Sunday, February 25, 2007

Using canines to make fake fur: what's the true story?

When does a story outrage Americans, and when do they ignore it? When I first read that Chinese manufactured fake fur garments almost always (24/25 in one sample) contained canine fur, I figured the furies would follow. They really haven't however, and it turns out that the story is several months old, and more complex than it first seemed (though I would advise boycotting JC Penney).

After some reflection, I think this really belongs in the same globalization category as lead contamination of christmas lights. I'll explain why after the story. BTW, the racoon dog is a wild canine often trapped or farmed for its fur. Emphases mine.
Is Your Coat Fur Fake, or Is It Fido? | World Latest | Guardian Unlimited

... The Humane Society of the United States said it purchased coats from reputable outlets, such as upscale Nordstrom, with designer labels - Andrew Marc, Tommy Hilfiger, for example - and found them trimmed with fur from domestic dogs [jf: this is misleading, see below], even though the fur was advertised as fake.

The investigation began after the society got a tip from someone who bought a coat with trim labeled as faux fur that felt real. Leppert and her team began buying coats from popular retailers and then had the coats tested by mass spectrometry, which measures the mass and sequence of proteins.

Of the 25 coats tested, 24 were mislabeled or misadvertised, the society said.

Three coats ... contained fur from domesticated [jf: meaning breeds domesticated in the US] dogs. The others had fur from raccoon dogs ... Most of the fur came from China.

Importing domestic dog and cat fur was outlawed in 2000. Intentionally importing and selling dog fur is a federal crime punishable by a $10,000 fine for each violation.

... The discovery of domestic dog fur is the latest twist in the investigation that ensnared retail giants Macy's and J.C. Penney late last year. Both of those retailers were discovered selling coats with raccoon dog fur labeled as raccoon.

J.C. Penney initially removed the offending garments from its stores around Christmas - but eventually it had employees scratch out the 'raccoon' label with black magic marker and put the coats back on the shelves. Macy's immediately pulled the items from its shelves.

... Mislabeling fur is a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine or a year in prison. Fur valued at less than $150 is not required to be labeled.

A bill introduced by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., would close that loophole by requiring labels for all fur regardless of its value. It also would ban fur from raccoon dogs.

... Other retailers the Humane Society said sold mislabeled raccoon dog fur included Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Designers whose clothes were mismarked included Donna Karan's DKNY and Michael Kors. A coat from Oscar de la Renta advertised as raccoon had raccoon dog fur.
I think I can reconstruct the real story, based on what's written here and my crotchety knowledge of how the world works. I bet that US retailers have known for years that Chinese manufacturers were using a wild canine, mostly farmed and hideously abused, to make convincing "fake fur". As long as the US retailers had plausible deniability they didn't care, and there was no law against using racoon dog fur. The mislabeling is merely a misdemeanor offense if the garment costs more than $150, and no label is required for under $150. US retailers probably didn't know, however, that some Chinese manufacturers were using dog breeds that, in many nations, are pets. That's a felony, and that's why they're anxious. If an executive were found to do this knowingly they'd get a criminal record, but I doubt any are guilty of that.

The Humane Society is justifiably outraged about the maltreatment of the racoon dog, but they know most Americans don't care. They went looking for evidence of use of domesticated dogs and found it, which is why the story came out.

This kind of thing (like lead contaminating holiday lights) is inevitable in a global economy with very different ideas about what's acceptable behavior and how seriously to treat foreign regulations and sensibilities. So how should we respond?

Congress should definitely pass the Moran and Ferguson bills. Americans should, in the meantime, assume that all "fake fur" is really wild dog fur, and conduct themselves accordingly. I'd like to see a class action suit take down of the retailers -- since I bet they've intentionally ignored the racoon dog mislabeling for years. Surely a hungry lawyer can sue for the psychic damage inflicted upon unwitting consumers ...

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