot months, and the wrinkles collect urine and moisture. Attracted to the moisture, flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive” (14). Fearful that these pests may lessen the wool’s quality upon shearing and spinning, mulesing was developed as a way to free not the sheep, but the wool, of maggots. Mulesing “is a crude attempt to create smoother skin that won’t collect moisture;” however, “the exposed, bloody wounds often become infected,” often by the maggots this practice was supposed to ward off. Many sheep who have undergone this particular mutilation suffer; many more die. Mutilation in the form of mulesing is thus not only cruel, but ineffective, and many other practices could easily discourage pest infestations in a humane manner. Through diet regulation, spray washing, or simply breeding types of sheep without excess wool, sheep can be spared (14). Noting this, many companies have taken progressive steps to reduce their wool consumption, pledging to move away from mulesed wool.
Thus, as is clear, “no amount of fluff can hide the fact that anyone who buys wool supports a cruel and bloody industry” (18). While wool has long been seen as natural fiber of ethical standards, such is yet again illustrative of the fashion industry’s ability to encourage a disconnect between the actions of shearers and the words of those shearers.
Silk In terms of animal rights, silk is perhaps of the least concern to the average consumer. However, as the issue of animal rights in fashion covers the entire realm of animal fibers, it is important to address those problems associated with silk harvesting.
Conventional silk is made by boiling the intact cocoons of silk worms. In mass-production, silk is often made from domesticated silkworms, raised on farms much like the animals used for fur, leather, and wool (13). The silkworms – in caterpillar stage – are fed mulberry leaves until they are ready to spin cocoons. Silk is secreted as a liquid from two glands in the caterpillar’s head, and it is the silk that forms the worm’s cocoon (13). When the silk worm has passed through this stage of development, the cocoon is placed in boiling water, thereby beginning a process which eases the extraction of silk thread, and thereby killing the silkworm (13).
As if being boiled to death is not cruel enough, silk worms often lead lives that are unconventional. They are exploited for their secretions, and thus kept in a strictly controlled environment to ensure that their silk is of the highest quality. For those fortunate enough to break free of their cocoon before boiling, a similarly unfortunate life awaits. Because silk caterpillars are bred to maximize silk production, the moths that emerge from their cocoons do so with countless defects. Many cannot fly because their bodies are too big compared to their wings; many cannot eat because their mouths are underdeveloped. Proponents of silk use claim that worms bred for harvesting live perfectly suitable lives, as insects cannot feel pain. However, experts disagree over to what extent an insect can feel pain, and highlight that because an insect’s nervous system is different than a mammal’s, it is difficult to gauge an insect’s feelings (namely because worms cannot show their distress in ways that humans easily recognize) (8). Nonetheless, the mere presence of a nervous system should be enough to solidify claims of silk worm suffering, as signals from stimuli still elicit a response to those stimuli (13). Thus, despite public belief, silk caterpillars suffer immeasurably as they are either unethically boiled alive or born as moths with seemingly intentional defects.
Yet the suffering of an silk caterpillar is not the only immeasurable aspect of silk production. What also appears to me immeasurable is just how extensive the use of silk moths is. “The amount of useable silk from each cocoon is small,” and as a result, it takes hundreds of silk worms “to produce just one silk scarf or tie” (13) Consider that approximately fifteen silkworms are killed to make one gram of silk thread. Consider, then, that it takes approximately 10,000 silk worms to make one sari, a fashion item commonly made from the finest of silk threads. If allowed to develop naturally, outside of a farm, and free of genetic breeding, silk worms would turn into defect-free moths, and silk could still be harvested. By collecting the cocoons those moth’s chewed out of, manufacturers would be able to unravel the silk strands and produce silk textiles in similar quantities. However, the strands of tussah silk (the official name for unfarmed silk) are much shorter, less lustrous, and thus less valuable. And as has been the pattern throughout the animal rights in fashion debate, quality of said animal fiber is of more importance than the animal’s quality of life.
Ethical Fashion: The Development of Animal-Friendly Design
Over the years, issues of animal rights in fashion have become increasingly more prevalent. Long gone are the days of vegan hippies, who shunned fashion for being a cruel institution. Here to stay are the vegan fashion-conscious, amidst the age of ethical fashion.
Ethical fashion “is an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare” (20). In essence, it encompasses all aspects of Corporate Social Responsibility as it pertains to the fashion industry. Of the CSR issues pertaining to ethical fashion, animal rights is – as has been the clear case – the least focused upon. Because the topic is so controversial, it seems to be given less attention. Yet while the issues may be given less attention in terms of social acceptance, it is given plenty of attention in terms of innovation and development.
Ethical fashion has illustrated that there is no need to be cruel in order to stay warm and look cool. Cruelty-free fabrics and faux furs are available in stores everywhere, and PETA continues to work with designers and clothing retailers to encourage their strict use and sale of animal-friendly fabrics.
Fur Alternative to fur include a wide range of faux options. Vests, jackets, hats, shawls, and muffs are now being designed with the welfare of animals in mind. These cruelty-free options are highly fashionable, and in many instances are entirely realistic. And with public figures (namely celebrities and pop-culture icons) denouncing the use of real fur, choosing to “go naked” is becoming more and more enticing.
