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Fur pelts command record-high prices, The Star Article  

John Goddard-Business Reporter

Fur prices continue to hit last year’s record-high prices at this season’s first European auctions — good news for Canadian trappers, mink farmers and fur-clothing manufacturers.

“The number of customers exceeded all expectations,” the world’s biggest fur auction house Kopenhagen Fur said of its opener two weeks ago. Helsinki’s first auction met similarly high demand. The trend springs from three positive industry developments, says Alan Herscovici, executive vice-president of the Montreal-based Fur Council of Canada. Design innovation, the opening of vast Asian markets, and the fur industry’s progress in articulating its side of the ethical debate have coincided, he said this week in a wide-ranging interview.

Q: What are auction houses getting for fur?

A: Farmed mink is the industry benchmark. There are probably 50 million mink skins a year produced globally. Canada produces a little less than 3 million. In the late 1980s, the last time fur prices were so strong, the average mink pelt— averaging the many qualities, types and colours — brought close to $50 (U.S.) In the economic downturn of 1992, mink prices fell as low as $20. In the last couple of years, not only have prices come back but have actually gone past those levels. Last year, the overall average was well over $65. Some mink pelts brought more than $100.

Q: What does that mean for Canadian fur?

A: In 2010, the last year we have complete figures for, total fur exports — pelts and garments — brought more than $450 million. That’s up 36 per cent from the year before, more than a third, from $331 million. In the recession of 1992, the figure was $143 million.

Q: What accounts for today’s high demand?

A: Several things. One: We have seen totally new markets open up, such as northern China, with its new middle class. Imagine The Bay store in downtown Toronto, the whole store just fur boutiques. There are towns in northern China with several of those. It’s hard to believe. China has become one of the biggest consumers of furs and one of the biggest manufacturers of furs, too. Fur manufacturing is labour-intensive and China has low labour costs. China has taken over most of the world’s manufacturing and centres such as New York, Montreal, Milan and Frankfurt have been seriously reduced. Markets are also opening up in Korea, where there is a strong fashion industry, and even places like Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Also, Russia, where people have always loved fur, has become a major importer of finished fur products.

Q: What is another reason?

A: Technical and design innovation. Fur is much more lightweight now. It’s done by micro-shearing the fur, by making the leather thinner and often by making the furs reversible, with a leather side. You don’t have the inner linings of old-fashioned coats, which is what people are looking for because people are dressing sportier, in modern, technical materials that are lighter and a lot less bulky. Sheared mink is a very strong trend.

Q: Are Canadian furriers developing new designs as well?

A: Yes. The Fur Council has created the brand “Beautifully Canadian,” with the website www.beautifullycanadian.com, to promote contemporary Canadian design internationally. We’re seeing a lot of sheared mink, sheared other furs, and now with accents of big long-hair collars — fox, coyote or beaver.

Q: Haven’t animal-rights campaigns tainted fur for European and North American consumers?

A: Ethics are important not only for Europe and North America but for Russia and Asia as well. To put in a plug for the Canadian fur industry, we have some of world’s best regulated, best managed, ecologically sustainable, humane trapping and farming practices, and we’re doing a better job of telling our side of the story.

Q: What is your side of the story?

A: The World Conservation Union, the World Wildlife Fund, all the major conservation and environmental groups today promote sustainable use of wildlife and animals as a renewable, natural resource. They recognize that humane practices are respected and realize that these PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are totally anti-ecological.

Q: How do you mean “anti-ecological?”

A: It is ironic that we talk today so much about “green” and protecting the planet, yet we have never been less ecological in terms of clothing. We wear clothes that are inexpensive, nice-looking, trendy and thrown away after a couple of seasons, and 80 per cent of this cheap clothing is synthetic. They are like plastic bags. We’ve cut down on plastic bags but hundreds of millions of metric tonnes are thrown in the trash every year with no recycling program. Fur lasts a long time and at the end of its life it is biodegradable. The fur industry is well regulated, it is sustainable and it is totally in sync with modern environmental thinking.