Are You Ethically Fashionable or Fashionably Ethical?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It all started with a fur coat.

But first let me clarify my own personal stance on fur. My personal opinion is that the current trade in fur is abhorent. With such good quality fakes available I see no reason for the trade in animals pelts merely for fashion to continue. However, I am also of the opinion that vintage furs are not going to turn back into small fluffy bunnies just because they don’t get worn. I am anti waste and I beleive in recycling and reusing where possible, regardless of the material.

I think the modern fur trade should be regulated a lot like the Ivory trade. Where new products are illegal, but existing goods are able to be traded.

Ok, now we’ve got that out of the way, on with the story.

In my search for lovely goodies to sell on in my Shop I picked up a fur coat. I had sold faux fur before, and at the time initially assumed it was a fake. Further investigation, however, revealed the coat to be real, possibly rabbit fur.

It was a beautiful vintage coat, in amazing condition, and I listed it in my eBay store without the slightest thought that vintage fur could be contentious.

Then I promoted it on my Facebook Page and I was bought to task by a fan for selling fur. Very politely of course. Retro Chick people are NICE people….

So I asked around among some friends and on Twitter and it turns out opinions are very mixed. A lot of people also have no problem with vintage fur, others feel that wearing fur at all is promoting it as fashionable (though surely faux fur is the same?), and some were so incensed by the sale of fur that it turns out they would consider leaving my Fan Page because I was selling it.

Where do our ethics come from?

I was slightly taken aback by the depth of feeling and I started to think about where our ethics come from when we shop.

The sad fact is that pretty much every single purchase you make will impact someone, somewhere, negatively.

Cotton uses 6 litres of water to grow enough for one cotton bud and consumes massive amounts of pesticides, without even mentioning the exploitation of the workers involved in it’s growth. Silk is often made by boiling moth pupae alive so the cases can be unravelled. Hell, even “ethical” Bamboo fibres come with some serious considerations. So why do people feel so strongly about fur when they have wardrobes full of clothing that involved the boiling alive of moths and the exploitation of actual people? How did they decide that this was one ethical consideration on which they WILL NOT BEND.

Could it be this?

In 1994 the cult of the Super Model was a pretty huge thing, and so was this poster. People of around my age had this message pretty deeply ingrained into their shopper psyche, long before they were even in a position to be wearing any fur anyway.

PETA were, and still are, an animal liberation organisation. So this message comes not from a place of interest in ethics, but of protecting all animals. That means that if you buy their message you’ll stop wearing leather shoes, pearls and silk as well. Regardless of the environmental or human impact of the alternatives.

I strongly feel that we have a duty as consumers to educate ourselves, and be aware of the impact of our purchases. We can’t stop them having a negative effect, but can make sure we keep those effects as small as possible. We need to decide for ourselves if animal rights, environmental considerations, or ethical production considerations take priority in our shopping habits.

This isn’t about fur. No one NEEDS to wear a fur coat, whether it’s fake, vintage, or brand spanking new gopher loafers (please see The Simpsons if you don’t get that), but it might be worth thinking about why you feel SO strongly about it if you’re still tucking into battery farmed chicken.

(You should check out this interesting article on Dramatis Personae on animal vs environmental ethics.)

For the record I consider myself an ethical shopper.

But that doesn’t mean my wardrobe isn’t full of sweatshop produced clothing, leather and environmentally unfriendly plastics.

I buy mostly second hand, which I consider an ethical way to shop, and it suits my budget. If I need (or want) something new I have to consider my budget as well as the ethical alternatives. I’ll buy organic cotton if it’s available, but if it isn’t, or isn’t within my budget then I’ll buy it new. I buy very little new, so I feel I can do this without too much guilt. I’ll also shop at Primark, because despite it’s low cost, low ethics reputation it’s under a lot of scrutiny for this reason. Scrutiny that higher cost retailers escape to a certain extent.

Ethical shopping is a minefield that we all have to negotiate, whether we think about it or not, the issues are still there.

How do YOU make your ethical decisions when you shop?

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19 Responses
  • Catwalk Creative Vintage
    May 11, 2010

    I think moderation is the key.

    I personally don’t wear real fur because I don’t like the way it feels. However, I wear leather jackets, leather shoes and have leather bags too.

    Like you, I’ve sold a few vintage fur coats and stoles but that doesn’t mean I contribute in any way to the current fur trade who do not benefit from the sale in any way.

