In 1988, after a decade that saw record sales of animal fur, a representative from the Humane Society of the United States met in Europe with other advocates to plan an end to an industry built on cruelty. Only a year before, the first ladies of the U.S. and what was then the USSR had famously appeared together in Washington, D.C., wearing full-length mink and sable coats.

Undeterred, advocates at the meeting agreed on a trans-Atlantic plan to end the use of animal fur in fashion. Dutch activists had already shrunk the public’s demand for fur in their country. With permission, the HSUS borrowed a Dutch image and slogan for a nationwide campaign in the U.S. The ad showed a woman in a fur coat, her purse raised to cover her face, next to the words “You Should be Ashamed to Wear Fur.”

An old HSUS ad saying You Should Be Ashamed to Wear Fur.
Using a concept borrowed from Dutch activists, the HSUS launched a nationwide campaign against fur in 1988.

Soon the picture and words would appear on an animated sign in Times Square and billboards at the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York City, in Dallas and along Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. They would be featured on placards by protesters outside Manhattan’s Saks Fifth Avenue, a major fur retailer. And they would be carried by buses through the streets of Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The media had already been covering radical activists confronting models on catwalks, taking over the offices of Vogue and splashing red paint on women in fur coats. PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” ads grabbed public attention. Now The New York Times, ABC’s 20/20 and National Public Radio ran stories about the HSUS’s more mainstream message. USA Today declared fur coats “out.”

Less vulnerable to being dismissed as extreme, the HSUS campaign helped change the conversation. “[Before], it hadn’t been an issue—everyone wanted a mink coat,” says Patti Forkan, former HSUS senior vice president. “We became the other side of the issue.”

For a time, it seemed like advocates had achieved more than changing the narrative. Animal fur sales flattened and retailers had to cut prices to continue attracting customers. Calvin Klein and Anne Klein pledged to go fur-free. Designer Oleg Cassini created a line of faux fur for an HSUS gala in D.C. attended by members of Congress.

Graphic showing some of the 1,500+ design and retails brands that have pledged to not use or sell animal fur from the 1990s on.

But the goal of ending the use of animal fur in fashion remained out of reach in the 1990s and 2000s. Even as full-length animal fur coats lost their appeal, trim made from animal fur, often misidentified on labels as “faux,” became popular. As less fur sold in the United States and Western Europe, markets in Russia and China buoyed demand. As people questioned whether it was right to kill animals for their fur, the fur industry fought back hard with public relations campaigns. As China’s economy exploded, so did fur production there.

Chart showing the decline of fur production between 2018 and 2021.
During the pandemic, fur production plummeted as COVID-19 passed from humans to captive mink on fur farms to wild mink, and sometimes back to humans. More than 20 million animals on 483 farms in Europe, Canada and the United States were killed to stop the spread of the disease.

Advocates persisted. Over decades, the HSUS and Humane Society International carried out undercover investigations, persuaded more designers to go fur-free and campaigned for government bans on animal fur production and sales. Finally, today, more than 30 years after activists started pushing for change in the 1980s, the future they hoped for is here, say advocates and experts.

“We can now see how we’re going to end this trade,” says PJ Smith, HSUS director of fashion policy. “We’re at a point where farms close because the markets aren’t there.”

What turned the tide? The HSUS focused on tearing down the wall of hostility between animal advocates and the fashion community, says Smith. “We said, ‘We’re not going to tell you to stop using fur, we want to make sure your labeling is correct.’ They were open to that. Their next question was, ‘How do we find a humane source of fur?’ And we said, ‘There isn’t one.’ ”

As recently as 2014-15, the price of animal fur was skyrocketing and speculators were opening new fur farms. But when Gucci announced it would go fur-free in 2017, a wave of designers followed—today over 1,500 design and retail brands have gone fur-free. The bottom fell out of the market. Farms and an auction house closed. The definition of luxury had changed, says Smith. It became “who’s the most sustainable, the most ethical and humane.”

Image of arctic foxes in cages at a fur farm.
The facts of animal fur production are brutal. Ninety-five percent of fur comes from wild animals confined in small wire cages, their instincts thwarted, their wounds left untreated, their lives ended by anal electrocution, gassing, clubbing or the breaking of their necks.
Balvik C.
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We Animals Media

Now the HSUS and HSI are focused on enacting animal fur sales and production bans. In January, a California law went into effect that prohibits fur sales in the state, one of the world’s largest markets for animal fur (more than a fifth of the U.S. market). Advocates are campaigning to get a sales ban in New York state (another fifth of the American market) and have helped introduce bills in Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Washington state, Oregon, Rhode Island and Hawai'i. Fourteen municipalities have banned fur sales, including Ann Arbor, Michigan; Boulder, Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Hallandale Beach, Florida. In June, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill to ban mink farming in the U.S. And the HSUS has asked Dillard’s, the last major U.S. retailer still selling fur, to stop. After our campaign generated 5,000 phone calls and 80,000 emails from advocates, Dillard’s took down the fur products on its website.

More than 80% of consumers surveyed consider animal welfare when buying apparel.

Vogue Business, 2021

Runway model wearing faux fur outfit.
LA Fashion Magazine

In Europe, 19 countries—including the United Kingdom and 14 members of the European Union—have banned fur production. In recent months, advocates turned in 1.7 million citizens’ signatures to ask the European Commission to consider a sales and production ban across the European Union. Advocates are also working for an end to animal fur sales in the UK, which 20 years ago banned production. 

