OSLO, Norway––Norwegian finance minister Siv Jensen on May 12, 2015 presented a Revised National Budget to Parliament that includes a proposed 17.8 million kroner cut in agricultural subsidies to fur farmers.
The proposed cut, amounting to $2.35 million in U.S. funds, or 2.1 million euros, would halve the total amount of aid to fur farming provided by the Norwegian government.
Norwegian Fur Breeders’ Association spokesperson Guri Wormdahl told Agence France-Presse that the cut might jeopardize the survival of “about half” of the 262 mink and fox farms remaining in Norway.
The proposed cuts will not be final until the Revised National Budget wins Parliamentary approval, but come soon after a glut of mink pelts on the international auction market brought a collapse in pelt prices that is expected to depress fur production for years, until the backlog of unsold pelts is exhausted.
Path of least resistance
The proposed cuts also indicate that the Norwegian government may be taking the path of least political resistance to phasing out fur farming entirely.
The Labour Party, a member of the ruling coalition, voted to end fur farming at its 2011 Party Congress, on advice of the Norwegian Veterinary Association, and reaffirmed that commitment in 2013.
A parliamentary majority in early 2014 asked environment minister Bård Vegard Solhjell to ban fur farming, but Solhjell sidestepped by appointing a nine-member commission to review the industry, which produces fur almost entirely for export.
“This is the first thorough review that raises the question of whether the industry should be wound up,” Solhjell told Norwegian media.
The commission report, originally due on June 30, 2014, was not released until December 15, 2014.
“A majority on the commission, which called the fur industry ‘both profitable and competitive internationally,’ believes fur production in Norway should continue,” summarized the Norwegian news portal NewsinEnglish.no. “Five members of the nine-member commission supported ongoing fur production, while three urged a gradual shutdown. One member didn’t want to commit to either.”
Public already turned against fur farms
Norwegian public opinion, however, had already turned against fur farming, following years of high-profile exposés of animal suffering at mink and fox farms.
About 7,000 Norwegians demonstrated against fur farming in 15 cities in coordinated protests during the weekend of November 8-9, 2014––a record turnout for the 11th annual celebration of Europe’s largest anti-fur event, coordinated by NOAH, Norway’s largest animal rights organization.
“Fur farms are presented as the most profitable farming sector but they still demand tens of millions of kroner in special aid,” commented Norwegian Society for Protection of Animals spokesperson Live Kleveland in a written statement. “Sixty-eight percent of the population want to dismantle fur farms,” according to an Infact/Dyrevernalliansen survey done in 2014, and most likely do not want their taxes going to this controversial sector.”
Once a world leader
While Norway is no longer among the world leaders in ranched fur production, for decades it was. The ranched fur industry became established in Scandinavia through the economic success of the first Oslo fur auction in 1932.
Oslo Fur Auctions Inc., marketing fur globally with Swedish and Finn producers through the Saga consortium, is still regarded as the global data-keeper for the industry.
About 1,800 Norwegian fur farms pelted 720,000 foxes and more than 300,000 mink per year in the late 1980s. Norwegian fox production dropped to 585,000 by 1995, when a botulism outbreak killed about 150,000 foxes, but this was still nearly 20% of the world total.
Since then, the Norwegian fox industry has crashed, accounting for about 4% of total global fox pelt production over the past 10 winters.
Norwegian mink pelt production soared to a record 680,000 as recently as 2007, believed to be about 1.3% of the world total at the time, but has tapered off since to less than 1%.
World Society for the Protection of Animals investigator Victor Watkins produced perhaps the first major exposé of conditions on Scandinavian fur farms in August 1983, including reports from Norway, but anti-fur activism in Norway was slow to kindle.
In 2002, however, the Norwegian government gave fur farmers a 10-year deadline to significantly improve animal welfare conditions.
Further investigations found no improvement, including those of a four-member team led by former WSPA publicist Jonathan Owen, published by The Independent in 2006, and findings by undercover personnel from the Norwegian Society for Protection of Animals and Network for Animal Freedom released in 2008 and 2009, aired on both Norwegian and Finn television.
Oslo Fashion Week banned fur
The pivotal event turning public and political opinion against fur farming in Norway, however, may have been the January 2011 decision of Oslo Fashion Week founder Pål Vasbotten to ban fur from the catwalks of Norway’s only world-class fashion event, held twice a year since 2004.
Vasbotten was influenced by Mote Mot Pels (Fashion Against Fur), an organization which had rallied more than 220 of the Norwegian fashion elite in opposition to fur.
But Vasbotten did not need much convincing, he told ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton.
“Ethical values are a very complex issue in most industries, and also in the industry that we are promoting,” Vasbotten said. “That’s why we started the Nordic Initiative for Clean & Ethical Fashion (NICE),” which has promoted Norwegian woolen goods since 2008.
