Did BCBG fail because of fur?

PJ Smith
3 min readMar 28, 2017

Consumers are increasingly seeking products that align with their values, especially when it comes to the treatment of animals. At the grocery store, consumers are opting for more plant-based foods; in choosing their entertainment, they’re opting for animal-free circuses; and in the clothing sector, they’re looking for ethical materials. This shift presents both risks and opportunities for companies.

Take BCBG Max Azria, for example. In 2008, the company decided to stop using animal fur, and consumers and animal welfare organizations around the world praised the company. Three years later, the brand changed course: once hailed as an ethical leader, it began using fur from rabbits, foxes and raccoon dogs.

Now, as BCBG files for bankruptcy, we have to wonder: what if the brand had never started selling fur again? Could it have succeeded had it better aligned itself with this consumer shift toward ethical goods?

At about the same time BCBG began selling fur again, Inditex, the parent company for ZARA, invited me to visit its Spain headquarters. I met with several directors who all agreed that animal welfare will be big in the fashion industry, and that they wanted to be the leaders. Shortly after, Inditex — which had already banned animal fur — added angora, wool from sheep who’ve undergone the particularly-heinous practice of “mulesing” and exotic skins to the list of prohibited materials, and announced its dedication to finding more animal-friendly textiles.

Clearly, the retail industry is not what it once was and there are many reasons for BCBG’s demise; but when two companies take opposite paths and the result is bankruptcy for one and, in the case of ZARA, being named one of Forbes’ most valuable brands for the other, the fashion industry is right to take notice.

When a documentary questioning if orcas should be held in captivity can lead to an 84 percent drop in profits for SeaWorld or local ordinances demanding stricter animal welfare standards can help end Ringling Bros.’ circus’s 146-year run, it’s only natural for fashion brands to wonder how they can mitigate these risks for their own brands. And it’s no wonder that, in addition to ZARA, industry leaders like HUGO BOSS and Armani have announced fur-free policies of their own.

“We have decided to adopt a different route and we are therefore giving our sustainable corporate strategy — in this case, animal protection — precedence over the ‘fast’ and ‘simple’ route to success,” HUGO BOSS announced in its 2014 sustainability report. “Contemporary customers are part of a generation which is re-evaluating their ethical and environmental values.”

HUGO BOSS and other fur-free fashion companies understand a corporate concern for animals is not just about ethics, but is an astute business move.

“In the case of animal welfare,” World Bank’s International Finance Corporation reports, “failure to keep pace with changing consumer expectations and market opportunities could put companies and their investors at a competitive disadvantage.”

As BCBG picks up the pieces and looks to the future, it should reflect on its success in 2008 when it was on the cusp of becoming an industry leader for consumers demanding animal protection. The company can once again help drive a more humane economy and a more humane society, and do well by doing good.

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PJ Smith

Senior manager of fashion policy for The Humane Society of the United States