Fighting fur forever: an economics perspective

January 18, 2010

As one who often wonders why the world is the way it is, I was excited to see @guerillamonk‘s Twitter update that linked to Why Fur Is Fashionable Again. Finally, some answers!

Unfortunately, the rambly piece of bloggish writing, which was more or less an excuse to announce that the writer had purchsed a vintage fur coat, didn’t really get to delivering the answer promised in its title, unless you count “er, it’s cold outside. And Kate Moss” as the deeply researched reason for the influx of furs in London’s streets.

Oh well, at least it had some quotes from fashion magazine editors, some of whom apparently have official no-fur policies, which was something I didn’t know. Plus, it inspired me to try to actually answer the question: why, exactly, is fur fashionable again?

Well, because it’s cold. Also, possibly, Kate Moss.

Here’s the thing: people buy things because they’re available for sale. There’s never been a movie, however horrible, that launched in a theatre or theatres and never sold a single ticket, and by the same token, the cruelest possible product imaginable will find some buyers if placed in the right setting at the right price.

As responsible, ethical citizens of the world, we can (and will!) do our best to educate and inform people about all that’s messed up about fur, but there are going to be people who either don’t get the message, choose to ignore the message, or, perhaps most commonly, forget the message at the critical point of purchase, and are unlikely to return the fur after remembering that message even minutes later.

At the same time, our individual actions are so incredibly tiny compared to global economic trends (fashion seems to reflect how people feel about wealth in general,) trade incentives (check out the stuff Canada’s doing to try to keep the seal hunt viable,) and even something as simple as the temperature (hey, if we really want to stop fur, is global warming a friend or foe? I kid, I kid!)

So what’s the point? Is it worth even bothering to educate people if these massive levers of change are out of our hands?

Oddly, I believe it is, and most of my thoughts on the matter come down to an economics class I took many years ago in school.

See, there are two main branches of economic theory: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Microeconomics covers the actions of the individual or organization, so you’ve got stuff like supply and demand and whatnot. That’d be your outreach and activism zone. Macroeconomics, on the other hand, covers inflation, unemployment, GDP and whatnot. Big stuff, and in today’s analogy, these would be your big levers that the governments get to pull and are largely out of your control.

Now I’ll admit, I don’t remember much about that class I took – I can’t even remember if it was micro or macro that I studied. I think I got an A, at least, but it was an elective that I took out of sheer curiousity over what the whole thing was about (lots of interesting stuff) and how it could be applied to my life (not a lot, as it turned out.)

I got much more out of Freakonomics [affiliate link], which was fun to read and at the same time, with its “action X actually had nothing to do with change Y; it turns out we should be thanking yams” theme it could easily get discouraging from an activist standpoint.

Indeed, it’s not until you think hard about it that you might realize that the two fields of study are mixed together (i.e. the collective behaviours of a lot of individuals will affect the patterns of countries) and it’s the same way with activism. Sure, there might be a lot of global trends that are out of our hands, but there are key events that take place, more often than you think, where we have the opportunity to make masssive impact through strong messaging and the introduction of amazingly viable alternatives. In between these times, by educating and informing individuals, we’re effectively prepping the troops for the Big Events that come every once in a while.

Getting rid of the fur industry is going to take a long, long time, and the final nails in the coffin aren’t likely to come from the activist movement. Continued pressure on consumers and the industry, however, will speed its overall demise and make this change more acceptable (and, possibly, applauded) when it does happen, and that’s something we can all work towards.

(Oh, and if you’d like a more “official” explanation of the rise of fur, you might want to check out a post I wrote a few weeks back, in which I linked to this article in the Guardian that did a decent job explaining the cyclical trends in our culture that landed us here again.)

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