Does Fur Have a Future? | BoF Professional, News & Analysis

Does Fur Have a Future? | BoF Professional, News & Analysis

The past year served as an unfortunate bellwether for the fur industry. A sector already on the decline — the International Fur Federation (IFF) estimated the industry was worth $22 billion in 2019, down 45 percent from $40 billion in 2015 — was hit further by the pandemic, when Denmark effectively decimated the country’s mink-fur farming industry with a mink cull last year after Covid-19 outbreaks on farms.

But fur’s diminishing place in fashion goes beyond Covid-19. Last week, Canada Goose, Moose Knuckles and Neiman Marcus all announced plans to begin phasing out fur production or sales of fur products. Government action has aided the dirge, too: Israel announced a ban on the material with exceptions for religious observances last month; California became the first state to ban fur in 2019. The United Kingdom is also exploring a similar ban.

“It’s painful when you get the twilight for any industry,” said Noah Stern, co-chief executive of Canadian luxury outerwear brand Moose Knuckles, which will phase out all fur production by the end of 2022.

We’re in the midst of the end of fur, and the industry’s trajectory is becoming clearer. Overproduction, cultural shifts, decreased demand and the effects of the pandemic are all speeding up its demise. Now, as brands continue to phase out the material, they’re exploring not only new alternatives but also how their brands can move forward without fur as a part of their identity.

“I think they saw the writing on the wall,” said PJ Smith, director of fashion policy for the Humane Society, of the recent announcements. “We’re finally seeing a tipping point.”

Falling Out of Favour

The fur industry already faced headwinds in the form of declining consumer interest and sales, but Denmark’s mink cull — which decimated nearly a quarter of the global mink trade — was particularly detrimental to its future. Hundreds of businesses were forced to shutter and Kopenhagen Fur, the largest fur auction house in the world, made plans close by 2023.

The incident brought about “the end of the fur farming industry in Denmark as we know it,” as Jesper Lauge Christensen, chief executive of Kopenhagen Fur, told BoF in January. A recent study from the University of Copenhagen estimated the pandemic cost the fur retail trade roughly $5 billion.

The problem extends beyond Danish borders: the Netherlands banned mink fur farming in 2013, but the pandemic caused it to move up its initial deadline for phasing out the industry from 2024 to March of this year.

It’s painful when you get the twilight for any industry.

As industry conditions have become more challenging, fur’s decline is also propelled by shifting consumer attitudes. When conducting market research after it began exploring the possibility of ending fur production last year, Moose Knuckles found young consumers across its key regions, even Asian markets, demonstrated a growing consumer sentiment away from fur.

Moose Knuckles has adjusted its offering over the years to reflect this generational shift: eight years ago, all Moose Knuckles products included fur trim compared to roughly 25 percent today, easing the impact to the brand’s supply chain of phasing out of the material.

“It’s been declining for a long time,” said Stern. “There’s still a demand for fur but we’re seeing them vote very strongly for a lot of our fashionable non-fur looks.”

Changing DNA

Dropping fur means different things for different brands. For luxury houses including Gucci, Prada and Burberry, all of which announced plans to end fur usage over the past few years, it’s less of an adjustment, as sales of fur products made up a small percentage of sales and weren’t a core offering for consumers. When Gucci, for instance, made the decision to stop using fur after its Spring/Summer 2018 collections, fur products made the brand roughly $12 million annually, chief executive Marco Bizzarri told BoF, a fraction of its overall sales.

For brands like Moose Knuckles and Canada Goose, however, the transition is a heavier lift, as they moved away from an iteration of luxury they’ve cultivated for years.

Both brands announced phasing out of fur production by the end of 2022, removing an iconic style and DNA strand from their heritage in the shape of fur-trimmed parkas commanding upwards of four figures that have become instantly recognisable for consumers.

“At the end of the day, we’re just catering to the renewed and evolving preferences of our retail base and our consumer,” said Stern.

It’s a shift that’s long been in the works, as retailers continue to phase out the material and consumers demand more environmentally sustainable alternatives. Both Canada Goose and Moose Knuckles already sell fur-free styles, while Neiman Marcus, Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew and Saks Fifth Avenue announced plans to ban fur this year, joining Bloomingdale’s, Selfridges, Macy’s and Nordstrom.

“The fact that Neimans had to finally ban fur is a sign that it doesn’t matter how important something is to your DNA, companies have to evolve with the times and give the consumer what they want,” said luxury retail consultant and former buyer Gurki Basra, adding that the “red tape” and expense of carrying fur is likely no longer worth it for retailers either.

Alternatives are rising: Moose Knuckles’ shearling options have performed well at Selfridges over the past few years, according to Stern, proving a strong demand for non-fur products among consumers.

Canada Goose has also launched a range of new offerings including jackets made with recycled nylon, with chief executive and president Dani Reiss describing the move as a “transformative decision” for the business.

Companies have to evolve with the times and give the consumer what they want.

The company’s standard expedition parka, which it’s marketing as the future of its sustainable offering, currently is listed at $1,850, signalling that its luxury price point won’t be gone with fur.

The brand’s performance has stayed steady, even in the Asian Pacific region where demand for fur hasn’t declined at the same rate as in Europe and the US. Canada Goose reported its direct-to-consumer revenue in China doubled from the year before, and it has six store openings planned in the region this year.

The Next Frontier

As companies phase out fur, they’re experimenting in the materials science space to seek out cleaner alternatives.

However, the process will take time and money as brands invest in new technologies. Finding the right shearling to replace Moose Knuckles’ original fur designs, for example, took years to develop.

These materials are still in the nascent stages of development, and there’s concern over the sustainability of alternatives, as faux fur materials can be made from synthetic polymeric fibres — essentially plastic. Scott McDougall, responsible for sustainability and CSR initiatives at Moose Knuckles, said the brand has spent two years “weeding out a lot of greenwashed materials” as it seeks to find environmentally-friendly alternatives that offer the same level of comfort and warmth as fur.

There is a long heritage of fur makers, and it is a little bit sad to be quite honest.

Still, Mark Oaten, chief executive of IFF, is “confident” the fur market has a future. Luxury spending is on the rise and the vaccination process for minks is in the works. With sustainability concerns over faux alternatives, some in the industry argue sustainable ways of farming are a viable way forward. And with the loss of fur farms, the material may be poised for a lucrative return in the coming years.

But overall, fashion brands, under increasing pressure to reach environmental targets and appeal to sustainability-minded consumers, are moving away from animal-based materials, such as exotic skins and fur. This pressure has prompted growth in the materials science space, with Gucci-owner Kering, Hermès, Allbirds and more announcing partnerships with companies promising the next generation of sustainable materials.

Much of this chatter has been focused around leather alternatives, however, as more brands move away from fur, companies may capitalise on demand in the market for options, bio-based or other. Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga presentation at Paris Couture Fashion Week, for instance, relied on silk thread embroidery to create the illusion of fur.

Some are hoping their fur suppliers can evolve with them as they move into the next stage of their businesses.

“We’re offering them opportunities to evolve with us away from fur and to other sustainable materials,” said Stern. “There is a long heritage of fur makers, and it is a little bit sad to be quite honest.”

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