Fur vs faux

Ethics aside, which is less harmful to the environment?

1st April 2019

There’s a good chance you’re rocking some faux fur at the moment or at least have some tucked away in your wardrobe somewhere. Maybe it’s that red fluffy key chain or the inside of your winter jacket, your fuzzy earmuffs, maybe the lining of your bag, or those boots. Faux fur is dominating the fashion industry as the alternative to real fur.

It appears to be the more ethical choice for British shoppers because no animals are harmed in its production. After all, from #veganuary to the ban on plastic straws, environmentalism is totally in vogue right now, right?

Many big fashion houses like Chanel, Gucci, Versace, Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo, which originally popularised fur in the fashion industry, have recently turned away from using exotic animal skins and real fur, and are now using synthetic versions and fluffy faux furs. And at the other end of the market, clothing stores like H&M, Primark and Forever 21 are regularly updating their inventories with ethical fashion in mind, to keep customers with a lower budget up to date with the latest trends.

But how environment-friendly is fake fur really, compared to the real deal?

“Real fur is a natural, sustainable product, delivering rare benefits in sustaining fragile habitats and communities. This contrasts with most ‘fake’ fur, which is manufactured from non-renewable petroleum-based products,” says Andrea Martin from the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) to The Overtake.

Fake fur is mostly made from nylon and polyester, which are the main culprits for shedding microfibers.

“Natural fur can be absorbed back into nature’s own cycle through biodegradation. Unlike synthetic fashion materials, fur will not clog landfills or break down to microplastics but rather enter back into nature’s own cycle. Old fur apparel can even be composted for your garden,” explains Martin.

To keep animal skins from rotting on the wearer’s back, the fur industry treats pelts with chemicals, which are hazardous to the planet and can be harmful to human health

Elisa Allen, Peta UK director, sees faux fur as an acceptable alternative, and points out the animal cruelty involved in industrial animal-farming: “Everything that we produce has an impact on the planet, and faux fur is no exception — but, as studies have shown that a mink coat always has at least five times the environmental impact of a faux-fur one, faux fur is definitely preferable to animal fur.”

She adds: “Let’s also bear in mind that in order to keep animal skins from rotting on the wearer’s back, the fur industry treats pelts with chemicals like formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium, which are hazardous to the planet and can be harmful to human health.”

Two sides of an endless debate

Those are the two sides of the long-running real fur versus faux fur debate. Both sides trying to convince the public of the sustainability and relative merits of their products. The fur industry, however, is at a current low. Search high and low, you will struggle to find any real fur on the high street.

But we have been here before. In 1994, the five biggest supermodels in the world promoted Peta’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. Later, when the late Nineties and early Noughties brought luxury and excess back into fashion, real fur returned with it and became the must-have status symbol on the catwalk once again. Peta revived the “I’d rather…” campaign in 2015, with the American pop singer P!nk.

At the moment, there’s a concerted global effort to stamp out fur farming — the practice of breeding or raising animals for their fur. Fur farming has been banned in England and Wales since 2000, and Scotland and Ireland followed two years later. San Francisco and Los Angeles also introduced a ban starting this year, and Norway plans to ban fur farms by 2025 — the first Scandinavian country to make such a commitment.

Furriers in the UK buy their product from fur brokers, or visit fur auctions, which take place throughout the year. “The majority of exporting fur farms are located in Europe and North America, and wild fur is produced in North America and Russia,” says Martin. Many Brits see that as simply outsourcing the animal cruelty, rather than taking a stance against it, which might be why a petition calling for an outright ban on fur imports into the UK attracted more than 100,000 signatures, forcing a debate in parliament that, unfortunately for campaigners, did not result in a ban.

Faux fur is often mislabelled

According to Allen, the unsuccessful debate was still a step in the fur-free direction. “Indeed, not a single one [MP] spoke out against doing so [introducing a ban]. PETA hopes Brexit will present an opportunity for the government to follow through with a ban, which would have overwhelming support from the UK public — polls have shown 95% of British women wouldn’t wear animal fur.”

