A promising future for fur
After a long and successful career in politics, Mark Oaten takes over as CEO of the International Fur Federation (IFF) in 2011, leading the work of promoting and regulating the fur industry. Having seen the highs and lows of the business, Mark sits down to share his thoughts on the current situation, and what to expect for the future of fur.
A promising future for fur
Tell us, Mark, how and why did you take the leap into the fur industry from your previous career in politics?
People always ask me, “Which is harder – politics or the fur industry?” Politics is really tough, but actually, the fur industry is tougher!
I didn’t plan on going into the fur business. When I got the call asking if I would be interested, I initially was a bit apprehensive as I didn’t know much about the industry. But then we got talking, and I realised that it’s an incredible job, dealing with anything from farming, conservation, sustainability, international trade deals, fashion, and legal issues to complex political issues.
Over the years, I’ve learnt so much about the depth and history of the fur business and the incredible people in it. I feel really privileged to have this role, and I love working with so many people, not least of which the people at Saga Furs, which now is the leading auction house in the industry.
We’re in a good position to come out of this.
Where do you see the fur industry going in the next couple of years?
When it comes to fur, you have to bear in mind that it’s difficult to predict what will happen in the short term; you always have to look at the long term. Those who have been in the industry a long time know that it goes through its different cycles. Of course, the effects of Covid and the new sanctions are hitting the business hard; right now is a tough time, but we are seeing signs that we’re in a good position to come out of this.
In China, something called “revenge buying” happened after Covid. When people could, they were eager to get out to the stores, and one of the things they were buying was fur. Also, at a time when everyone is talking about ending fast fashion, we’re really well-positioned to offer a solution to the fast fashion problem, as our product is a sustainable slow fashion item. I’m very optimistic that once these conflicts are over, we can bounce back very strongly indeed.
Is China where we can expect the market to grow the most, or also somewhere else?
Asia has been the powerhouse behind the increase in fur sales over the past five years, led by China, of course. Fur and other luxury products have been doing well, but we have seen a slow-down in the past few years, not just because of Covid but also because the Chinese economy has been slowing down.
China will remain important, but also Korea is growing in importance, and if we look closer to Europe, Turkey is a strong market. We see that as countries get stronger economically, they start buying luxury goods. As this happens, fur also starts to do well in these countries. So economically growing countries are definitely places to watch.
Is there something you’d like to say to the people in the industry who are struggling right now?
Well, firstly, if you’re struggling as a result of Covid or the sanctions, there are a number of government schemes available that can offer financial support. We encourage people to get in touch with their government organisations to see if they’re eligible for some of these grants. The IFF can assist with that as well.
The second thing you can do is be patient; the market will turn. If you’re a farmer, obviously it’s been tough, and we hope that the sales prices will start to come back again soon.
If you’re working in the fashion industry, make sure that you are marketing yourselves around natural and sustainable fur. Coming out of this slow-down, those will be the keywords that consumers are looking for.
Do you believe that sustainability is something the industry should focus on today to prepare for the future?
Yes, that’s absolutely critical! We have a very natural product; every single skin is unique. Our product doesn’t get thrown away and put into landfills. Instead, our product is biodegradable and is often passed from generation to generation.
The farms also have a good sustainable message. We’re looking at ways to use manure for creating fertiliser; we’re looking at how the feed could be more sustainable. Similarly, in parts of North America, we’re using conservation fur, working with government-supported wildlife conservation programs.
There are some fantastic stories to tell. But we’re maybe a bit shy about getting out there and talking about sustainability, so that has to be a big priority in the months ahead.
The IFF has created a sustainability certification, Furmark®. Why is it important?
We think Furmark is the future, that it is absolutely critical. We’ve got brands like Fendi, Dior, and Louis Vuitton, who are making a commitment to only sell Furmark skins, and we are talking to retailers who will also make a commitment to only sell Furmark certified products. Brands and consumers want to have reassurance about the quality of animal welfare, about how the skins are dressed and dyed, and above all else, they want to have some form of traceability.
Getting information about where products come from is a really important part of the sustainability journey. Consumers care about and make choices based on where their clothes and items come from, and they want to know that the products they’re buying are genuinely natural and sustainable. The Furmark label gives them this reassurance.
The younger generation cares about animal welfare and sustainability. And we know they really don’t like microplastics in the ocean. So, they have a choice to make – they can buy fake fur, which is a petroleum-based product, or buy a natural product that will last for many years and doesn’t harm the environment.
I think if we get our message across to the younger generation, they will support what we’re doing and reject some of the plastic alternatives.
In which way are fur products sustainable?
Well, what we want to do is to make sure we’re sustainable at every point along the value chain.
Farmers do a great deal of work here. For example, the feed is often a food by-product, so that’s sustainable. We look at how we manage the manure from the farms, partly converting it into other products such as fertiliser, that’s also sustainable.
In the dressing and dyeing process, you find materials such as water, salt, and sawdust. So, a lot of natural materials are being used when creating the fur, and the sustainability continues throughout the process as artisans and craftsmen, who often have been working for two or three generations, make these incredible garments.
You know, each garment is completely unique; every fur is unique. And all the way through the value chain, we believe that we’re sustainable. But we have to demonstrate it – we have to do more to make sure that we get the message across to consumers.
What are your thoughts on Saga Furs’ new platform for communication – Saga Voices?
I think what Saga is doing by creating this magazine is really important because, you know, we’re a global industry that includes maybe 50 countries and who knows how many languages. We have a diverse range of people, from Inuit and remote farmers in Namibia to farmers in Finland, from designers in Milan to manufacturers in Hong Kong to retailers in London and New York. They may all be speaking different languages, but the one thing that unites them is fur.
Having an e-magazine like this, a place where we can share ideas, where we can talk, and we can communicate, is absolutely vital, because the farmer cannot survive without the designer and the retailer, and the designer and the retailer cannot survive without the farmer.
We are one big family, and I’m really pleased that Saga has launched this platform so the family can talk and communicate together.
More from Mark
Mark shares more thoughts on the fur business in his blog “CEO Talks”, which can be found on the IFF webpage: wearefur.com
There are some fantastic stories to tell.