Fur Trade


Fur : A Waste of Energy

Animal Furs: Trapped or Ranched, an Energy Waste

by Doris Dixon

Reprinted with permission from Doris Dixon, The Fund for Animals, Inc., 2841 Colony Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104.The following report has been researched at the request of The Fund for Animals, Michigan Office, to augment its arguments for abolishing the cruelties to animals resulting from the procurement of natural animal furs for human adornment.

Fur merchants frequently claim that since furs are made from a "renewable resource" they are, in these energy conscious times, a more environmentally sound choice than a fake fur which is made primarily from petroleum byproducts. By examining the relative energy contents and environmental impacts of animal fur and its synthetic counterpart, it is obvious that trappers and furriers are scraping the bottom of the (oil) barrel in a desperate attempt to justify their activities.

Furs are an expensive "status symbol." Like other "status symbols" they are unnecessary and costly by any standard. They give "comfort" only to an uncaring few at the expense of the rest of us, to say nothing of the suffering they bring the animals. The simple fact that they are expensive is a direct indication of the amount of energy involved in their production. When we include the total energy required to produce and transport an item to the consumer it is usually true that what costs more in terms of energy is what costs more in dollars. This is true as well for our primary source of energy: oil. Since we have used up most of the readily available high quality oil, what we are pumping now is becoming increasingly expensive to obtain and refine.

To make comparisons between the energy efficiency of different materials we must use the concept of total energy content (i.e., the total of the energy obtained by burning the item plus the energy required to produce the item and transport it to the end user). For example, the net energy obtained from burning a gallon of gasoline is 115,000 BTU, but it takes an average of 50,000 BTU/gallon to transport the crude to a refinery, refine it and get the gasoline to your local station, so the total energy content of a gallon of gasoline is 115,000 BTU + 50,000 BTU, or 165,000 BTU/gallon.

The concept of a material's total energy content has begun to receive more attention since the cost of energy has increased and environmental concerns like global warming and ground water pollution have become better understood. Ground rules for what energies should be included and how much energy is contained in an item are not consistent from source to source. This should not be surprising for a nation and an industry that has continually failed to come up with any semblance of an energy policy. It is interesting to note that detailed accounts of production and transportation efficiencies are available for the electric industry (which is primarily publicly owned) but that similar figures are not readily available for the oil industry (which is privately owned). Similarly, the total energy content of a fur coat is not available from the national association of furriers; however, by being consistent in our comparison and applying common sense, it is obvious that fake furs are a far more energy efficient choice for the fashion/ecology conscious consumer.

Energy is expended at many different points and in many different ways in the manufacture of a coat. The following table summarizes some of the more obvious energy expenditures in the manufacture of a full length coat made from fake fur, trapped fur and ranched fur.

Values for the total energy content of the plastic used to make things like synthetic fur are available from several sources. The values given vary depending on what assumptions are made (like what kind of crude oil one starts with and what percentage is refined into what), but for the purposes of this comparison we took the highest value, 85,000 BTU/lb. A typical full length fake fur contains at most 3 lbs. of plastic in its shell. The energy content of the shell is the 85,000 BTU/lb. x 3 lb. = 225,000 BTU, approximately the useful energy of 1.33 gallon of gasoline. This is the total energy content of the raw material from which a fake fur is manufactured.

Comparison of energy expenditures in fake fur, trapped and ranched fur coats in thousands of BTUs

ItemFake FurTrapped FurRanched Fur
Synthetic Fur Shell255N/AN/A
Fuel to Check Trap LineN/A990N/A
Traps Lost or DestroyedN/A60N/A
Feed for Ranched FursN/AN/A7,665
Skinning and ScrapingN/A2525
Transp. of Raw FursN/A330330
Transp. to Coat Factory
Tanning, Cutting, Etc.N/A100100
Lining, Thread, Buttons, Etc.101010
Manufacture of Coat505050
Transp. to Retailer505050

Trapped fur costs over 3.5 times as much as fake fur in energy terms. Ranched fur costs over 15 times as much as fake fur in energy terms.

To calculate the total energy content for the raw material from which an animal fur coat is made requires some basic arithmetic. The fur interests that tout their product as energy conserving obviously never took the time to think out their claim. For furs taken by trapping the energy expenditure to check the trapline is significant.

Admittedly the amount varies widely, but the lonely mountain man plodding through the snow on snowshoes is pretty much a relic of the past, though even his efforts have an energy cost. The heavy physical effort in cold climates burns up a lot of food which requires energy to produce, process, transport and store. At what is likely the other extreme of energy usage is someone like Don Hoyt Sr., former president of the National Trappers Association, who in a discussion of trapping in Michigan, said: "It's a good supplemental income for many families but it's not all profit. My truck has a 56 gallon gas tank and I fill it about every three days." A more typical small part-time trapper may have 10 miles of trapline that he checks each day. It would have around 50 traps and take at least two hours to check. On a very lucky day one trap in 10 would have an animal worth keeping (a lot of "trash" animals like rabbits, squirrels, cats and dogs are caught). If we assume the average coat takes 30 pelts to make and that our trapper is very lucky every day it would take six such days to trap enough animals to make one coat. If the trapper is checking watersets for muskrat by boat the outboard will consume at least 1/2 gallon/hour or one gallon per checking, totaling 6 gallons per coat. If he is checking a line for bobcat and coyote in New Mexico with a 4x4 pickup that gets 10 miles per gallon, it will require about the same 6 gallons per coat. Likewise, if he is checking a mink line in the northeastern U.S. using a snowmobile that burns about 1/2 gallon per hour it will still cost about the same 6 gallons per coat. Thus, just to check the trapline will take 165,000 BTU/gallon x 6 gallons or 990,000 BTU/coat, over 3.5 times the total energy content in the shell of a fake fur coat.

