All eyes may be on New Orleans for football this week, but environmentalists and fur-lovers alike are taking a closer look at the nutria, the furry rodent devouring Louisiana's wetlands.
Righteous Fur, a New Orleans-based grassroots movement, is hoping that its marketing efforts can raise awareness of the problem, and sell a pro-fur message to eco-conscious consumers. Nutrias were introduced in Louisiana from Argentina back in the 1930s, to boost the local fur trade. But as fur lost popularity, trapping languished, and the whiskery little herbivores have taken over. Weighing about 12 pounds each, they have chomped their way through some 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands since the government began tracking the problem in 1998. And while trappers earn a $5 bounty for each nutria they destroy, the pelts are often discarded.
"To us, that's a terrible waste," Cree McCree, the New Orleans costumer and assemblage artist who spearheads Righteous Fur, tells Marketing Daily. "We'd like for people to see all the great ways they can use nutria pelts -- if we create a larger market, it will help save our wetlands."
McCree, aided by a grant from a federal wildlife agency, recently staged a fashion/film event called Nutria-Palooza, which sold out. And with local support building, her next step is trying to interest fur-friendly fashion designers in the lustrous pelts.
Her timing may be perfect, as American consumers warm up to fur: A Gallup poll last May found that 61% of Americans think it's fine to buy and wear fur, up from 54% the year before. And positioning fur as environmentally correct isn't novel -- the Fur Information Council of America, for example, uses "the natural, responsible choice" as its slogan. "Fur is renewable, sustainable, and biodegradable," Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based trade group, tells Marketing Daily. "And we'll be able to be much bolder in those claims, once the Federal Trade Commission clarifies its new marketing and sustainability guidelines."
Still, fur is a hot-button issue, and political: Among Republicans, 73% are fur lovers, while the acceptance rate is just 53% among Democrats. And large anti-fur groups, such at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Friends of Animals, have vocal and influential members in the fashion community. Some are best known for their hardball tactics, including store demonstrations and singling out fond-of-fur celebs. Just last week, for example, Olympic hopeful Johnny Weir announced that he would remove real fox from his skating costume as a result of threats from animal-rights groups to disrupt his performance, replacing it with faux fur.
Sales Are Down 7%
The recession hasn't helped furriers, either: In 2009, the Fur Information Council says sales at traditional U.S. fur retailers, including storage and service, came in at about $1.26 billion, a 7% decline from a year ago -- similar to other luxury goods.
In addition to the inherently controversial nature of fur, name recognition also factors into the nutria's uphill battle. "People just don't come in asking for nutria," says Howard Bresnik, owner of the Chicago Fur Outlet, "the home of the furry godmother." Mink still rules, with about 75% of U.S. fur sales, Kaplan says, followed by fox and beaver.
Still, the nutria has major potential. "It's very warm, durable, and well-priced," he says. "It's a dense, luxurious fur, and often used in linings. It can be dyed and sheared, which are both popular in the industry now," he adds. "But a lot of designers aren't using it, just because it hasn't been promoted."
McCree hopes to change that, and plans to acquaint designers who work in fur -- a group that Kaplan says includes between 70% to 80% of all designers, despite the high visibility of PETA's "Rather go naked than wear fur" effort, which it launched back in 1991. "Fur is a branding tool," he says, and it's an instant way for a designer to present clothes as luxury items."
Conservationists, of course, are more concerned with the bayou than froufrou. "We are experiencing a high land-loss rate, with the wetlands disappearing out from under us," Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator at Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, tells Marketing Daily. "This is an incredibly important local issue, which is why we've given a grant to this group. We know there are people who will never wear fur," he says, "but there is another group who would, if they fully understand all the environmental implications."