    The fur trade should be banned. It’s disgusting but that’s not going to change the fact that there are still millions of old fur coats out there. What should we do? Put them all in landfill?

    The vintage fur I’ve sold in the past has usually been over 40 years old. People wore fur back then for many different reasons – not just for fashion. There is no reason for real fur these days since faux fur replicates it so well.

    It’s a shame you’ve had Facebook fans that have threatened to leave your page because of this but obviously that’s their choice. Like I say, moderation is always the best way. There’s nothing anyone can do to bring life back to an old vintage fur and it’s a pathetic waste to place it all in a landfill somewhere.

  • Carmia
    May 11, 2010

    Thanks for raising this issue! I used to work in a costume jewellery and accessory boutique and we had all hell break loose on season for selling bunny-fur gloves imported from Paris. Our customers were extremely divided on the issue (ranging from outraged to ecstatic that we were selling real fur) and broke into heated arguments and shouting matches.
    I brought it up in a recent workshop on sustainable branding, and the very issues you mentioned around modern fabrics came up. Surprisingly, some of the models in the original PETA campaign you mention now publicly wear fur. (?!)
    (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/01/naomi-campbell-wears-fur_n_273709.html – not the link I was looking for, but pretty good anyway!)

    I’ve never really thought about it from the perspective of vintage fur – it’s a refreshing take.

    • Retro Chick
      May 12, 2010

      I was aware of Naomi Campbells shocking hypocrisy!

      It’s really astounding to be in such a high profile campaign and then appear in fur.

  • ukgnome
    May 11, 2010

    It can be said that all animal products in clothing are against animal rights. Leather is a by product from the meat industry, so does that mean that fur is OK as long as we eat the animal? I am of the opinion that if you use an animal product then it is better if we use all the animal rather than just it’s pelt. If you look at the way in which tribes and the like use an animal then you would understand that practically nothing is wasted. However, I am not suggesting that we all start dining out on bear steak. Now if you have an old fur or a recycled fur, then what’s the issue? The damage has been done, you are quite right in saying it’s not going to turn sudenly into cute living animals. I suppose the real qusetion is how can you display the fact that the fur is vintage? And I guess the answer is that you can’t. I don’t think it should be a hugh issue.

  • Rachel
    May 11, 2010

    For the record, vintage fur need not end up a landfill. In fact, the most ethical way to recycle it, in my opinion, is to donate it to wildlife rescue/animal shelter organizations. They use old furs as surrogate mothers for orphaned animals. I know that sounds a little wrong and ridiculous, but it is good for their psyche and provides them a great deal of physical and spiritual comfort.

    I am vegan and do not wear fur or leather or anything else that comes from an animal. I also buy almost exclusively second-hand, and, when I do buy first-hand, I spend the extra money to have things not made in sweatshops and of the most environmentally friendly materials possible (organic cotton, PU rather than PVC, etc.)

    Honestly, I don’t mean to be rude or sound self-righteous, but I don’t really think you can consider yourself an ethical shopper if you’re not making every effort to avoid suffering. I am not perfect, far from it, but I think there are more steps we can all take in the right direction regarding the ethics of our consumption. #1 among them is reducing our overall consumption, which is why I stick to secondhand whenever I can. For me, this means talking myself out of a lot of purchases (particularly of shoes), but, in the end, I don’t look back on those not-made purchases with regret; I am proud of myself for having the willpower to say no.

    • Retro Chick
      May 11, 2010

      It’s really interesting to hear from someone at the far end if the scale.

      I agree with you that there are things that we can all do to make better ethical choices when we shop. I don’t, however, think veganism is a viable choice for everyone and to keep the population we have now fed and clothed there WILL be suffering either to the environment, animals or people caused at some point in the chain. Even the second hand clothing industry has it’s ethical conundrums.

      My point was that it is important that we know the consequences of our purchasing choices. I believe an ethical shopper is one who is capable of weighing up the pros and cons of their purchases armed with all the information. Whether that’s about food, clothing or furniture.

