In the 1980s and 90s, wearing fur became seriously uncool. Stars went naked instead of wearing it, catwalks were boycotted because of it, and the British public, animal welfare experts and politicians got behind a campaign which led the Labour government to ban fur farming in 2000. So why did the UK turn its back on this trade? Two very powerful words: 'public morality'. In proposing the Bill, the Minister responsible for animal welfare, Elliot Morley, told MPs:
"Morality is important when it comes to the treatment of animals. Fur farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life. Animal life should not be destroyed in the absence of a sufficient justification in terms of public benefit. Nor should animals be bred for such destruction in the absence of sufficient justification. That is the essence of our argument for applying morality to a Bill of this kind."
In 1989, long before the ban, the UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council found that fur farms could not satisfy some of the most basic needs of the (essentially wild) animals kept in them, such as comfort, shelter, and freedom to display normal patterns of behaviour.
The evidence, and the verdict, were unequivocal: fur farming wasn't humane, couldn't be made humane, and wasn't morally justifiable in the UK. All fur farms had to be closed by January 1st 2003. The UK has been free from the cruelty of fur farms for thirteen years. But Britain is sadly not free of fur, far from it.
Today we import fur from countries whose fur farm conditions are as bad, or worse, than those we outlawed in our own country. In fact since 2003, according to government statistics, the UK has imported hundreds of millions of pounds of fur, peaking at £62.6million in fur imports in 2014 (more than half of this value was then re-exported).
With UK opinion polls still indicating consistently high levels of consumer disapproval of fur, where is all this imported fur going? Last year Humane Society International/UK documented the widespread problem of cheap animal fur being mis-sold or mis-labelled as faux, so it's probable that millions of pounds worth of fur is sold each year to consumers who don't realise that it's animal fur, and wouldn't buy it if they did. And at the other end of the market, fur still defiles the shelves of stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols. The high-end fur-wearer's choice grows ever more limited, as more and more designers join the 'Fur-Free' list, renowned luxury brand Armani being the latest high-profile example this year.
But can you strip fur from any animal, pop it on a coat hanger and sell it here? No. Public campaigns by HSI and others drove a 2007 EU ban on the import and sale of cat and dog fur, and then a 2009 ban on trade in seal products. In response to a complaint by Norway and Canada, the World Trade Organisation affirmed the seal ban, declaring it necessary to protect European public moral concerns. At present, fur from all other species can be legally traded in the EU and, although a number of countries across Europe have banned fur farming, several still continue to farm animals for their fur.
So, do the views of the Great British public chime with current European regulations, which say that some fur-bearing animals are OK to wear and some are not? It turns out, they don't. HSI commissioned a YouGov opinion poll listing nine species, including domestic dog, mink, seal, fox and rabbit, and asking people whether or not they found it acceptable for fur from these animals to be bought and sold in this country. Encouragingly, the results show that the British public overwhelmingly reject the fur trade, regardless of species.
Unsurprisingly, less than 10% of people feel it is acceptable to be able to buy and sell products containing domestic dog fur (7%), seal fur (8%), and cat fur (9%), respectively, and indeed such imports are banned by law. But critically the poll also shows similar distaste for fur items from other species that can still be legally sold here - only between 8 and 12% of people said that they found it acceptable to buy or sell fur from foxes (12%), mink (12%), chinchilla (9%), raccoon dogs (8%) and coyotes (8%) (the last of which are not farmed, but wild trapped). Rabbit fur had the highest approval rating, but even so is still only acceptable to one in five people despite being one of the most commonly found fur trim items on the high-street.
So, back full circle to public morality. The UK's moral compass clearly points away from animal fur in fashion - not just cat, dog and seal fur, but all fur. And now we have an opportunity to make that moral standpoint count. On the Brexit path ahead, the government must now evaluate all EU regulations and decide which to write into UK law, which to lose and which to maintain and amend. So why would the UK, a nation that has outlawed all fur farming as immoral, continue to cherry-pick just cats, dogs and seals and ban trade in their fur, but leave our ports open to fur from other equally maltreated animals?
Shockingly, not only are our borders open to cruel fur products produced in other countries, there's not even a legal requirement to clearly identify them as "real fur" so that compassionate consumers can avoid inadvertently buying them. Urgent steps need to be taken to ensure that all real animal fur products are clearly labelled. But we can do better than just labelling: Brexit is a clear opportunity for us to ditch fur once and for all, to be a fully fur-free nation and to ensure that we no longer bankroll a trade in products that we deem morally unacceptable to produce within our own borders.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2051 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 12th September 2016. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).