The Morality Of Fur And Leather
Recently, Karl Lagerfeld had a go at what is in his view a form of moral hypocrisy. He argues that ‘In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish’.
While Lagerfeld himself has many bizarre views and he is hardly a paragon of morality, his underlying point is relevant. Leather seems to face little of the moral chastisement faced by fur. I have found in my own life that wearing fur is generally scorned. If I came to school wearing, for instance, a Canada Goose fur-lined coat, I would probably be castigated for my endorsement of the company’s unethical supply methods. Many high-profile designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood refuse to use it in their designs altogether.
The hatred of fur stands in stark contrast with leather, which is near-universally used in fashion, and rarely viewed in the same negative light. When wearing a leather jacket, the greatest moral inditement one would face would likely be an overly-edgy fashion sense. My own school’s dress code stipulates that students must wear leather shoes (although vegan and synthetic alternatives are allowed).
Both industries quite obviously require the killing of animals, leading a great deal of suffering. However, the reputations of the two industries are significantly different. This consequently leads to a conundrum. Is the gulf in the way the two materials are seen justified?
Many argue that it is. Many critics of the fur industry argue that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and thus that the animals from where the leather comes would be killed anyway, justifying the use of leather. Under such a line of reasoning, the use of leather is justified because it is better to use the skins of animal carcasses instead of letting them go to waste.
However, this characterisation of the production of leather is misleading. The leather industry is colossal in its own right and is expected to reach a valuation of 128 billion USD by 2022. Rather than being a by-product of meat production, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe leather production as a co-product and subsidy. The leather industry makes the rearing of cattle more profitable, which in turn leads to more animals being killed.
The argument that leathers are a by-product collapses completely for certain types of exotic leather such as snakeskin and crocodile leather, where leather makes up essentially the entirety of revenue generated by killing the animal. Thus, while there is perhaps a difference between wearing fur and leather as fur leads to animals being killed solely for their hides, this difference is marginal as both industries ultimately lead to more animals being killed.
A second argument made in favour of using leather over fur is that its production is less morally problematic due to inflicting less suffering on animals. While fur coats are often created by hunting wild animals in unnecessarily painful traps, most cattle is farmed and killed in theoretically humane slaughterhouses. Perhaps the most famous example of the often-found barbarity in the fur industry is Canada Goose’s coyote fur coats, which typically involve barbaric steel traps which inflict significant and prolonged suffering on wild coyotes.
However, this supposed difference is misleading. While occasionally sensationalised, factory-farmed methods of killing cattle, as well as typically tight living conditions, are abhorrent. With much fur now being farmed rather than hunted, there appears to be little disparity.
Finally, whereas leather tends to compose the main body of an article of clothing. Leather jackets are entirely comprised of leather, whereas fur is simply an ornament on top of jackets made of other materials. This in turn means that a wearer of a leather good typically gets greater utility out of their use of their item, meaning that the harm of killing an animal is perhaps more justifiable. This argument does hold weight in some circumstances. However, it is highly dependent on how an individual uses a good which they buy. It does not illustrate an intrinsic moral difference between the two materials.
Thus, overall, the difference between fur and leather seems to be slim. As I write this, I realise there is perhaps hypocrisy for me writing this article. Every day, I wear leather boots to school and my closet does have a leather jacket hanging up in it. However, I do believe that, on a fundamental level, wearing leather is probably close to as immoral as fur. The reader of the article can choose how they respond to this revelation.