What’s the difference between a raccoon dog and a faux fur coat? Not much, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Back in September 2012, HSUS purchased clothing from popular New York department store Century 21, revealing that a ‘faux’ fur jacket actually contained raccoon dog, and a child’s unlabeled sweatshirt was trimmed with rabbit fur.
In their results revealed last month, HSUS asserted that 70% of clothing they tested was raccoon dog, but had proclaimed to be faux fur, or the fur of other animals.
“Clothing is constantly mislabelled by fashion brands,” said Pierre Grzybowski, research and enforcement manager of the fur-free campaign for The HSUS. “Animal fur is widely misrepresented both in advertising and labelling throughout the retail industry, and raccoon dog is probably the most misrepresented species.”
The raccoon dog is a breed native to East Asia, raccoon-like in appearance but a member of the canid family, and one that animal rights organisations allege is brutally mistreated in China. Farmed in mass and often skinned alive for for its fur, disturbing undercover films have unearthed living conditions in breach of EU regulations, and tortuous methods of killing.
The Century 21 episode is just another case in a list of many. HSUS have previously sued Neiman Marcus and Saks for selling falsely labelled fur, and in 2011, knock off Ugg boots were found to contain raccoon dog hyde.
Not only does it highlight the urge for transparency in the international supply chain, but it draws attention to the fur industry in China - the leading global manufacturer, contributing to 85% of all fur production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fur production in China has been shrouded in mystery since globalisation took hold - outsiders are often banned from visiting fur farms and there are virtually no laws in place to prohibit the mistreatment of animals reared in the farms.
Designers have been known to outsource production to China, attracted by cheap labour and little regulatory oversight. Raccoon dog is typically deemed poorer quality than faux fur, so it’s often more cost-effective than producing the fake stuff.
“What has transpired in the industry in general,” says Pierre, “is that mislabelling of animal fur is due to a combination of intentional misrepresentation, and a great deal of sloppy or poor quality control, as well as a failure to improve quality control after previous counts.
“Unfortunately, not only do consumers not know what they are getting... sometimes even they (retailers and brands) don’t know what they are selling or getting.”
China’s economy isn’t alone in its reliance upon fur trade revenue. Other major exporters include America, the Baltic States and the Netherlands - there are an estimated 6,000 fur farms in the EU. But stringent laws usually protect animals from serious harm, making China the epicentre for unregulated activity.
“The lines between real and fake are quite blurry nowadays,” says PETA’s Ben Williams. “Consumers can never be 100 percent confident that they know whose fur they are really wearing. If there's any doubt about whether a fur is reallyfaux, it's best just to avoid it altogether. Ripping animals' skins from their backs in this way simply for vanity is absolutely indefensible.”
Nowhere in the world has the production and trade of fur been banned altogether, and demand for animal pelts is actually on the rise. Designers and fur defenders have made steady efforts to offer fur as a green alternative to fast fashion in recent years. The Fur Council of Canada’s “Fur is Green” campaign promoted it as “durable, recyclable, and biodegradable,” saying that fake fur’s petrochemical basis was harmful to the environment.
The Fur Farming Prohibition Act 2000 put a stop to fur farming in the UK, with overwhelming public support for the ban.
Despite this, the sale of fur has steadily increased since the act was introduced; according to the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), the industry reaches a turnover of £500 million a year, making Britain one of the biggest importers of fur in the world behind China.
The international and British fur industry were quick to disassociate themselves from Chinese produced fur, saying very little of it enters EU and UK markets. But charities Care for the Wild, Swiss Animal Protection and EAST International alleged that their investigations discovered Chinese furs sold cheaply and readily across UK markets, and that pelts from domestic dogs and cats have been exported from China to the UK, mislabelled as fox.
Since 2010, sales worldwide have rocketed by 70% to £10billion per year, according to the International Fur Trade Federation, and for the first time in two decades, more designers are using fur than not.
But for those who oppose the manufacture and sale of fur, the potential for unintentionally wearing real fur is troubling. Pierre encourages all fake fur consumers to use HSUS’s to identifying is their product is true fur or faux: “There’s a couple of things that need to be done to stop mislabelling. One: consumers can learn how to tell real from fake fur - we recommend they check any fake fur before they buy it. Second, countries need to pass robust fur labelling laws, which need to be enforced so retailers take them seriously.”