Fashion Spotlight Interview with Sarah Perelstein of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

Worn as a symbol of power and luxury, animal skins and furs have been in style since ancient Mediterranean civilizations, the Greeks and Romans.   This still remains true today. Ever since beaver felt hats first became fashionable in the 11th century the fur trade has always fascinated fashion lovers. We continuously see celebrities and fashion industry power houses dressed in exquisite mink coats and rabbit vests to show off their rich taste and high status in today’s world. Fur clothing is still a highly controversial subject. Fashion Spotlight’s discussion with Sarah Perelstein the Deputy Manager of the Fur-Free Campaign at The Humane Society of the United States offers a unique perspective on this issue. Read on…     

Sarah Perelstein

 

 Fashion Spotlight: How did you get involved with The Humane Society (HSUS)?      

Sarah Perelstein: It started with an internship, in the fur-free campaign where I work today.  My boss was a mentor to me, and the work felt so important and inspiring that I couldn’t wait to graduate and come right back here!     

FS: Give us a brief description of the type of work/projects you work on at HSUS.     

SP: I mainly do outreach to retailers and designers, working with companies asking them to adopt fur-free policies, and keeping them aware of industry movement when their peers stop selling animal fur.  I maintain our list of fur-free retailers and designers, which now includes more than 150 companies.  Consumers can check this list before they shop:  www.humanesociety.org/furfreeshopping.  I’m also involved in our recurring investigation into an industry-wide problem of mislabeling and falsely advertising fur products.      

FS: What inspired you to work for such a worthy cause?      

SP: I’ve always been an animal person, but my first experiences at The HSUS came days after I got off the plane having spent a semester abroad in China.  The grotesque treatment of animals that I witnessed there inspired me to take concrete action. I felt so fortunate to finally be at a place where I would have the support and resources to do just that.     

FS: How do you go about convincing designers to go fur-free?     

SP: Our outreach strategy differs with each company, but we have been very successful when we appeal to specific criteria that the company themselves deems to be important.     

Over the past three years, we have found many of the largest names in fashion selling falsely advertised or mislabeled fur products— misrepresenting fur as “faux” or as a different species when it may have actually contained fur from domestic dog or raccoon dog.  So occasionally our outreach begins when we alert a company that our investigators have purchased one of their products that is in violation of the federal Fur Products Labeling Act.      

Once they realize they are putting their companies’ reputations at risk by using animal fur, a number of responsible companies have changed their policies and are no longer selling real fur, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, BCBG Max Azria, Footlocker, JCPenney and Overstock.com. Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, decided that the company would no longer purchase any more fur products the very day he met with HSUS representatives.  In his own words, he said that as we were “discussing the fur industry I began to understand that it really does treat animals simply as objects. Decorative objects, but objects nonetheless. So I realized we should stop having any part of it.”  As of March 27, 2008, Overstock.com has not placed a single order for fur products.      

 On other occasions, we highlight glaring inconsistencies by the company.  For example, some companies trumpet their environmental efforts yet they sell fur—so we point out the environmental impact of the fur industry. If they truly want to be consistent, they will at least consider going fur-free.  Others launch pet care lines and lines to “pamper pets” while selling fur in their men’s and women’s apparel collections.  We’ve highlighted the discrepancy between offering products for dogs yet offering products trimmed with a species in the dog family (raccoon dog) with Juicy Couture and Roberto Cavalli. Juicy Couture has since gone fur-free.      

FS: Fur has long been a symbol of affluence and power in society and continues to do so even today. What are some of the biggest challenges you face when trying to convince fur lovers to give it up?      

SP: It’s hard to believe that people could watch the videos of how animals are treated on fur factory farms, or the explicit videos of raccoon dogs being skinned alive for their fur—and not be moved.  Or continue to buy or wear fur.  Many people still, somehow, have not made the connection that fur is not a fabric, and animals are killed specifically for fur and fur trim.  It is obviously a huge challenge when people—designers, especially—have seen the footage and seen the suffering, and know where fur comes from, and just don’t care.     

FS: The HSUS has some really great design initiatives to encourage awareness—what tips/advice would you give Fashion Spotlight readers to help spread the word?      

SP: It’s all about consumers spreading the word, and realizing the impact they can have—by choosing where to allocate their shopping dollars—on getting companies to stop selling fur.  By choosing to support fur-free retailers and designers, and not shopping stores or labels that continue to sell fur, you can help send a market signal, especially if you let the company know why you will no longer be shopping there!       

So, in terms of what you can do, first, pledge to be fur-free!  Take our fur-free shopping guide with you when you shop—and keep checking our Web site since we add new companies all the time.  You can also train yourself to be a more informed shopper. Since you can’t always tell from the sign or label, download our guide to telling real fur from fake fur . And if you can share our video, with family, friends, and especially fur-wearers, you may truly be getting people to think twice before buying or wearing fur.  We’ve found that this is by far the most effective method of creating change. And, of course, you can visit our Web site—humanesociety.org/furfree—for more tips.  Sign up for our email alerts and stay involved.      

FS: How do you approach popular designers such as Jason Wu, Calvin Klein etc, to discuss fur-free policies?      

