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Just how responsible is PETA for a decline in fur sales?

March 30, 2010 |  8:48 pm

Mathews In the 30 years since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was founded (by its current president, Ingrid Newkirk, and Alex Pacheco, who is no longer affiliated with the group), it has become the largest organization of its kind and its name has become virtually synonymous with the animal-rights movement.

That level of ubiquity and the controversial nature of many of PETA's programs and strategies have made the group a lightning rod for many who oppose its stances.

The group has claimed at least part of the credit for a number of changes in the way animals are treated over the last 30 years; perhaps it's most famous for its anti-fur campaign. Without a doubt, PETA has been instrumental in increasing many people's awareness of the unpleasantness of the fur industry, with particular emphasis on so-called "fur farms" where animals like minks, chinchillas, raccoons and foxes are raised solely to be killed for their pelts.

Its advertising campaigns, specifically the celebrity-centric "I'd Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur" variety, are certainly eye-grabbing. But are they, and are other PETA strategies like the production of its sometimes-graphic FurIsDead.com website, really responsible for turning the tide against fur?

In a recent article, Times reporter Susan Carpenter asked the question: Just how much of a hand did PETA have in the fall of fur and other high-end animal products and the subsequent rise of more humane options like faux fur in the fashion marketplace?

To find out the answer, Carpenter asked Ilse Metchek, the executive director of the California Fashion Assn. According to Metchek, "PETA's done a remarkable job of making itself known." The group, she says, has also not just "made faux fashion OK" but also given celebrity stylists pause about dressing their clients in real fur, because doing so could lead to their being labeled insensitive to suffering by animal advocates. (Despite PETA's best efforts, of course, some celebrities still persist in wearing fur -- including well-known actresses and singers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson, all of whom were called out on PETA's most recent Worst-Dressed List.)

But Metchek and other observers of the fashion industry are quick to point out that factors unrelated to the plight of suffering animals are also largely responsible for recent years' declining fur sales.

Peta Mink imports to the U.S. decreased by 30% in 2009 from 2008 levels, a statistic viewed as a heartening one by many in the animal-rights community. Even so, recent runway shows in New York, Milan, Paris and London included hundreds more fur pieces than were seen in fall 2009 collections, and there's evidence that young designers are increasingly turning to fur as a way to demonstrate the "luxuriousness" of their brands.

But even if designers are opting for "luxury" in their lines, consumers seem more interested in affordability.

A shift toward low-cost fashion is partly responsible for a reduction in the amount of fur being sold, Metcheck says. "It happened with the onslaught of H&M and Forever 21 and Topshop and Mango, where you can be fashionable at any price.... It takes money to wear fur. There is a lot less fur at the lower levels."

Technological advancements that have made it possible to create more authentic-looking faux fur have also helped turn the tide against the real thing, says Janine Blain of the retail trend consulting firm Directives West. "Stores are more than ever open to buying fake furs because the products look very, very good. In the past, there was never that variety," Blain said.

But PETA -- with its celebrity endorsements, powerful online presence and ability to mobilize its most hardcore base of supporters -- has doubtless been instrumental in spreading the word about the downside of fur. That hasn't exactly endeared it to those who make their living from fur sales, some of whom are fighting back. One group, the Fur Council of Canada, even introduced a "fur is green" campaign that aims to convince consumers that real fur is a more environmentally sustainable product than faux fur.

Read more about PETA's ongoing battle with the fur industry in Carpenter's story from Sunday's Image section. (For another point of view, check out another story from Sunday's Image section by Times reporter Geraldine Baum.)

-- Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: PETA's Dan Mathews poses in a Dolce & Gabbana shop window in a 1998 protest against the design house. Credit: Reuters

Bottom photo: A PETA member protests outside a fur exhibition in Hong Kong on Feb. 25. Credit: Mike Clarke / AFP/Getty Images

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