Hackles Raised in Fur Debate
By Carla Maldonado
Defenders of animal rights in the world's fashion capital say that behind every fur coat is a story of suffering and death.
MILAN, (Tierramérica).- There are around six and a half million Italian women who own at least one fur coat. And another 4.3 million dream of buying their first one.
The obsession for such garments, however, is marked by the environmental debate, diametrically opposed to the desires of the fashion-conscious Italian women. The animal rights defenders charge that each fur coat represents a story of suffering and death.
Italy is Europe's leading producer of fur coats and accessories, and is home to 4,000 small and medium-sized companies, employing 55,964 people with sales of 2.2 billion dollars annually on the local markets and throughout Europe, Asia and North America.
"Fur garments are an important part of 'Made in Italy' fashion and sales continue to rise. There are many controls, and the laws and the ban on using endangered species are heeded. In Italy, only farm-raised animals are used in the coats," Alessandra Dagnino, spokeswoman for the Italian Furriers Association, told Tierramérica.
The mink is one of the leading sources of fur for the Italian-made coats. It is the only species that is born, raised and dies in this country.
Nutria or otter, marmot, ermine and fox are other valuable fur species, and their pelts are imported from the Nordic countries and from Argentina, for some 254 million dollars annually.
"Every year, 230,000 animals are killed in Italy. They spend their lives closed in cages and they go crazy. They are exposed to cold, because that thickens their coats and fetches a higher price," Simona Cariati, head of the anti-fur campaign for the Anti-Vivesection League, the leading animal defense group in Italy.
The activist says the methods used in killing the animals for fur garment production "are horrific. They are similar to those the Nazis used against the Jews. The animals are killed in gas chambers, are electrocuted, beaten to death or strangled, and then they are thrown out as if they were garbage."
But the furriers reject the accusations, assuring that they comply with the European regulations down to the last letter, as established by Decree 98/58 on animal welfare and Decree 93/119 on killing animals.
Augusto De Nardi, president of the Italian fur- ranching association, told Tierramérica, "It is not true what they say. The mink live under a roof. They can't get wet or be out in the sun because that would change the color of their fur. They are kept in cages of the regulation size and they are well fed, eating chicken wings and necks. We use carbon monoxide, which kills them in less then a minute and without suffering."
But animal rights groups contend that in July 2001, more than 20,000 mink died in the Italian fur ranches due to excessive heat and dehydration.
Most consumers are unaware that to make just one coat, requiring three day's work by hand, an average of 54 mink are killed. For a coat made of marmot skins, like the one worn by French model and actress Catherine Deneuve, the pelts of 200 animals are used.
The more pragmatic among the activists are promoting a new kind of fur for the fashion world: ecological coats.
At a glance, the garments made with synthetic fibers look like mink or marmot. They produce the same sensation of warmth as the authentic fur coats, but no animals are killed in making them. The synthetic fur can be hand washed, is lightweight and less expensive, ranging from 170 to 900 dollars.
Due to these qualities, animal rights defenders consider "eco-furs" a viable alternative. For the furriers, however, it is seen as a bad joke.
"The Law of 1966 prohibits the use of the term for something that is not really fur. It is lying to the consumer. The material is plastic and is not biodegradable," says fur industry spokeswoman Dagnino. "In other words, it is not fur and it is not ecological."
The fashion industry, meanwhile, continues to sidestep the environmental and animal rights debate. Some 170 designers, mostly Italian and the world's fashion leaders, such as Armani, Fendi, Versace, Valentino, Gian Franco Ferre, Trussardi and Dolce & Gabbana, each year create their own lines of fur coats, as well as jackets, vests, skirts and purses.
Their coats hark back to tradition and classic styles, opting for natural colors and knee-length cuts.
The garments often include other animal-based materials, such as feathers, but the latest scream in fashion is the reversible fur coat. Prices vary: 4,000 to 40,000 dollars.
* Carla Maldonado is a journalist and Tierramérica contributor.