      I make my purchasing decisions based on necessity, ethics and my budget. I have not, for instance, seen an attractive pair of ethical shoes for sale for under £100. That’s more thsn I’ve spent on shoes in total in the whole of the last year, I just can’t afford it, so if I need new shoes I buy High Street, but I do this very rarely and I get them mended. (I have written in the past about the economics of ethics too, when shoe repairs can be
      more expensive than new shoes!) I live in a world where at some point I’ll need something that I can’t buy second hand and in that circumstance it’s down to what I do after the purchase as much as what I buy. My purchases will last me years, and they won’t end up in landfill.
      it’s interesting to hear about the possibility of donating furs to animal shelters, I didn’t know that was possible, thanks!

      • Rachel
        May 12, 2010

        Hm, I’m not sure about UK prices, but Neuaura shoes sells stuff in the US for less than $100. If you can catch their sales, some of their shoes are as cheap as $35. But, I agree, ethical shoes are the biggest conundrum b/c of their cost (and I can’t find second-hand ones often b/c I wear a size 10, which isn’t common in the thrift stores here).

        What would the ethical issues be in second-hand clothing? I’m curious b/c I can’t think of any major human, environmental, or animal issues.

        Veganism, or at least vegetarianism, is actually the most viable choice to feed the masses of hungry humans and to protect the environment. It takes far more energy to produce a pound of meat than a pound of rice (or pretty much any other plant-based food). Rather than feeding a cow soy products, if those products were fed directly to people, far more people could be fed.

        As to the furs, I’m not sure if there are any programs in the UK, but the Humane Society of the United States has this link: http://www.hsus.org/furfree/campaigns/c4c/ If you’re interested, you might search for your nearest wildlife sanctuary or animal shelter and inquire there. 😀

      • Retro Chick
        May 12, 2010

        Hi, I’m out and about now, but wanted to quickly respond to you re: second hand clothing.

        I don’t think there are major ethical
        issues. The biggest issue is to do with exportation to developing countries. I just wanted to make the point that nothing is as straight forward!

        There’s a few points here, but I’ll see if I can find some more info when I’m back online after my birthday!

        I buy mostly second hand too. I think over all it’s the best option, but not sustainable if everyone did it!

  • Laura Connell
    May 11, 2010

    It seems rather obvious to me that vintage fur is ethically and environmentally responsible, just as vintage diamonds are free of “conflict” issues.

  • Leanne Wright
    May 11, 2010

    I’m glad you’ve brought this up as recently I was faced with some questions I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

    I was in a thrift store and saw a couple of beuatiful fox furs. I say beutiful because they were, foxes ARE beautiful animals. I wanted to buy it and my husband questioned my ethics. I truely dont think I would have worn it, it would have felt strange but i just wanted it, I didn’t want to leave it in the stinky shop (lets face it, thrift shops usually are!) with no one to love it.
    I also saw one on ebay on Sunday that again I wanted but for the history this time. It was the sellers great aunts who bought it to wear on her wedding day & it has been in the box since. Why would you just sell something like that to a stranger?!
    So back to the question. No I definately do not agree with the current fur trade. However, these animals were killed as a part of our history, just because we dont agree with it now doesn’t mean we should dismiss the items and leave them to rot on a landfill site. We should treat them with the respect they deserve.

  • Helen
    May 11, 2010

    Well, I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of 13, so I guess that comes into my shopping habits. I don’t buy new leather, but I will (and tend to) buy vintage. I class it as recycling like you. I feel the same way about fur. I’d wear real vintage stuff if I could stand touching it without feeling iffy (it reminds me too much of stroking my own cat – nothing ethical).

  • Freja
    May 17, 2010

    So many self righteous people out there, ignorant of the hypocrisy in their convictions. I am embarrassed for them. This was a good post and I would love to hear a response from someone who threatened to leave your page.

  • Janine
    May 18, 2010

    I love your quote about vintage fur and fuzzy bunnies. I agree completely. I’d feel worst about wasting that piece of clothing after an animal gave its life. In the old days people wore fur and leather to stay warm, out of necessity, and also used the whole animal. I find that admirable. Killing animals today is thought of as wrong because of the alternatives, but you’re right, those alternatives are definitely NOT always better.

    I hate the idea of trash. I don’t like taking the garbage out of my apartment each week or so – the thought of heaps of trash in a landfill makes me sick. So I shop for quality and thrifted items to contribute as little waste to that as possible. I often feel guilty about it when I do buy brand new items (not as often as I thrift, but often enough). In some way I suppose I believe sacrificing an animal for clothing can be more ethical than mass producing clothes of lesser quality using artificial materials. For the times we live in, it’s sad that all new clothing doesn’t fit some perfect in between. There is no excuse for pesticides, poor practices or crappy material any more. Animals may have given their lives for a piece of clothing, but a piece of well-made fur can be passed down for generations, whereas a polyester top from the mall might only survive a cycle or two in the wash.

