Jessica Scott Reid is a freelance writer and animal advocate.
There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but is there a right way to skin a coyote? Perhaps — if it’s done to save the hides of polar bears, as outerwear brand Canada Goose would apparently hope to have us believe.
In February, at the fancy Polar Bear Affair gala in Toronto, Canada Goose announced the launch of a new Pantone colour to mark its 10-year partnership with Polar Bears International (PBI), a non-profit organization that works to conserve polar bears and their habitat, mainly in Northern Canada. Canada Goose said it donates a small portion of sales from its limited PBI jacket collection, in addition to their $1-million donation toward the construction of a PBI house in Churchill, Man., to the field scientists who don the brand’s coyote fur-trimmed and goose down-filled gear, whilst working to save the bears. Media headlines praised the company, with one U.K. paper writing: “Keep warm and save the polar bears with Canada Goose’s limited edition blue coat.”
Almost immediately, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement deeming the announcement a “new low” in “humane washing,” and calling attention to the countless coyotes caught in painful leg hold traps in order to make the brand’s fur-adorned hoods.
The hypocrisy is blatant, as there is nothing commendable, compassionate or ethical about using money earned from the commissioned death of one animal to help save the life of another, while simultaneously keeping a massive profit for yourself. You can’t sell your soul and then buy it back.
But this tactic isn’t new: It’s like green washing but with animal rights. Yes, this is humane washing, a marketing ploy used by companies that profit off the exploitation of animals to brand themselves as actually concerned about animal welfare and/or conservation. Humane washing functions by distracting and placating caring consumers with false or deflective marketing rhetoric, imagery or stunts.
Perhaps the first and most obvious example of humane washing is rooted in the growing “humane meat” trend of the last decade: meat (along with egg and dairy) producers and sellers marketing their products with buzzwords like free-range, family-farmed, humanely raised, or ethically sourced, with advertising and packaging containing images of bucolic farms and happy animals roaming freely in the sunshine.
But claims by Canadian animal law organization Animal Justice should give us pause. In 2015, the group filed a major consumer protection complaint against the meat producer in Canada for misleading claims of humane treatment of animals. The complaint, never proven in court, was filed against Maple Lodge Farms after a Mercy for Animals hidden-camera investigation apparently proved the company’s portrayal of itself – family farmers committed to animal welfare – to be far from the truth. Maple Lodge Farms subsequently announced it would be taking corrective actions.
We can look to activists to point out cases of deceptive humane washing in our own backyard, such as the recent case of Toronto restaurant Antler, where a chef butchered and ate a deer leg in front of animal rights activists who were protesting the restaurant’s marketing of “humane” and “ethical” game meat, a concept widely considered a fallacy among animal advocates. “It really is a myth,” said protest organizer Marni Ugar. “There’s no such thing as any animal that actually wants to die.”
Humane washing extends beyond the food industry. Recent marketing campaigns by SeaWorld, which has been struggling with low attendance in the wake of the documentary Blackfish, have attempted to position the brand as “protectors” of marine life. Ads show staff rescuing injured animals and cleaning shorelines, all to deflect from the company’s real bread and butter: captive wild animals, trained to do tricks for the paying public. In promotional videos on the website of Canada’s own Marineland, animal trainers, called “marine mammal caregivers,” talk of daily “care and enrichment” provided to the park’s captive whales, dolphins, sea lions and so forth, but make no mention of their use in the park’s choreographed shows.
Humane washing can be clever, and for some consumers, even convincing; we all want to spend with a clear conscience. But know that for companies that profit off the exploitation of animals, animal welfare is never the primary goal. And no amount of good deeds, grand donations, or soothing rhetoric can change that.