SP: Well, Calvin Klein is already fur-free!  For other retailers, we usually begin communication by letter. The discussion usually moves a lot faster if we’ve found the designer’s name on a coat with fur that has been mislabeled or falsely advertised—with the wrong species or indicating “faux fur” when the fur is in fact real, and may have come from canine species like domestic dog or raccoon dog.        

FS: Can you give us some insight into how an investigation is conducted?      

SP: We hear from members and supporters about garments with suspicious labeling, we come across items advertised or promoted in fashion magazines, and we also spend a great deal of time during the fall and winter each year  going to stores and online retailers to inspect that seasons garments.  If we find a garment made with animal fur that is advertised or labeled as fake, or a situation similar to this, we may buy the garment and then test the fur.  From there we may contact the companies involved, our members and the public, or law enforcement agencies.     

     

Mary Kate and Ashley in fur

 

FS: Fur production is not just about animal cruelty.  There is also a severe environmental impact to consider. Can you elaborate?     

SP: Until recently, people tended to overlook the environmental impacts associated with producing animal fur—but our recent report Toxic Fur goes into detail about the many adverse impacts that the industry has on the environment.  We begin by exploring the pollution produced when animals are caged for their fur on factory farms.  There, the chemicals released in the animals’ manure contribute to the most common form of water pollution in the United States.  The use of toxic chemicals to prevent the natural process of biodegradation or to dye the fur unnatural colors is also of concern.  Carcinogenic chemicals formaldehyde, chromium, naphthalene, toluene and lead are used in the different stages of fur processing, and have been associated with leukemia, breast cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer.  Finally, there are enormous energy costs associated with shipping pelts and fur garments around the globe for these completely unnecessary fur products.     

FS: How do you think the current economy has affected the fur trade/fashion industry?      

SP: It has had an enormous effect.  Fur industry data released in the beginning of April shows that annual global fur sales are down $2 billion, from 2006-2008.  This is terrific news for fur-bearing animals—we’ve done a rough calculation and estimate that this drop in fur sales as a result of the economy (as well as some less concrete factors like changing public opinion, and the increased use of “faux” alternatives) means that approximately 10 million animals are being saved annually from becoming fur and fur-trimmed garments.      

We are hoping also that retailers will finally make the connection that part of the trend towards “conscious consumerism” includes not buying animal fur.  It’s difficult to believe that in these times, when consumers are more interested than ever in “the story behind the product,” they would ever choose to buy a product that causes animals to suffer and die for it, as is the case with the fur obtained for fashion.     

FS: Fashion is ____________.     

SP: Fashion is becoming more hopeful—if the industry is serious about taking ethical and environmental concerns into account, which remains to be seen.     

Kanye West and Amber Rose wearing fur at 2010 Paris Fashion Week

 

 FS: Describe your style.       

SP: I’m pretty sure my style comes from my parents letting me dress myself when I was a kid.  I do care very much about what I wear, but it’s because I like dressing for me, not to please anyone else.  My favorite clothes probably all come from Anthropologie or stores along Portobello Road Market in London, and I still wear some of my favorite things from when I lived in London in 8th grade!  I love the jumpsuit trend right now though – I think it suits my personality – and I can’t stop talking about these vegan cowboy-ish boots I just ordered from Etsy online.     

FS: What do you love most about what you do?     

SP: The most rewarding part of my job is getting to be a part of concrete change.  The best feeling is coming into work early the morning we are issuing a press release announcing that a company we have worked with has committed to going fur-free.  It’s incredible to be there from start to finish—all of the letters we’ve written, phone calls and meetings we’ve had, contacts we’ve made and correspondence we’ve shared results in a company literally changing their corporate policies to reduce the suffering of animals.  That is job satisfaction!     

Much of my work is in the office.  But the effects of my work are not: hopefully, they can be felt in the wild where animals are trapped for fur, and on the industrial farms where animals are raised and slaughtered for fur. We are aware, here, that what we do makes a difference – and for many animals, all the difference in the world.     

Eva Longoria Parker in fur

 

FS: Who are your favorite designers?       

SP: Good question!  Because of my job, it’s hard for me to separate what I know of the designers’ attitudes and personalities from their design aesthetic.  One of my favorite designers to talk to is NY’s Bahar Shahpar, and the amazing contacts we’ve made at Levi’s and BCBG. And I’ll always be so grateful to Stella McCartney for making the coolest, most covetable clothes that just happen to be cruelty-free.      

FS: What’s next for you at HSUS?       

SP: We’ve got some very exciting meetings coming up that I am not at liberty to discuss just yet. Be sure to check out our Web site humanesociety.org/furfree for the latest news.     

FS: Can we look forward to more fur-free fashion shows like the HSUS collaboration with Jay McCarroll, in the future?       

SP: I sure hope so!  We’ve had a great experience with each show we collaborated on, beginning with Jay McCarroll but also sponsoring VPL’s Victoria Bartlett and Charlotte Ronson for two seasons.  It was the most incredible feeling the first time I saw The Humane Society of the United States’ logo on the runway.

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