PARIS — While it may be overly ambitious to capture the fashion industry’s entire impact on animal welfare in one film, director Rebecca Cappelli attempts to do just that with her documentary ‘Slay’.
The film, which premiered in Paris last week, charts the impact of the skin trade – aka leather and fur – in a wide-ranging investigation that touches on everything from animal welfare, labor rights and the environmental destruction it causes as it makes its way through supply chains from fashion and luxury goods to handbags, shoes and trim.
“We all know that most luxury brands derive a majority of their profits from skin, especially leather, and when we say that it’s just a fact,” she said. “But this is not an anti-fashion film. It’s not about a specific brand. It’s about finding solutions.”
The film takes her around the world. In Brazil, she examines the deforestation that takes place to make way for cattle that end up as leather, and in Italy, she shows how the hides are disinfected and tanned. In China, she examines the industrial fur industry and the illegal trade in endangered animals and highlights, among other things, the unregulated trapping industry in the USA.
The title “Slay” is a play on the colloquial definition of the word as well as the darker origins of its original meaning. The film was an independently funded effort that took Cappelli three and a half years to complete. It spans seven countries and takes a deeper look at the impact of the fur, leather and wool industries on animals, the planet and people.
And while sustainability is a buzzword used by brands in their marketing, the film shows that the issues are interconnected in ways that are often glossed over. Cappelli tries to demystify these connections.
“When it comes to sustainability and ethical fashion, there’s a blind spot – we don’t talk about the animals used in fashion and we don’t talk about the impact the use of animals has on the planet and people who work in the supply chain or live in the communities affected by these industries,” she said.
Cappelli said very few brands have animal welfare policies, and a 2020 report by the charity Four Paws found that just 21 percent of brands had traced their animal-derived materials. The film argues that sustainable fashion should include animal ethics as animals are at the origin of most of the fashion and luxury goods industries’ most profitable products.
Citing UN figures, the film notes that one leather bag is equivalent to over 10,000 square feet of cleared land and that 80 percent of the Amazon’s deforestation is for cattle grazing. She also debunks the myth that leather is a by-product of the food industry, while this is often not the case with high-end luxury lamb and calf leather.
Traceability is an issue as cows are often bought, sold and transported multiple times and their hides can change hands obscuring the supply chain prior to export.
“Due to the lack of traceability, we came to the conclusion Through my work and with several non-profit organizations, it is impossible to guarantee that this skin is not from deforested land,” she said.
80 percent is sent abroad to be made into a commodity, with the second largest market being Italy. Cappelli follows the path to tanneries, which then sell bags and shoes to fashion brands. In undercover scenes, tannery owners scrutinize many common high-street and high-end brands that post their sustainable credentials but purportedly buy from untraceable sources.
These are just some of the first scenes to tackle the fashion industry’s supply chain issues before moving on to some scenes involving the illegal trade in endangered animals and the fur farming of dogs in China, and the wild trapping of foxes and raccoons in the U.S. Lay the impact – and atrocities – at the center.
The film also looks at the health implications for workers in and around tanning chemicals, particularly in India and Italy, and the treatment of migrant workers who largely occupy the facilities in Italy.
“From my point of view, it’s about connecting stories, sharing facts and information that may not be available to the general public, and also telling stories and connecting with individuals. That person can be an animal, or that person can be a worker in an Italian tannery or in a tannery in India,” she said of the film’s different angles. “It’s much more about making visible what is not visible today, so that we can initiate a dialogue and a conversation in the industry.”
One point of contact is her personal journey from an animal-loving child to an adult fashionista who wore furs without making a conscious connection. Ultimately, consumers don’t see the impact of materials when animals are disregarded and commodified, she argues.
“We have to look at that. Yes, it’s awkward, but I believe we need to be able to have awkward conversations in order to move forward and develop. We have to sit down with that data, the science, that information, but also our feelings about it,” she said.
The documentary features scenes from visiting fur traders with rows of cat furs, as well as footage of animals being caught and beaten, and Cappelli’s visit to a fur farm with hundreds of caged dogs. Europe will not be let off the hook. Although several countries have banned fur farming, Cappelli visits mink farms in Poland, where it still occurs, and investigates how furs are often mislabeled in the European market.
“My ultimate goal with the film is also to bring about a cultural change, to understand that skins are not ‘material’ – they are the skin of an animal,” she says.
The film also examines wool production and the impact of industrial agriculture in Australia and New Zealand, including the fact that it is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions for those countries, despite often being touted as a sustainable fabric.
“Slay” wraps by exploring alternative materials, including corn and sugarcane-based polymers, that can be made into new textiles, including Ecopel faux fur.
It is an overall picture of very detailed issues that are both ecological and ethical in the fashion industry. The film, now streaming on documentary platform Waterbear, focuses not only on speaking to the industry but also to consumers.
“Basically, we’re talking about massive problems that span countries, and we have to be realistic about what’s feasible in the short term,” Cappelli said. “We are showing the truth without accusing anyone and without judging anyone, but saying these are issues [in our industry] and let’s see it together.”