Saturday, January 01, 2011

Environmentalists, Fashion Designers Re-brand Fur as “Guilt-Free”

The hypocrisy of protecting wetlands by promoting clothes made from invasive “swamp-rats”

In the late 1800s, some Louisiana fur farmers started bringing cat-sized brown rodents called nutria over from Argentina to be bred, killed and skinned for posh women’s clothing. Of course, some eventually escaped their cages and found freedom in the wild, where they exponentially procreated and devoured the roots of plants that keep coastal marshes from disintegrating into open water. Now, decades later, there are about 20 million of these semi-aquatic, web-footed, rat-tailed, buck-toothed, beaveresque mammals inhabiting the state shredding thousands of acres of wetlands.*

But who ultimately gets blamed for this unnatural disaster? Certainly not the fur industry, which actually caused it by recklessly importing exotic animals for economic exploitation. No, of course not…because it’s obviously all the nutria’s fault for daring to evade their tormentors! Well, according to environmentalists, that is, who have teamed up with the unrepentant fur industry on a campaign to convince people that buying nutria-fur clothes is “green” and “eco-friendly.” It is literally and seriously being marketed as “guilt-free fur”—despite the fact that Louisiana uses federal tax dollars to pay hunters and trappers $5 a tail for killing nutria dead in typically violent and painful fashion.

The “guilt-free” justification, best expressed by the founder of fashion design collective Righteous Fur, Cree McCree, is “If (animals are) being killed anyway, then why not make something beautiful out of them?” True, Louisiana does already exterminate more than 450,000 nutria annually, and nearly 90% of the carcasses are simply left to rot in the bayou. But nutria fur is still made from murdered animals and presumably processed using the same carcinogenic chemicals as other animal furs—none of which seems particularly “green” or “guilt-free” to me.

Some animal advocates apparently disagree, as a few vegan/vegetarian fashion designers have reportedly jumped on the bandwagon** (perhaps rationalizing that at least these animals don’t spend their whole lives locked in tiny cages, like captive-bred fur-bearers do, freezing in winter and boiling in summer, mutilating themselves and cannibalizing their companions in response to intense stress). In November 2010, some of these veg fashion designers allegedly participated in a fashion show called (wait for it) Nutria-Palooza at New York City’s House of Yes sponsored by Righteous Fur***. This exclusive event featured models sashaying down the runway donning nutria-fur coats, gloves, hats, leg warmers, and even g-strings created by more than 20 professional designers.

You may be thinking at this point, “Well, Mr. AnimalRighter, at least they’ve proposed a solution to this sticky situation—what’s your suggestion? You want the nutria should just be left to wreck the ecosystem, driving your supposed friend the native muskrat into extinction while they’re at it?” And I reply, Uh, no. Granted, I’m not an expert on the environment or invasive species, and I don’t have some magically humane answer that will neatly solve this zoological dilemma…but I do want to make a few observations:

1) It was the fur industry’s commodification of a non-native species that started this whole mess in the first place: if they hadn’t brought nutria over here to be commercially exploited, these feral rodents wouldn’t be destroying coastal wetlands today.

2) Ironically, the fur industry’s solution to this problem that they created is to pursue the very same objective they originally brought nutria over here for—that is, to make killing these creatures profitable.****

3) Yet, instead of holding the fur industry accountable for destroying wetlands, environmentalists are financially and philosophically rewarding it by giving fur’s ethical image makeover a sheen of scientific legitimacy.

4) The next time alien animals endanger a native habitat as a consequence of corporate negligence and exploitation, environmentalists will yet again enthusiastically endorse the species’ merciless obliteration for expediency’s sake while conveniently ignoring the human culprits’ culpability. 

5) And finally, to reiterate, there is no such thing as “guilt-free fur—unless it’s worn by the animal to who it rightfully belongs!

* Of southern Louisiana’s 4.2 million acres of wetlands, nutria presently impact approximately 8,475—or about 0.002% of the total (according to the states official Coastwide Nutria Control Program). For perspective, this represents just a minute fraction of the damage done to Gulf Coast wetlands by, say, the BP oil spill and other anthropocentric pollutants. 

** According to Huffington Post (although the blogger neglected to identify any veg fashion designers affiliated with Righteous Fur, and I was unable to find examples via a google search). Otherwise, trendy brands like Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and (the mostly pro-vegan) Etsy use nutria fur in their designs.

*** Righteous Fur was founded with a grant from the nonprofit Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTENP); Righteous Fur, in turn, gives BTENP an unspecified portion of its proceeds. So basically, purchasing nutria fur financially supports scientists’ efforts to eradicate nutria from Louisiana.

**** Nutria fur was quite popular in the first half of the 20th century, when Hollywood starlets posed for publicity photos with stoles made from this exotic species draped around their shoulders. It fell out of fashion sometime in the late 1980s after intrepid animal activists caused a fur market crash by splattering blood-red paint on fur-wearing humans.