Is fur a ‘green’ option?
Many of the terms commonly employed by the fur industry are neither well defined nor regulated under the law. Canada’s Competition Act does not specifically restrict the use of terms like “environmentally friendly”. It isn’t very different abroad, as the term “green” is considered “too vague to be meaningful” by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the International Standards Organization (ISO). Therefore, the industry’s use of this term is purely self-designated and signifies nothing.
The Fur Council also claims that fur is biodegradable, (despite also boasting that it can be passed on as a family heirloom, thanks to the chemical processing that prevents it from biodegrading), but this too is an unregulated term in Canada.
TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based environmental marketing firm, released a damning report in 2007 examining environmental claims on more than 1,000 products. They identified something called the “hidden tradeoff” in which a product touts a single environmental benefit, but ignores a whole host of other environmental costs associated with the same product. When it comes to fur, the examples are numerous. The industry argues the fibres are “natural” and therefore “green”, but completely ignores the mandatory chemical manufacturing process (to stop the fur from biodegrading) and the very “unnatural” effect this has on the environment, and even people.
The good news is that certain countries have begun to challenge these erroneous claims. For example, England, Denmark, Holland, Finland and Italy have ruled that any advertising declaring fur as environmentally friendly to be false and misleading.
How is fur prepared for use?
While the fur industry repeatedly claims that fur is ‘natural’, a quick overview of fur processing lays that theory to rest. After an animal is killed, their skin is peeled off to create a ‘pelt’, which is the animal’s skin with the hair still attached. Because fur would naturally biodegrade, each pelt must be “dressed” (industry slang for tanned), which stabilizes the collagen and protein fibers in skins, thereby “inhibiting putrefaction." This process relies heavily on toxic chemicals. As a 2009 report on fur production from the Humane Society of the United States explains “common methods for dressing fur skins involve formaldehyde and chromium – chemicals that are listed as carcinogens and are otherwise toxic to humans. Other chemicals that may be used or emitted in the dressing and dyeing processes and that appear on one or more US government lists of toxic chemicals include aluminum, ammonia, chlorine, chlorobenzene, copper, ethylene glycol, lead, methanol, napthalene, sulfuric acid, toluene and zinc."
These chemicals are known to be dangerous, and when people are exposed to them (either as workers, or after disposal) the results can be devastating. One of the worst known incidents took place in Yellow Creek, Kentucky, which was home to the Middlesboro Tanning Company. The company was accused of disposing of dangerous chemicals into Yellow Creek’s water supply. Thanks to a committed coalition of concerned citizens, research revealed that leukemia rates from people living in proximity to Yellow Creek were more than five times greater than the national average, and rates of miscarriage and birth defects were also extremely high.
According to Judith Eger, Senior Curator of Mammals in the Department of Natural History of the Royal Ontario Museum, due to the “harsh tanning, dying and shearing processes” it is almost impossible to determine which species fur is from, as “once the fur has been treated genetic sequences are virtually destroyed."
A more in-depth discussion on DNA destruction and impacts on species identification can be found here. More information on the risks associated with chemicals used in fur processing can be found here.
Are fur farms environmentally-friendly?
Eighty per cent of the animals killed for fur in Canada come from fur farms (Statistics Canada, 2010). Like other forms of factory farming, it is a highly environmentally destructive process. The consequences can be broken down into two distinct categories:
A) An irresponsible use of resources
CE Delft, a Dutch independent research organization, found in their groundbreaking 2011 report on mink farming that farmed fur outscores other textiles by 2-28 times for land use and climate change. They also found that farmed fur requires up to 20 times more GHGs than other textiles.
For each kilogram of factory farmed mink fur, 563 kilograms of feed is required (CE Delft, 2011), and 228 kilograms of manure is produced. The average Canadian fur farm requires approximately 600,000 kilograms of feed each year, and produces about 240,000 kilograms of manure.
B) A highly polluting practice
CE Delft also found that farmed fur outscores other textiles from 2-28 times for ozone layer depletion, soil and water pollution, and toxic emissions. For each kilogram of factory farmed mink fur, 110 kilograms of carbon dioxide is produced, enough to drive a car from Toronto to Saint John, New Brunswick.
The amount of manure produced by fur farms poses a serious threat to local soil and water quality as runoff flows into neighbouring lakes, streams, rivers, marshes, pastures and woods. For example, a study by the provincial Environment Department along with the Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research “identified mink farms as the most likely source of contamination in 10 lakes in western Nova Scotia, particularly the Carleton, Meteghan and Sissiboo watersheds." In late 2009, the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture completed the Wentworth River System Farm Assessment, reporting on 38 mink operations in the Carleton-Wentworth River Watershed. 37 of the 38 farms reported that runoff from the farms flows into the woods, swamp, marshy area or wet pasture.
Manure is high in phosphorous and nitrogen, and when able to access bodies of water (or ground water), leads to excessive algae growth which depletes the oxygen in water. This has serious consequences for fish, birds, dogs, farmed animals, wild animals and humans. The David Suzuki Foundation has expressed serious concern that “[t]he Department of Agriculture, the primary promoter of the fur industry, is also the primary regulator” and that the phosphorous loading in these Nova Scotia lakes will have dire ecological consequences.
