Ban fur? Proposal gets under skin of Los Angeles sellers

Noah Smith in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is poised to become the largest city in the US to ban the sale of fur products. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Los Angeles’s move to restrict the sale and manufacturing of new fur products last week has cheered animal rights activists but has left local furriers feeling bullied.

The issue is highly emotional for those on both sides, with graphic videos from China showing animal cruelty on the one hand, and concerns over the viability of family businesses on the other.

The proposed ban in the second-largest US city comes in the wake of a statewide restriction on the use of plastic straws as well as California city bans on synthetic materials such as styrofoam. Several city councils have also cracked down on new technologies such as electric scooters and home-share platforms in recent months.

“It’s basically just pushing people around,” said Daniel Wachtenheim, whose family has been in the fur business for over 70 years, initiated by his father, who came to the United States after surviving the Holocaust. He said he felt personally targeted, as other animal use industries were allowed to continue operations.

Wachtenheim, who has supplied garments for films and TV shows such as American Gangster, Changeling and Mad Men, and once sold a traditional Jewish fur hat, called a Shtreimel, to Madonna, believes the proposed ban hurts small shops. It reduces the freedom of choice for consumers while ultimately doing little to help animals, since shoppers can simply go online or to neighboring cities, such as Beverly Hills or Pasadena, to buy fur, he said.

Bob Blumenfield, a Los Angeles city councilmember, introduced the fur ban with councilmember Paul Koretz. “Its time has come,” Blumenfeld said. “There is no reason for us to be complicit in the fur trade here in Los Angeles any more.

“We are more enlightened at this point, especially in Los Angeles,” he said, adding that the vote for the ban was unanimous and came about through a broad coalition of partners.

Blumenfield said that his office tried to look beyond immediate impacts and tried to craft a policy that would “work best for our communities” while also providing leadership for the rest of the country, given LA’s stature economically and otherwise.

PJ Smith, the senior manager of fashion policy for Humane Society of the United States, used more stark terms, saying the fur trade was associated with “extreme cruelty”, and credited Los Angeles with adding to what he saw as momentum for fur bans, with brands including Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Michael Kors, Versace and Burberry going fur-free alongside countries and cities such as Norway and San Francisco.

Animal activists say the multibillion-dollar fur industry is rife with cruelty. Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP

Disagreeing with the notion of any such trend, Keith Kaplan, the director of communications for the Fur Information Council of America, cited the wide range of clothing and fashion items containing fur at major retailers and family-run businesses as well as fur’s appearance on most major fashion runways over the past year.

According to his group, fur accounted for $1.5bn in sales for 2014. Figures cited by the Los Angeles city council say total retail sales for fur amounted to roughly $360m in California, based on the 2012 economic census.

Blumenfield said the phase-out process, which is to occur for two years after the ban is formally approved, was meant to reduce hardship on furriers. He said no special provisions were added to help them transition, but that the city had measures in place to support small businesses in general.

Doug Fine, a manager at Dicker & Dicker of Beverly Hills, which, as its own city, is not under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles city council and which defeated a proposed ban earlier this year, stated he was not convinced the ban in LA will be enacted given that there is “quite a demand for fur,” he said, adding: “If you’re going to ban fur, you have to ban leather. The other side of fur is leather.”

Blumenfield called that “a tired, old argument”, saying there was a difference between “byproducts of the food chain” and the “completely unnecessary cruelty that’s involved with the fur industry”.

Using the examples of paintbrushes, shampoos and feed, Wachtenheim said animals prized for their fur, such as minks and sable, were used for additional purposes.

Fine said his store was not taking any action in light of the Los Angeles ban, which still must be drafted by the city attorney’s office, approved by the city council and then signed by the mayor, Eric Garcetti, but Wachtenheim said his store would stock used fur products and furs trapped in California – two categories not included in the ban – as well as set up an e-commerce website.

Despite the level of acrimony, Wachtenheim said he hoped everyone involved could understand they agreed on at least one fundamental matter.

“Nobody on either side of this issue wants animals to suffer.”