Recent fashion choices by Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cornwall reignite the debate about wearing fur.
With a new decade comes the old topic of fur
On Christmas Day, in a freezing Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cornwall attended church wearing almost-matching fur hats. They looked, it has to be said, chic, cosy and perfectly unaware of the fury they were about to unleash among animal rights activists, but it was a wardrobe choice that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
Throughout the 1990s, the wearing of fur was almost impossible - if only for fear that protesters would spray wearers with red paint in the street - and was socially unacceptable in many parts of the world. A famous Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign saw supermodels including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell declaring "I'd rather go naked than wear fur". (Both models have worn a considerable amount of fur in recent years, of course.)
The ethics of fur-wearing are something of a struggle these days. The Duchess of Cornwall's hat was, apparently, made by Philip Treacy from a vintage fur belonging to her mother, and there's no doubt that the trend for wearing vintage furs or recycling them into trimmings for new items has lent the material a certain ethical sheen for the 21st century.
While the likes of Peta and Animal Aid decry vintage fur as being just as bad as new, for many it is not only an acceptable way to wear animal hides, but makes sure those animals didn't die in vain 50 years ago.
Now, I'm well aware of the apparent hypocrisy involved when, in my early twenties, I inherited my grandmother's mink coat and hat and swore blind I would never wear it, while today I fend off the icy air-con in a pair of soft, cuddly boots from the Celtic Sheepskin Company.
I won't carry a bag made of exotic skin such as python, but I love the eel-skin designs by the British labels BoBelle, designed by Claire Watt-Smith, and Heidi Mottram.
The difference, in my eyes, is that eel skin, sheepskin and most (thought not all) common leathers are byproducts of the food industry. But more than that, I have (alas only recently) resolved that the pieces I buy in future will be made of hides that I can be fairly sure have been produced with safeguards against cruelty to the animals that we, as humans, exploit.
Fur farms have been banned in the UK, as an outrage to public morality, and similar measures are under consideration elsewhere in Europe, while in Canada fur farmers insist that their standards of welfare are equivalent to those of animals farmed for food, as well as producing furs made from culled wild animal populations.
Indeed, the Fur Council of Canada has gone as far as to produce a friendly looking website called Fur Is Green, telling readers just how ethical it all is nowadays. Jean Paul Gaultier, the bête noir of Peta, uses furs produced by Saga in Norway, a company that represents breeders in Finland and Norway and that sells itself on its responsible farming practices.
It is possible to employ your conscience when buying fur and leather. But for me, the problem is that once furs become desirable again - as they undoubtedly have over the past few seasons, appearing on the majority of winter catwalks - the high street feels the need to follow the trend, using cheaper furs. And cheaper furs mainly come from China, where animals are often, according to reports from Peta and other concerned organisations, skinned alive. Yes, read that again: skinned alive. If you can imagine your pet cat, dog or rabbit undergoing that without feeling horrified, then by all means, buy fur on the high street.
The same goes for many exotic skins that are used in pricy designer pieces; snakes are not exactly cuddly, but the skinning practices are so repellent that I don't want to describe them here. I do, however, suggest that you look them up online for yourself. Suffice to say, it's not something that any right-thinking, humane, compassionate person would want to encourage.
Leather is not exempt: evidence from some slaughterhouses in India, where much of the cheaper leather on the high street is sourced, is horrifying. Even your woolly jumper, if the wool is from Australia, may have involved cruel treatment of the sheep, not least in the form of mulesing (the removal of strips of skin from around the lamb's backside) without anaesthetic.
While many of us take pains to choose organic and free-range meat products, we make less effort with the leathers we wear - even while justifying our choices as "meat byproducts". But by demanding zero tolerance on animal-derived products, activists fail to win over the moderate, pragmatic majority, who eat meat and fish and wear leather. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in Britain has a different approach, encouraging concern for animal welfare with its Good Business Awards. Marks & Spencer, for example, has proved that ditching cruelly produced leather doesn't have to mean spending a fortune, winning the RSPCA's award for animal welfare leadership for three years.
If you want to wear leather and fur, I'm not going to tell you not to. I wear hides myself. But after you've agonised for ages over a pair of python-skin shoes, think it over for a few minutes more before you decide to buy.
* Julia Robson is on holiday