How is trapping not environmentally safe?
When it comes to the industry spin on trapping, there are several critical dimensions that must be considered:
A) Traps are not selective
Any person or animal (including endangered species) can and do get caught in traps. For example, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that ‘non-target animals’ (or ‘trash’ animals as they are referred to by industry) account for up to 67% of total catch. These trash animals routinely include endangered species. For example:
- In March 2012, in Constance Lake, Ontario, Larry Gillis and grandson Jeff Gillis caught an Endangered Eastern Wolverine (while targeting lynx). Gillis claims he didn’t realize wolverines were an endangered species until a marine biologist in Hearst had the Ministry of Natural Resources confiscate the body. “They said I couldn’t sell it or possess it.” Gillis said. (Wawatay News)
- In January 2011, a Manitoba trapper found a dead, full grown male cougar in his trap (which was meant for coyotes). The cougar is listed as a protected species, so under the law the trapper had to report it to Manitoba Conservation. The cougar was the fourth found in the province since 1973. (CBC News Story)
Sadly there is no real reporting on the number of trapped endangered species. It is important to note that there is almost no incentive for trappers to even report non-target catches, especially if they are endangered animals (which could result in penalization). There is also virtually no way to enforce the laws that make it illegal to catch endangered species. Nor is there any way to prevent it, as traps simply don’t have the capacity to discriminate. Therefore the fur industry undoubtedly contributes to declining populations of endangered species in Canada.
B) Legal trapping of At-Risk Species
According to the federal government’s Species At Risk Public Registry, the Eastern Wolverine is listed as Endangered but may sadly be extinct. The Western Wolverine is listed as ‘Special Concern’ which means it “may become a threatened or an endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats”. Despite the fact that the eastern population is possibly extinct, and that the western population is already of concern (it is considered “over harvested” in some areas), trapping Western Wolverines is still legal. Even the BC Ministry of the Environment’s documents cite that there are “no important predators other than humans."
C) Ineffective enforcement of trapping laws
Trapping laws are extremely difficult to enforce, due to both the inherent geographic challenge and because the number of enforcement officers assigned to enforcement is disturbingly inadequate.
For example, in British Columbia, as of 2007, there were approximately 92 regional staff to enforce the Fisheries and Wildlife Act, making an average of one Conservation Officer for every 10,269 sq km.
D) Obeying the law as a selling feature
The fur industry (and companies like Canada Goose) brag that they don’t use endangered species in their products, when in actuality, it would be against the law for them to do so. Interestingly, they fail to mention that traps are indiscriminate, which means that any person or animal (including pets and endangered species) can and do get caught in traps. TerraChoice’s report refers to this kind of statement as one of their six greenwashing ‘sins’, dubbed the “Sin of Irrelevance."
E) Checking the traplines
The majority of trapping in Canada occurs on register traplines (on federally owned land) with some as big as 500 square miles. In order for trappers to travel to and patrol their traplines, as well as to transport dead animals and trapping equipment, automobiles and/or snowmobiles are routinely used. In fact, many traplines actually run along makeshift roads so that trappers can drive along from trap to trap. While the industry would prefer you to envision most trappers snowshoeing through the woods, modern trapping relies heavily on fossil fuels. Also, the consequence of trapping close to human infrastructure is dire not only for furbearing animals, but for our companion animals as well.
F) Claims of longstanding stewardship
The Fur Council of Canada describes trappers as “practicing conservationists," as “our “eyes and ears” on the land." They claim that “they are the first to sound the alarm when wildlife habitat is threatened by pollution or poorly planned development projects”. What about when trapping practices threaten wildlife? Do they sound the alarm then?
On March 24th, 1975, the beaver became an official emblem of Canada, due in large part to the role that beaver pelts played in the development of the Hudson’s Bay Company as far back as the 1600’s. What the history books often fail to mention (and the part of the history lesson the fur industry would have us forget) is that prior to the trade in beaver pelts, there were approximately 6 million beavers. By the late-19th century, trapping had resulted in the beaver being close to extinction (with some 200,000 pelts exported each year). Was it the trappers who stepped in and demanded conservation? According to the Canadian Wildlife Service (Environment Canada): “After the turn of this century, the trade in beaver declined, partly with the decline of the beaver hat as fashionable headwear, and partly because the beavers themselves were becoming scarce all over North America. Many large regions were completely without beaver during most of the first half of this century. The beaver conservation movement began in the late 1930s with the writings and lectures of Grey Owl. A native of England who posed as a Métis, Grey Owl created passionate stories of the plight of the Canadian forests and wildlife, and particularly the beaver. Governments responded by closing the trapping seasons on beaver for many years.”
Despite claims about a long history of stewardship, the North American Sea Mink, which used to live in the coastal waters of Newfoundland, was completely eradicated by the fur trade, and is now extinct. While the industry may claim to have learned their lesson, the Newfoundland Marten is now considered a ‘Threatened’ Species, with approximately 300 members remaining (one of the primary causes being trapping). Other species who have been historically targeted by trappers are now threatened or endangered. Some of these include the Sea Otter (Threatened), the Swift Fox (Threatened) and the infamous Eastern Wolverine.