  • Lisa
    May 19, 2010

    Excellent article. As someone who is vegan for ethical reasons and rarely (only if I absolutely cannot find an affordable alternative) do I buy anything that is new/not fair trade I do not understand why no fur is an absolute when fashion is rife with other abhorrent unethical practices…when did leather..the skin of animal get off the hook or sweat shops in the US and abroad? I suppose it shows that effective will change peoples minds about things…which is a good thing in this case. However vintage fur and leather is another..what is done is done.

  • jesse.anne.o
    May 19, 2010

    I am usually anti-fur (when asked, only rarely do I talk about it if it’s not topical, really). I think the vintage version just keept it “alive” as something wearable and those less interested in ethics will then think it’s okay to buy new. Nothing comes with a public label saying HOW it’s made or what it’s made of but with fur, it’s very obvious (and more so than leather, which could more easily be faux and which is more ingrained in our average retail culture as well).

    I also do avoid places that sell a lot of vintage fur if I know they do but that’s my right as a consumer to be entitled to a reaction about it. But I don’t normally contact someone and say, “I don’t want to support your store because you sell fur”.

    I do try to balance eco and animal issues when shopping. I’m not one of those people who will wear leather but critque fur or critique fur and eat meat, eggs, dairy. Of course, the issue of synthetics will always come up when people say they’re vegan and that will spiral into something else but for the sake of this thread – yeah, that is where I stand. I also won’t wear used leather or wool, although somewhere in the 14 years I’ve been vegan I had (but decided that’s not for me, any longer).

  • Vintage Clothes Shops
    June 7, 2010

    I agree with the idea that an old fur coat or fox fur can and should be worn as part of a vintage outfit. It’s ridiculous to cast these items aside simply because they were made in less enlightened times.

    I liked the idea of some of them being used in animal shelters, but I doubt that would take care of all the old fur still in circulation.

    I’ve always been an advocate of compassion being shown in farming and in our attitude to animals generally, and, like the Native Americans who developed a profound sense of respect for the animals they consumed, I think it’s possible to eat meat and wear animal products and still be in touch with the Earth Mother.

  • Rosie
    August 23, 2010

    NOONE who wears fur is a ethical shopper!!! It’s pathetic how many people use the “vintage fur” excuse. All fur is vintage if you put it like that, as it not an animal anymore. All the animals have been tortured (skinned alive, anally and vaginally electrocuted) in the making of these coats. And for what?….Vanity and profit!! Shame on anyone who wears fur and shame on anyone who sells fur. Sick, twisted and immoral human beings. These animals are no different from your pets at home. For anyone to cliams they’re ethical, but buys and sells fur is a hyprocrite and should be ashamed of themselves!! It is disgusting and it is just another form of animal abuse!!!

  • Retro Chick
    August 23, 2010

    Obviously you feel very strongly about fur Rosie, but really the point of the article is to question exactly why people feel so strongly about fur when they let other ethical issues pass without comment.

    I’ve never met you, but I assume you only wear second hand organic fabric and everything in your house is hand carved from wood sustainable forests. I also assume you’ve somehow managed to find a computer made without plastic as the oil used to produce that causes massive damage to both the environment AND animal life.

    You’ve every right to your opinion, but really this piece wasn’t about fur per se, it was about why fur in particular produces such strong opinions.

    Thank you for proving my point.

  • Nikki
    August 25, 2010

    I really like this post, I think it raises some good points and is food for thought.
    I personally don’t wear fur/fake fur, but that is my decision. I think that fake fur promotes the look just as much actual fur. I also feel conflicted regarding vintage fur, as I feel that getting rid of already existing items could be regarded as wasteful.
    We can all try to be ethical in our shopping choices but I think it’s naive for people to assume that they are more ethical just because of the fur issue. It goes beyond fur. Ethical shopping is about people as well as animals, I would love to know where the people who feel most strongly re the fur issue shop for their clothes, food etc. Do they consider ethical sourcing when shopping for their furniture for example? Its not as clear cut as people make it out to be.