Mike Moser is CEO of the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA). This is a Sponsored Post.
For the last few months the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has been taking evidence as part of it’s ‘Fur Trade in the UK’ inquiry, following reports that real fur is being sold as fake fur by major high-street and online retailers. Its final report, published this weekend, represents a sensible and pragmatic approach to tackling the problem of the mis-selling of fur and fake fur products in the UK. But while the committee’s diagnosis is right, the biggest challenge will be mustering the political will – both nationally and locally – to turn the committee’s suggestions into action.
The inquiry’s first recommendation is to improve enforcement – that is to say holding to account those retailers who fail in their duty to the consumer to properly label products. It calls on the Government to ensure that Local Authorities – whose Trading Standards offices have responsibility in this area – are properly resourced. It also recommends that Local Authorities should provide training to Trading Standards officers to help them distinguish between fake and real fur and to conduct proactive investigations into the mis-sale of real fur as fake fur.
We agree with this assessment. Whilst the scale of the problem of mis-selling has not necessarily been proven, the excellent work by Humane Society International in particular shows that a problem does exist and it’s reasonable to extrapolate their own spot-checks and assume that mis-selling of fake and natural fur products is almost certainly happening throughout the UK. However, there are a number of challenges here. The first is ensuring that Trading Standards officers take the issue seriously.
There’s scant evidence that the problem is well-understood amongst enforcement officers (BFTA has offered to provide our own expertise to help train staff). What’s more, because of the devolved nature of Trading Standards, government edict will not solve the problem. One suspects that changing the culture of hundreds of Trading Standards operations and training thousands of enforcement officers will take some time.
The other challenge is resources – Trading Standards and Local Authorities are stretched. It’s implausible to imagine that there will be a serious focus on assessment of fake and natural fur products without more dedicated resources. Given the parlous state of local government finances, whilst greater resourcing is necessary to ensure better enforcement and prosecution of offenders, I suspect that competing interests from other local services will relegate the issue. To this end I would certainly welcome encouragement and support from BEIS who might – as a start – explore ways to help educate and support enforcement officers in developing their skills.
Next, the committee recommends amendments to the EU’s labelling scheme, which it rightly describes as ‘confusing’. Even the minister giving evidence to the inquiry was in agreement on this point. However, as the report acknowledges, the Government’s ability to amend the labelling regime after Brexit ‘will depend on the nature of the future EU-UK trading relationship’. It would be prudent to wait until we know exactly what type of Brexit the UK will have, but there’s certainly a need for a clearer scheme and one which – ideally includes details like the species of fur used in any natural fur garment.
Indeed, a new mandatory UK labelling regime, combined with the new FURMARK scheme – a comprehensive and rigorous new global animal welfare labelling scheme that will be launched by the fur industry in 2020 – would together offer better and clearer information to UK consumers about the products they are buying. The problem here is that whilst a new statutory labelling scheme would in all likelihood enjoy high compliance from high street and reputable online retailers, the real challenge will be how to ensure that market traders and third-party online sellers – whom I suspect are responsible for the majority of mis-selling that currently occurs – also comply. So whilst an improved labelling regime is needed, it does need to be combined with better enforcement, without which we’re unlikely to stamp out the very types of mis-selling which motivated this inquiry in the first place.
Finally, I’m delighted that the report acknowledges the Government’s view that the fur industry is a legitimate business and that it is a matter of consumer choice to wear fur or not. Those consumers who choose not to wear products containing fur need confidence that what they are buying is fur-free just as much as those people who choose to wear fur expect their products to be clearly and accurately labelled. A better labelling regime post-Brexit, the launch of the industry’s new animal welfare label in 2020, and better enforcement to sanction sellers who intentionally deceive consumers, together offers the potential for real improvement. The fur industry will hold up our side of the bargain – the challenge is whether the political will exists in DEFRA, BEIS and across the UK’s town halls to do the same.