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The international fur trade operates on many levels.  Animal fur is no longer just used for luxury fashion garments. There is now a growing market where inexpensive items including jackets, accessories, trinkets, toys, hair bands, blankets, pens, pencil cases, jewelry etc. contain animal fur.  In some shops, these products are properly labelled as containing real fur. While this is distressing to people who abhor the cruel and senseless fur trade, it is legal to sell genuine fur in South Africa.

The problem arises when these types of goods are sold as synthetic, often by reputable retailers with a fur free policy. This happens when merchandise is labelled as fake/faux fur or not labelled at all. They are mostly imports from China – a country with inadequate animal protection laws. Products such as these can include dyed and sheared rabbit, dog and cat fur, which is cheaper to manufacture than synthetic fur. The anti-fur organisation, Fur Free SA (FFSA), which I head, continues to find numerous South African retailers that are mistakenly selling real fur as fake.

As a consequence, shoppers inadvertently buy items containing real fur. Compassionate consumers want to know that their purchases are made without cruelty to animals and are understandably outraged at being duped.  Stricter fur labelling laws in South Africa would help address this issue, but for now we can only turn to the Consumer Protection Act No.68 of 2008 (“CPA”) for guidelines. According to this act, retailers are prohibited from misleading the public through false descriptions of their products. 

Mislabelling does not generally happen in the luxury fur range, as it is fairly straight forward to source luxury fur garments. Eighty-five percent of the world’s fur comes from fur farms. Furriers buy pelts directly from auction houses supplied by these farms worldwide. Pelts, therefore, pass through several countries before reaching the final destination to be made up into fur garments to sell to customers. These luxury garments have labels indicating the type of animal fur, for example mink, fox, chinchilla and sable. Some garments have the ORIGIN ASSURED (OA™) label, which was launched by pro-fur organisations supposedly to guarantee that origin of the fur is from a country where there are adequate welfare regulations or standards. Of note, this does not exclude countries where the factory farming of animals for fur, which is inherently cruel, is condoned.

Unless it is a luxury-brand labelled fur garment, ready-made fur clothing sold in upmarket boutiques is generally sourced from international fur fairs. Here, fur dealers sell their merchandise directly to retailers who support the fur market. The World Society for the Protection of Animals argues that weak import and labelling law makes it difficult to identify from where fur originates. Consequently, furriers and fashion retailers sell fur items without knowing their source.  

In my opinion, though, people who buy fur fashion from these shops are ego-centric and don’t care about the prolonged suffering inflicted onto animals, or about environmental hazards arising in the process of fur production (See previous post @ http://bit.ly/2GklT7s).

The sourcing of inexpensive fur products is more complicated, as there are several players in the supply chain. The CPA defines a  ‘‘supply chain’’, as “with respect to any particular goods or services, means the collectivity of all suppliers who directly or indirectly contribute in turn to the ultimate supply of those goods or services to a consumer, whether as a producer, importer, distributor or retailer of goods, or as a service provider”.

One would think that ethical companies would carefully monitor their supply chains? Yet fur items are slipping through and the question arises as to who is responsible for this? Where retailers have mistakenly been found selling real fur products they have consistently told FFSA  that they too were misled, as it was the supplier who gave them wrong information. As already discussed, manufacturers of fur products cannot know the exact source of the fur unless they are killing and skinning the animals themselves. Investigations have shown this to be the case in China where often dogs and cats are rounded up and skinned for their fur. Suppliers then obtain finished products from the manufacturer, which are then distributed to various retailers.

FFSA has been told by small businesses that the owner sources the products directly from a supplier, by-passing a middle person. In some cases there are language difficulties perhaps accounting for the mislabelling of the stock. Here, the retailer should share some of the blame.  

Once FFSA has ascertained through basic or laboratory testing that a product contains animal fur, it is up to retailers to remove these items. Some retailers such as Solo Shoes, Perocili, Polly Potters toy shop and Kingsmead Shoes did not, however, withdraw their stock.  In their opinion the fur is “too cheap” and despite evidence to the contrary they believe the supplier who claims that the fur is synthetic. Other companies immediately removed the offending stock and some have apologised to the public for their mistake.

With bigger companies, accountability probably depends on the contract between them and a supplier. If their contract stipulates that a company only wants fur free products and the supplier defaults on this, then surely it is the fault of the supplier. Ideally companies should have the safeguards in place to keep real fur out of their supply chains, but is this really feasible with large retailers?

What companies can do, though, is if a supplier defaults on their side of the contract the retailer can never use that supplier again, and in this way ensure that unethical suppliers are weeded out of the system. Another safeguard could be at the shop floor level and to educate sales people how to tell the difference between real and fake fur. However, until that happens, it is still left up to consumers to be vigilant as to what they are purchasing and to complain when they are misled.

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