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There was a time when a mink coat was the ultimate status item. It was seen as an investment piece passed down through generations.
But grandma's mink coat may not be fought over anymore. Animal rights campaigns, government regulations, and changing trends have pushed the fur industry into decline.
Back in the day, working in the fur industry was a profitable business for furriers like Jerry Sorbara. He opened his store in New York in 1975, a time when fur was a regular feature on the runway. Sorbara told Insider he's sold about 40,000 fur garments since then, some of which he says went to none other than Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1977, retail sales of fur in the US reportedly surpassed $600 million. A representative from the American Fur Industry, a trade association, told The New York Times that by the late 1980s, retail sales reached a record $1.9 billion.
In those days, business was booming for Sorbara. He said he made more than $400,000 on a single Saturday in February of 1986 — more than what he made the entire last year he was in business. He shut down his store 34 years later, in February 2020, and now works out of his home in Connecticut, where he serves between 24 to 30 customers per year.
The real fur industry has faced a number of battles in recent years. Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Trade Federation, told Insider that it has been subject to a "very hostile animals rights campaign." The creation of PETA in 1980, along with its "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign, fueled anti-fur sentiment.
For Sorbara, it goes beyond animal rights campaigns. He says it's a trend that has been lost over the years.
By the mid-'90s, production of mink in the US had declined about 40%. The Department of Agriculture recorded 351 mink farms in 2000, down from the 2,836 farms that were in operation in the early 1940s.
While American consumers were gravitating away from real fur, demand — and competition — was growing overseas.
Reuters reported that US exports of mink pelts to China doubled in volume by 2012 compared to data from 2009. By 2017, China was contributing to more than half of global fur retail sales, according to a report from animal rights organization ACTAsia.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, the future of fur was looking grim. Britain banned fur farming in 2000, and about two dozen followed suit, promising to restrict or ban fur farming.
The US could be next. The prohibition on possessing, selling, and purchasing minks raised in captivity for fur production was included in a larger bill aimed at helping American competitiveness over China. The bill passed the House in early February.
In Denmark, the world's largest producer of mink, all farmed mink were culled in 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19 after a series of outbreaks.
It's not just lawmakers, but designers too who are rejecting the use of real fur. Top fashion houses like Gucci and Versace have reportedly pledged to stop using real fur.
It's a situation that industry representatives described as frustrating.
"[Fashion brands] are not really giving their customers the right to choose," Oaten said. "Ultimately, consumers should be able to make a fair choice.
"If they want to buy plastic fur, fine. If they want to buy natural fur, fine. Give them that choice."
But this wasn't always the case. Gilat Shani, creative director of Australian faux fur company Unreal Fur, told Insider it was an uphill battle to convince retailers to make the switch from real to faux when she launched her company in 2012.
Despite the growing support for faux from top fashion houses, it is still a tall order.
Synthetic fibers like acrylic and polyester are forms of plastic that are known to contribute to the microplastics found in the ocean. And if a fake fur coat is thrown away, it can take hundreds of years to break down.
"Even if that fiber can be 100% biodegradable, the process in which it's produced, manufactured, and transported can be completely unsustainable," said Neomi Amit, Unreal Fur's global business development and export manager.
Amit said the company is working alongside specialists to develop environmentally-friendly options and has looked at different materials, including hemp and bamboo.
Meanwhile, manufacturer Ecopel developed a fur alternative with designer Stella McCartney that is 37% corn-based, with the rest made of synthetics or recycled polyesters. A spokesperson from the manufacturer told Insider it is working towards making the material completely corn-based.