To help bring about these changes, last fall HSI released undercover footage of solitary chinchillas kept in barren wire cages stacked in windowless basements in Romania. Now, legislators there are considering ending the commercial raising and killing of chinchillas and mink. In January, HSI released footage of foxes, raccoon dogs and mink pacing and swaying and circling in small cages above piles of excrement on fur farms in northern China. In June, an HSI report detailed the environmental cost of fur farms: Producing a kilogram of fur (an average of mink, fox and raccoon dog fur) uses five times as much water as producing a kilogram of cotton and 104 times as much as producing a kilogram of acrylic. Ending mink, fox and raccoon dog fur farming in Europe would save about 300,000 tons of carbon emissions—equivalent to eliminating the emissions of around 58,000 people in the UK.

Further production and sales bans in the United States and Europe will shut down the trade across those regions, says Claire Bass, senior director of campaigns and public affairs for HSI/UK. The global production of mink, fox, raccoon dog and other fur animals has fallen dramatically, to 42 million fur animals in 2021 from an estimated 140 million in 2014.

During the pandemic, COVID-19 spread through mink on farms in Europe and the United States. Much of that production isn’t coming back.

“We’re going to see over the next five to 10 years whole chunks of the world where fur can’t be traded,” Bass says. “It becomes diminishing returns [for the industry]. There’s an enormous momentum to leave fur behind.”

Alternative materials already make it possible to have the look, softness and warmth of animal fur without caging and killing mink, foxes and other animals. And new materials—recycled, biodegradable, plant-based and lab-grown—are arriving on the market. Unlike the polyester faux fur of the 1980s, they are environmentally friendly.

After decades of falling in and out of vogue, animal fur has been abandoned by most every major designer. The latest technologies make it a cruel anachronism. The places where it can be produced or sold are dwindling. Animal fur is out of style for good.


Model wearing faux fur using materials made from recycled plastic bottles melted into pellets and spun into thread.
Atelier Chardon Savard
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Ecopel

Here now: An environmentally friendly alternative

Growing increasingly greener: A company called Ecopel, based in Shanghai and France, lowered the environmental impact of polyester-based fur by using materials made from recycled plastic bottles melted into pellets and spun into thread. These are five to 10 times more sustainable than animal fur if you consider the carbon footprint of raising mink and foxes, says Arnaud Brunois of Ecopel. Now, Ecopel has created “biomaterials” that are biodegradable and/or made partly from corn and other plants—KOBA (30% plant-based, 100% biodegradable) and GACHA (100% biodegradable). “We are at a very exciting time,” says Brunois. “Innovations are unstoppable.”

Recycled plastic fiber is five to 10 times more sustainable than animal fur.Plastic bottle

The majority of designers are working with faux fur because they have understood the necessity to spare animals as much as possible; they understand it’s the right thing to do.

Arnaud Brunois, Ecopel

Man holding a sample of BioFluff's plant-based fur.
BioFluff

Coming soon: 100% plant-based fur

Expected to be available in 2023: A company called BioFluff is turning fibers from cover crops (flowers, stems and leaves) and from agricultural waste into non-animal furs that resemble mink and fox. The first industrial-scale production took place last August. Biotech engineer Martin Stübler got the idea for an entirely plant-based fur while he was stuck in a small town in Spain during the pandemic working at a tannery on a mycelium (fungal) alternative to animal leather. He contacted textile engineer Ashwariya Lahariya, who said it was possible.

The two co-founded BioFluff. Lahariya collected many different types of plants and hand tufted and weaved their fibers until she created a material that looked and felt right and stayed on a backing. “We were trying anything and everything,” she says. “Now that we are past the key stages, we are saying, ‘Oh, this is simple.’ ” BioFluff is finalizing a U.S. patent while manufacturing in Italy and Spain and doing research and development in San Francisco. Stübler expects high demand from designers.

The next generation of innovators, I don’t think they’re interested [in animal fur]. Students today are seeking a whole other look. They’re looking to have fun—something that is very flamboyant. They like it when it is obviously unreal.

John Bartlett, Marist College

Image of a mink at a sanctuary
Minks used to extract the stem cells are retired to sanctuaries after their biopsies.
Megan Carfino
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Mustelid Madness Rescue

In the future: Lab-grown fur

Expected to reach the market in late 2024: A Dutch company called Furoid is harnessing biotechnology that has already been used to grow human hair from stem cells to grow animal fur, starting with mink fur. Stem cells from five to 10 minks will be extracted through biopsies (the mink involved will not come from farms, will not be kept in labs and will be retired to sanctuaries after the biopsies). The stem cells will be grown into hair follicle organoids and combined with other cells and grown on a backing, or scaffold, made from a plant-based polymer. “The proof of concept is the mink,” says Jan Erik Carlson, chief operating officer. “Mink have been the backbone of the industry—the bread and butter. If we can get it right, there will be no need for fur farming.” Furoid CEO Paul Stockall used to promote the International Fur Federation’s FURMARK program that claims to trace the origins of fur. He left because he saw animal fur in decline and realized biotech can give consumers transparency FURMARK never could. Furoid hair fibers will carry codes that can be scanned to reveal their source. “Fur is evolving,” says Stockall. “It has to be delivered a different way.”

Furoid has competitors in the lab-grown fur field: Last year, researchers at Imperial College of London and Central Saint-Martins announced a partnership with the Fendi fashion house to create a “biotextile.” The researchers are searching for mink and fox genes for keratin, a hair fiber protein, that can be used to produce fur. They are trying to grow these genes into fibers using yeast in bioreactors.

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