“Most of the issues in the textile fashion industry, aside from those concerning the consumers, need to be addressed outside our country,” Vasbotten continued. In Norway, however, “when it comes to fur, we have a small fur farming industry. They are subsidized by the government to the tune of approximately 50 million kroner every year, and the resulting export-turnover is around 350 million kroner. It is very painful to see those animals in their miniscule cages, locked up for life, sometimes with open wounds. We have seen these pictures for many years and it seems that neither the fur industry nor the government cares. We have some power to make the government rethink their subsidy policy, and hopefully once the industry is no longer profitable it will cease to exist.
“For this reason,” Vasbotten said, “we are banning fur from Oslo Fashion Week. We do not need an industry where animals are raised in conditions where they suffer. We have chosen not to be more specific, because we are aware of so many other extreme conditions and tragic actions that are part of the supply chain in the fashion business. It’s natural for us to start to clean up in our small industry here in Norway,” Vasbotten finished, “and hopefully we can inspire others to do the same in their country, no matter what problems they may be facing.”
Vasbotten paid a price for his ethical decision. Oslo Fashion Week folded in 2013 due to lack of continued fashion industry support.
Dutch fur farm ban was overturned
The Netherlands, meanwhile, in January 2013 moved to implement a ban on fur farming that had been approved by the Dutch Parliament in December 2012. To be phased in over 10 years, the ban was not to take full effect until 2024, but now will not take effect at all, having been judicially overturned in May 2014.
The failed Dutch ban did have a global impact on the fur trade.
Dutch producers pelt about six million mink per year, making The Netherlands third globally in pelt exports, behind only Denmark and China.
Denmark, producing about 12 million mink pelts per year, still accounts for about a third of world ranched mink, rivaled only by China. China was briefly first, but in recent years has cut back from peak output of about 18 million mink pelts per year to about nine million in recent years.
Record production brought price collapse
Anticipating the loss of Dutch mink, and believing Chinese demand for fur would keep pelt prices at the record price per pelt reached in 2013 (before adjustment for inflation), producers elsewhere bred more mink than ever before.
Observed Pierre-Henry Deshayes of Agence France-Presse in February 2014, “For the first time in 20 years, Sweden has seen a growing number of fur production farms. But the mink price rise has boosted the offer to the point of surplus.”
Commented British fur buyer Frank Zilberkweit, to Richard Orange of The Observer, “When the anti-fur campaign was at its peak [in the late 1980s], production fell to 22 million mink worldwide. This year it’s 80 million.”
Wrote Orange in April 2014, “Mink skins reached a record average price of $102 (£61), or $3,500 for a fur coat in September. Since then, they have plummeted to $54 as it has dawned on the Chinese buyers that they will struggle to sell their vast storehouses full of stock. Together with a mild winter in China, the excess caused a 26% price drop in the December auction, according to Danish auction house Kopenhagen Fur, the largest in the world, which said it failed to sell 80 percent of the merchandise.”
By October 2014, reported Sean Farrell of The Guardian, “The price of mink has more than halved in the past year after retailers in China and other big fur markets were left with surplus stocks after the bursting of the Chinese fur bubble. Prices at last month’s auction by Denmark’s Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s biggest fur auctioneer, fell 55% to 258 kroner (£27.19) from a year earlier when Chinese demand sent prices to a record. Saga Furs in Finland said prices at its auctions also halved for mink furs.”
Crackdown on corruption
Speculated Salla Tuomivaara of the Finni animal advocacy organization Animalia, “The reason for the price drop is most probably the anti-corruption campaign initiated by the Chinese government, which discourages public servants from accepting luxury gifts.”
But a simpler explanation is the logic of supply and demand. Fur trade history is littered with similar examples of boom-and-bust cycles. First a rise in retail fur sales brings a rise in pelt prices at auction. Then the rise of pelt prices encourages producers to increase output to more than declining demand can absorb in a single year, or several years.
Reality is that retail fur sales have been in a long-term downward trend for nearly 30 years, with each pelt price boom preceding a pelt glut that depresses auction prices for years, knocking producers out of the industry. The only actual fur industry growth over this time resulted from gaining access to Chinese markets, and even that boost was relatively short-lived.
Time and again, including in the Chinese marketplace, lower pelt prices bring lower garment prices, temporarily stimulating retail fur garment sales, but the retail demand is not sustained when pelt prices rise again. Retailers then drop out of the fur trade.
The net effect is that each short-term fur boom precedes a contraction of the industry, accelerated by the short memories of many of the participants, including publicists and fashion writers who annually allege that fur is making a return to vogue.
U.S. retail fur sales far below peak
The last actual sustained increase in U.S. retail fur demand came from 1979 through 1988, when the average list price of a mink coat in New York City was close to $7,250. It fell to $6,290 in 1993 and was $4,737 by 2001.
Actual sale prices averaged $2,902 in 1993, $2,041 in 1995-1996, and just $1,558 in 2000-2001.
Total U.S. retail fur sales volume peaked at $1.85 billion in 1987-1988, plummeted to $950 million by 1992, and rebounded to $1.8 billion in 2003––but by then $1.8 billion was worth only $927 million in 1988 dollars.
U.S. retail fur sales totals in recent years were $1.27 billion in 2012 and $1.39 billion in 2013, respectively equivalent to $654 million and $716 million in 1988.