Leather Alternatives to leather are becoming increasingly more innovative. These innovations include vegan microfiber, which claims to match leather in strength and durability, as well as alternative, sustainable and renewable plant-based and man-made, non-animal materials such as ultra suede, organic cotton, canvas, nylon, velvet, linen, cork, and eco-lining. Of course, these alternatives will never match the exact look, feel, and wear of leather; however, in terms of performance, they match all qualities of leather in the most ethical of fashions.
Wool Alternatives to wool include acrylic, cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, and synthetic shearling. Newer innovations, such as Tencel, are breathable, durable, and biodegradable, and serve as is one of the newest cruelty-free wool substitutes (4). Another newer innovation, Polartec Wind Pro, is made primarily from recycled plastic soda bottles and boasts a wind resistance four times that of wool (4).
Silk Alternatives to silk include some of the most interesting developments. The use of banana leaves and tree stalks to create a silky fiber has revolutionized the production of many silk-dependent items, such as the sari (11).
Vintage and Second Hand Buying clothing, shoes, and other accessories from vintage boutiques or second hand stores serves as an easy and affordable way to shop ethically. Although these items may be made with animal derivatives, the practice is sustainable as it encourages recycling and discourages waste. Buying vintage or second hand also limits the amount of support unethical producers, manufacturers, and designers are given, and ultimately takes a stance for animal rights from a less militant view.
Thus, as PETA has noted on many occasions, “fashion should be fun, not fatal,” and choosing to buy fashion-forward products made of near-identical alternatives can encourage the adoption of this slogan-turned-lifestyle motto (21).
Developing Corporate Social Responsibility Standards for Animal Rights:
What Has Been Done It is quite clear that the realities of animal rights in fashion are shielded by the glamour of the industry. Fur, leather, wool, and silk are not seen for what they truthfully are: the skins of beings; living, breathing beings, but rather for what they can be: status-conveying, luxury fibers and textiles. In terms of Corporate Social Responsibility, little attention has been given to such issues, encapsulated by the general issue of animal rights. While many acknowledge that the protection of animal welfare is important, many too consider the rights of human beings to be of first priority. Activist groups, such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, have worked for the protection of animal rights for years, and in doing so have generated a greater concern for the cause. However, in terms of legalized practice, there are few laws and acts that have impacted the fashion industry enough to inspire radical change.
What Should Be Done The decision to develop socially responsible standards in terms of animal rights is ultimately a choice to be made by each individual corporation. While it may be unrealistic to imagine a fashion industry free of fur, leather, wool and silk entirely, it is realistic to encourage the development of an industry with higher standards for the ethical treatment of the animals who provide for it. But aside from developing higher standards, it is also necessary to develop a means of ensuring that these standards are upheld. In many instances, companies claiming to be cruelty-free have deceived consumers through mislabeling; many have gone a step further, reverting to their fur, leather, wool, or silk use despite vowing to do otherwise.
This past February, Urban Outfitters fell victim to such a case. Since 2009, Urban Outfitters has claimed to be fur-free. After coming under attack that same year, the retailers agreed to cease the stocking of fur merchandise, and has since made notable cruelty-free fashion lists such as Fur-Free Retailers, Designers, and Brands, as compiled by the Humane Society (12). However, when a shopper grew suspicious of his purchase – “I have been analyzing fur and fashion for many years, and there is a significant visual difference between faux and real fur, and there is no way that the fur in this photo is faux. The way the fur falls open to reveal the skin beneath is obvious in the photos. The organic distribution of coloring is not machine-made. The hairs are not uniform. The oil-sheen of the hair is organic, not synthetic” – he ran a series of test that confirmed his questioning (12). Upon receiving countless letters of complaint, Urban Outfitters removed the item from their inventory and released a public apology, noting that “unfortunately, the information we’d initially gathered led us to believe that the collar trim was indeed faux fur. After further investigation, we were able to confirm your assertion that the trim in question was in fact real fur” (19). Regulating animal rights specifically in terms of fashion could help to reduce the number of instances such as the Urban Outfitters case. And as of recent, it is these cases that have inspired new ideas about reform.
What Is Being Done Most recently, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously, “approving an important bipartisan bill to protect consumers and animals” (15). The law, known as The Truth in Fur Labeling Act, passed the House of Representatives in July 2010 and was signed by President Obama later that same year. The act “will bring much-needed accuracy and disclosure to fur products,” as long as those committed to animal rights in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility ensure that it is upheld (15). Yet even with new acts and law coming into effect, standards already in place need to be improved upon. Guidelines for the protection of animal rights are limited, and governmental motions like the Animal Welfare Act only require that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided (5). But consider how would the public feel about these minimum standards if they applied to laborers in the workforce. Despite public opinion, there is little difference between the wellbeing of a human being and the wellbeing of an animal; after all, both have emotions, feel pain, and can be manipulated by another. Thus, in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility, it is time to level the playing field, for to solve the issue of animal rights it is necessary to accept the philosophical view that considers animals to have rights similar to or the same as human beings (6).
Although the fashion industry has come to equate animals with foes (even frocks) and not friends, the two do not necessarily need to remain mutually exclusive. In a different sense, animals can be both friend and faux – and with this, animal rights and the fashion industry can co-exist in an ethical, compassionate, exclusive, and luxurious way.
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