The energy costs of the traps used must also be added to the energy cost of an animal fur coat. Trapping literature is filled with complaints by trappers themselves about how costly trapping is and how many traps they lose each season. We should be able to assume that at least one trap is lost for every 30 animals trapped. The average weight of a trap with chain is 2 lbs.. It would require 52,000 BTUs to just produce the steel and at least another 8,000 BTUs to manufacture the trap and get it to the trapper. Thus, we can conservatively assign 60,000 BTU/coat to traps lost or destroyed for each coat made from trapped fur.

While ranched raised furs do not require energy to check a trapline or replace lost traps, there is a significant energy cost for the feed required to raise the animals. Assuming that each animal eats at least 10% of its body weight/day (common for small mammals), that an animal takes 200 days to mature, and that it takes an average of 150 lbs. of animals to make one coat, it would require 3000 lbs. of food to raise the animals to make one fur coat. Some of the food for ranch raised animals comes from animal byproducts (for example, mink are occasionally fed "chicken pulp" which is made by crushing the male chickens which are a "byproduct" of the egg industry). However, the majority of the food used to raise fur bearing animals comes from the local feed store in the form of mink food, fox food or whatever food. Mink food is very similar to dry cat food, which is primarily ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, ground wheat and tuna meal with some animal byproducts added to increase the fat content, along with dried animal "digest" (excrement), trace elements and vitamins. If we assume that only half the food comes from the feed store and even assuming the rest is "free" in energy terms (which it obviously isn't), 1500 pounds of feed must be obtained. To transport this feed would require at least a 20 mile round trip in a 3/4 ton pickup that gets at best 20 MPG. This would consume 1 gallon of gas, an energy cost of 165,000 BTU. The feed itself has a total energy content of 5,000 BTU/lb. which includes the energy required to cultivate the plants and process the grain, along with the other components, into feed. The 1,500 lbs. of feed thus costs 7,500,000 BTU in energy terms, and when added to the transportation cost of feed gives an astronomical energy cost of 7,665,000 BTU/coat for the feeding of the animals alone. Since it is obvious that these estimates for feed are conservative, and both ranch raised and trapped fur bring about the same market price in dollars, the large difference in energy costs can only be due to either grossly underestimating the energy cost of trapping or that the agricultural price supports we taxpayers pay have grossly skewed the dollar price of feed (probably both are responsible for the discrepancy).

Once the animals have been trapped or raised there are further energy costs to pay before they can be made into a coat. Skinning the animals and scraping the pelts require energy. It is usually done in a heated area since it is hard to skin a frozen animal or hold a scraping knife in subfreezing cold. Assuming it takes 10 minutes to skin an animal and scrape the pelt it will take 5 hours to prepare enough skins to make a coat. If it takes 5,000 BTU/hour to heat the skinning area, 25,000 BTU/coat will be expended.

Likewise, drying furs has some energy cost unless they are dried in the same space the trapper lives, which is possible but not likely if the trapper shares the area with anyone with any sense of smell. It takes 5,000 BTU/hr. to heat the drying area, and it takes at least a week to dry the pelts. If 300 pelts are dried at a time, this represents 10 potential coats and an expenditure of 84,000 BTU/coat.

Transportation of pelts to major fur auction centers located in London, New York City, Leningrad and Montreal also has a significant energy cost. Raw furs are shipped from all over the world to these four centers either by collecting agents or direct shipment. Since trapping and ranching is usually done far from such major metropolitan areas, we can assume at least the energy equivalent of two gallons of gasoline (330,000 BTU) are expended to transport enough furs to make one coat.

Transportation from fur auction centers to the point of manufacture is probably not as long a trip and thus we will assume the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline (165,000 BTU) is consumed per coat. This would be about the same as transportation of fake fur materials from their point of manufacture to the coat factory. This amount must also be added to the total energy content of a fake fur coat.

At this point animal furs require further processing before they can be manufactured into a coat. Scraping, washing, tanning (a notoriously polluting process), drying, and assorted processing all cost energy as well, to which we will conservatively assign 100,000 BTU/coat.

The energy costs for the remaining operations in producing an animal fur and a fake fur are about the same. The estimates given in the table are reasonable for a labor intensive light manufacturing operation. However, since animal furs are usually made and sold by smaller, low volume, high cost operations they most likely consume more energy in these phases than production and distribution of a fake fur would.

One last source of energy use for animal fur is summer storage, which most furriers recommend. The added energy expended for a single animal fur coat would be approximately 100,000/year or almost 20% of the total energy content of a fake fur.

Refining oil creates some byproducts ranging from plastics and pharmaceuticals to asphalt. The refining process can be skewed to make more transportation fuels like gasoline and jet fuel by expending more energy. This of course makes the whole process less efficient. The blame for the energy crisis should be "shouldered" not by those who wear its byproducts on their backs, but by those who make excessive demands on transportation, such as the hunters and trappers who often travel far and wide to pursue their activities. Trapping and fur "farming," like hunting, are not conservative tools. Since the energy crisis of the past several decades, these special interest groups have clutched at the "energy management" argument. As this report indicates, neither hunting nor trapping is energy efficient.

Gregory H. Smith
BSEEE University of Michigan 1969
Senior Transportation Research Engineer


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