For many designers and customers, faux fur replaces real fur because it fulfils the aspirations of wearing fur without animal cruelty. On top of that, faux fur, in most cases, is virtually indistinguishable from the real deal, which has already caused many outcries as  high street shops sometimes mislabel real animal fur as fake.

Real fur cannot be matched for its beauty, softness and glamour

The problem is, due to our fast-fashion-industry, fur applications are not expensive anymore. “Price is no longer an indicator, as dog and cat fur from China can be obtained and sold very cheaply,” says Allen.

A new Mink fur jacket still costs £1,550, as furring is a real handcraft and takes a lot of skill. “Real fur cannot be matched for its beauty, softness and glamour.  The attraction of real fur is also in its touch, its feel and its three-dimensional quality,” says Martin.

Peta offers a video guide to discerning whether your fur is really faux.

The fast-fashion industry is known for its devastating impact on the environment. Yet what most people are not aware of is with every wash, millions of plastic and synthetic fibre particles come off and end up in the wastewater — including the synthetic faux fur fibres. They are so tiny, the filters inside the washing machines are unable to catch them.

A study suggests each washing cycle could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment. This wastewater makes its way into the sewage treatment works and finally ends up in the ocean, where it is absorbed by fish, birds, seals, crabs and all sea life. Microplastics are toxic to wildlife and can accumulate throughout the food chain. It has still to be determined which synthetic fibres are the worst offenders, but ultimately it is plastic altogether.

More ethical, furry alternatives

So real fur is mostly based on animal exploitation, but faux fur burdens the environment. Is there an environmentally friendly and cruelty-free alternative for all the fur-lovers out there?

“Faux-fur artisans at France’s Ecopel have developed a system for collecting post-consumer plastic bottles and transforming them into beautiful, high-end faux fur, creating a recycled fabric that helps alleviate the plastic crisis and prevents countless animals from being bred and killed for fur,” says Allen from UK Peta.

Projects like this, which try to produce either recyclable faux fur or other sustainable alternatives, are on their way. On the other side, the fur-fashion industry reinforces sustainable fur production by hunting over-abundant species, or using the fur and leather by-products from the meat industry.

I would not wear farmed fur, but I would wear this

Pamela Paquin, founder of Peace Fur, makes fur garments and accessories using the pelts of America’s roadkill. Another is Cree McCree, a New Orleans based writer and artist. With his fashion project Righteous Fur, he uses fur from already dead Nutria — a small rodent — to better use the dead animals rather than just letting them be thrown into the swamps.

Fast fashion is the problem

Becky Byrd recommends Righteous Fur on Facebook. “If these animals have to be killed (and they do), it would be a shame not to use as much of the animal as we can. I would not wear farmed fur, but I would wear this.“

Despite people ostensibly demanding sustainable, ethical and environment-friendly fashion, the wasteful fast-fashion model still dominates the fashion market. Ethically-produced fur is and will continue to be a luxury item the average consumer cannot afford.

“Buying a fur piece is an investment. Whether it is brand new or second hand, in many respects it is like buying an antique — it is something that gets better with age and can last a lifetime if looked after properly,” says Martin.

Real fur is a durable material — quite the opposite of disposable fashion

“However, tastes, fashions and styles change. Fur garments, like antiques, can be remodelled and redesigned to reflect modern trends and look. Many furriers offer a service to remodel, clean and store garments. Real fur is a durable material — quite the opposite of disposable fashion.”

There is no clear answer to the question which of the two is environmentally friendlier. Real fur might be the current winner in the sustainability discussion, due to its longer life cycle. Decomposable faux fur is still a good way off in that regard.

But as long as there are harmful chemicals and synthetics involved in the production of both real and faux fur, should the debate stop being about real versus faux fur and start being about neither? And shouldn’t people who are honestly concerned about the environment turn away from fast fashion in general?

1st April 2019