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101 Explanations, or why good people are buying a bad thing


Anne and I were wandering around Knightsbridge (not our normal stomping ground!) and noticed the rise of, well, fuzziness in luxury fashion. It got us thinking: is fur back?

According to this piece in Business of Fashion on the fur trade, well - yes. And it is because of - wait for it - Millennials. The ultimate irony. After being accused of killing everything from diamonds to desktops, Millennials have actually been murdering bunnies.

Let's set aside the Bambi-ness of it all and think about fur as just-another-trend:

  • It fits the nostalgia trend. As a rep from Saga Furs points out, "their mothers didn't buy fur, but their grandmothers did". It is, both in terms of nostalgia, comfort, and general fashion-cycling, 'due'.
  • It is a 'rational luxury'. Adding real fur is a way of upgrading an everyday item (coat, jacket, handbag) with a (relatively) accessible amount of disposable income. The article cites "fur trim" as the fastest growing category, and also touches on (relatively) small, gateway purchases like Fendi's Bag Bugs and other brands' keychains and scarves.
  • Financially, we're talking something larger than a 'lipstick luxury' (which we see during a full-blown depression) and smaller than a diamond. This is an expensive, but not unachievable, fashion treat. 
  • It is a purchase that's not associated with home-owning. A lot of the MILLENNIALS R KILLIN frenzy relates to, say, homes - which aren't happening because the credit industry is a mess and no one can save for a deposit. So, as Lisa Schmeiser wisely points out, why would someone buy living room furniture

From a purely rational sense, fur ticks a lot of boxes. It is, more or less, exactly the sort of thing that the Millennials are distinctly not killing.

But fur is also very much not avocados, Stranger Things, vacations to Thailand or all the other things that Millennials are making cool again. Fur is made of baby bunnies and Dalmatians and tiny seals with eyes the size of tennis balls. Possibly that's a little extreme, but as a slightly-older-than-Millennial, I've been raised with the unchallenged social norm that fur is very, very bad.

Moreover, Millennials are the sustainability generation: more aware of the environment, sourcing and the 'morality' of what they consume. And, in fairness, brands like Gucci have recently announced they're going completely fur-free in order to continue catering to their young, 'ethically-minded' shoppers. But, as noted above, Gucci may be bucking the trend: fur is a $40 billion global industry, and it is growing.

This all adds up to some pretty shocking cognitive dissonance. A lot of Good people are buying a Bad product. How does this happen?

Rihanna-grey-fur-coat-gma-2014-billboard-1240Business of Fashion cites the power of the influencer: Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Cara Delevigne are all wearing fur on Instagram and the catwalk, as are Beyonce, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian. That's an incredibly powerful combination. It isn't just about reach (although that'll be epic), it is about the normalisation: one celeb wearing fur is a statement.

A celeb wearing fur in a music video is an eccentricity. Multiple celebs wearing fur in professional and 'casual' environments = the recipe for normalisation. The key to any sustainability campaign isn't telling people what's wrong, it is telling people what's right. And this sort of umbrella re-appearance of fur creates a new descriptive norm ('people I admire are wearing fur') that clashes with the injunctive one ('I am told that fur is bad'). Just like littering, drink driving, smoking, underage drinking, etc. etc., fur wearing is about peer pressure, and an attitude of 'ok-ness'. 

All things sustainability are particularly susceptible to this, because consuming in a 'good' way is still a murky area. As the many links above show, Millennials say they're willing to pay more for 'good' products.

But what does that even mean? 

According to Nielsen, the top driver for a self-sacrificing purchase (people willing to pay more for a sustainable product) is that it 'comes from a brand I trust'. That's a subjective metric, compared to all the other objective ones ('organic', 'environmentally friendly', 'recyclable', etc). The wibbly of 'I trust them to be good people' outstrips the measurable, quantifiable sustainability benefits that you can read on the label. And in this case, the trust is accrued from trusted influencers. I too believe that Rihanna can do no wrong.

Perhaps more importantly - and this is, perhaps, the most important bit. People don't buy stuff because it is 'good'. The ability to overpay for an ethical intangible is a luxury. Just ask independent bookstores as they compete with the range, service, availability and convenience of Amazon. This is the danger of relying on claimed behaviour: everyone wants to buy the right thing, for the right reasons. This is, like most surveyed attitudes, probably true... for the time. But when push comes to shove - whether it is on autopilot for a routine purchase or treating yourself to something you really want - other factors intrude. 


That's not to say we can't change - that we can't buy better. But we can't rely solely on consumers making ethical purchasing decisions to change the world. That's why boycotts (making the decision away from a purchase environment), and nudges (shifting the decision to buy ethically to the default, for example), and legislation are all so important. The way we think about charities, issues and theoretical topics is different to the way we think when we're at the point of purchase. It may not be rational that the two aren't interlinked, but, well, that's behavioural economics for you.

Similarly, as a business (back on independent bookstores, I'm afraid), relying on 'it is a good thing to do' as a USP well, simply isn't sustainable. It'd be nice to trust consumers to choose the right thing, but, well, if you ever fall into that trap - think about fur.