In an industry where designers rarely take an admirable position on anything, Stella McCartney’s opposition to animal cruelty has been consistent and vocal. So it was a surprise for the fashion press when she sent voluminous fake-fur coats down the runway at Paris fashion week.
Of her decision, McCartney said: “I’ve been speaking to younger women about it recently and they don’t even want real fur. So I feel like maybe things have moved on …”
Something similar previously happened with food. In the freezer cabinets at the supermarket you’ll likely find the fake-meat products championed by McCartney’s mother, Linda. These foods are shaped like meat products and made to taste like meat. But, crucially, nothing died to make them. The very existence of these products depends upon millions of people finding the meat industry unethical, unhealthy, and environmentally unsound.
It would be a stretch to argue that fake meat fuels the meat market when it actually takes people away from animal produce by providing a viable alternative convenience food.
Fur farms involve 75 million animals kept in tiny cages, many of which become infected with disease, suffer horrific injuries and go mad from grief and stress. Their death typically occurs via electrocution with an anal probe or from being skinned alive.
This incredibly graphic video, narrated by McCartney, was filmed secretly at a fox farm in the US – and it makes horror films look soft. Because it takes a lot of chemicals to stop a dead animal from putrefying, the World Bank lists fur dressing as one of the world’s five worst industries for toxic-metal pollution.
In this sense, fake fur is like fake meat, its raison d’etre is because millions of people find the real thing sickening. Fake fur can look like fur – McCartney’s offerings dance very close to that line – but it isn’t.
If we don’t draw this critical distinction between the fake and the real, we help a fur industry desperate for people to regard the two as morally equal. They want to twist the principles of a generation of people who have rejected fur, in order to kick-start their market.
But to conflate the two and pretend that there is no moral difference between fur and fake fur is to ignore a difference as wide as the Grand Canyon. It would be like arguing that the same criminal sanctions should apply to the owner of a suitcase filled with white powder whether it be baking soda or cocaine. Or that shooting someone dead in a film is the same as doing so in real life.
George Monbiot criticises our society for hiding away meat production processes. Children, he says, should be taken to visit abattoirs. He adds that “if we cannot bear to see what we eat, it is not the seeing that’s wrong, it’s the eating”.
This should also apply to what we wear. The reality of the fashion industry needs to be confronted, not hidden. This is especially true for fur farming, an industry that simply should not exist and which was banned in England and Wales in 2000, and in Scotland in 2002.
But if nothing died to make a fake-fur coat, if its material reality could not be more different from that of fur, why is there a fuss at McCartney championing fake fur?
The public nature of fashion is to blame. Unlike food, which is mostly consumed at home, fashion has us walking around as our own private billboards. People recoil from fake fur, not because of the mechanics of the product but because of the echoes of cruelty that such apparel represents.
Questions about whether fake fur is a rebellion against cruelty and a means to prevent suffering, or a needless mimicry and accidental supporter of inhumane practices, are a tension that will remain so long as fur farms exist.
Fake fur’s problem lies in its association with the horrors of the fur industry, with all its echoes of needless death. But real fur is the real problem here; people have not forgotten that it is an ethics-free business based on unfettered ecocide and brutality.