Faux Fur: Good For Ethics, Bad For The Planet?

Which choice of fur — or “fur” — hurts animals and the planet the most? Really, it depends on a host of factors.

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Anti-fur advocates have come a long way since the days of slinging red paint on the fluffy-clad fashion elite. Instead, they now count some key luxury fashion players as their advocates. In just the past nine months, Gucci, Michael Kors, Versace, and the entire Yoox Net-A-Porter universe, not to mention InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown, have all committed to being fur-free, many of whom have expressed a deep interest and dedication to sustainability. But brands aren’t exactly eschewing fur as an aesthetic choice, as some animal rights advocates would hope. Instead, they’re switching to lavish faux fur options — cue up Burberry’s giant happy rainbow cape.
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The pivot should come as no surprise: Faux fur has evolved from a once trashy, often cheap and itchy material to a luxe, highly affordable, and believable version of its real opulent self — one that’s so soft, glossy, and realistic that consumers and brands alike are finding themselves hard-pressed to tell the difference. Increase your margins, streamline your sourcing, and stem the hate mail in one swoop? What’s not to like?
So maybe designers aren’t declaring themselves fur-free for purely altruistic reasons. But if the outcome is the same, who’s really the wiser? Unfortunately, just because a piece of fashion is animal-free doesn’t mean it’s not hurting animals in more insidious ways.
If you believe that it’s morally wrong to kill or use animals for the benefit of human consumption, that’s a perfectly valid (and fiercely debated) personal moral opinion — but it’s not exactly measurable or even scientific. Sustainable fashion advocates have resisted incorporating animal welfare into their measures because there’s simply no way to quantify it. And what science-y information is out there is either put out by animal rights groups or the fur industry, neither of which can be trusted to be fully unbiased or to tell you the whole truth: One study, which was commissioned by a pair of animal rights organizations, says that a fur coat is worse for the environment; a competing study commissioned by the International Fur Trade Federation says a faux fur coat is worse.
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So who’s right? Or more accurately, which choice of fur — or “fur” — hurts animals and the planet the most? Really, it depends on a host of factors, which we’ve broken out with some checks and balances below.
Photo: Catwalking/Getty Images.
Stella McCartney fall 2018.
Photo: Catwalking/Getty Images.
Burberry fall 2018.
Is the fur from a carnivore or herbivore?
The pro-faux study showed that producing one kilogram of mink fur has a higher negative environmental impact than producing one kilogram of other textiles in 17 of the 18 environmental categories, including climate change, eutrophication, and toxic emissions. But as they point out in the study, most of those negative environmental effects are because of the enormous amount of meat-based feed minks require. (Yes, these seemingly adorable creatures are actually agile hunters.)
Let’s also consider how many of us are realistically thinking about buying a full mink anything? More likely we’re pondering a pom-pom keychain or a pair of fur-festooned shoes or gloves, and it’s probably rabbit fur, one of the most ubiquitous (and affordable) types of fur out there. Considered one of the more sustainable types of meat to raise, the rabbit is an herbivore. And it’s pretty widely documented that the quickest way to lower your personal carbon footprint (and by extension, the carbon footprint of your fur) is to consume less meat.
The gist: If we’re talking a kilogram of rabbit fur versus a kilogram of polyester...well, the rabbit fur might actually win. Things get even better if you’re talking about alpaca. But with mink? Avoid.
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Was it from a farm or wild-caught?
Maybe you’re considering buying a Canada Goose jacket, which has a hood lined with coyote. The coyotes are trapped in Canada after roaming around in the wild. Free-range fur, if you will, addresses the second largest environmental concern in mink fur production: dealing with manure. Plus, coyotes have spread from their traditional territories all the way east after their biggest predator, wolves, were extirpated from most areas. Some conservationists are concerned that they are preying on the baby caribou and exasperating the decline of this vulnerable population. (Kill a coyote, save a baby caribou?) Ironically, however, experts believe that aggressively trapping coyote won’t help the population of moose and caribou, because coyote are so abundant that unleashing an army of eager hunters on them wouldn’t even make a dent.
The gist: It’s not great for individual coyotes, but coyote fur is better for the environment (and the animals that coyotes eat) than a similar faux fur hood lining.
How long do you plan on keeping that new fur thing?
As with most fashion, how sustainable your purchase is largely depends on the overall quality of the piece, and how often (and how long) you will wear it before it heads to the thrift store. Real fur coats are investments, nostalgically passed down through families from grandmas to granddaughters, or can be resold in vintage shops. Head over to Etsy and you can procure plenty of fur coat AND trims to to spruce up any ordinary winter coat.
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Instead of comparing fur to non-fur textiles, the pro-fur study compared a real mink fur coat to a faux fur one, assuming a real fur coat is typically kept for 30 years compared to a faux fur coat that’s kept for six. With that assumption, it showed that a faux fur coat poses four times more risk of damage to the ecosystem, 2.3 times more risk of adding to climate change, and 2.7 times more risk of impacting resource consumption. (Risk to human health was about the same, though that switched in favor of faux fur if you decide that people usually keep a faux fur coat for eight years or more.)
The gist: Don’t pat yourself on the back if you buy a $30 fur coat that may inevitably fall apart next year. But if you honestly believe you’ll wear that faux fur coat for more than a decade, go for it.
Is the fur upcycled?
Because people are generally less likely to toss a pricey fur coat, it’s not hard to get yourself an upcycled version. There are services that will take your mother’s massive coat from the ‘80s and slim it down, luxury brands that reincarnate fur into more modern concepts, and even fur accessories made from actual roadkill. And don’t forget, vintage stores are jammed with racks of fur coats that sell for a song.
Of course, some argue that wearing upcycled vintage fur still promotes the wearing — and thereby wanting — of any type of fur, but with faux fur looking more and more convincing, that argument doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
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The gist: Secondhand fur cuts down on the need for new production. And it's hard to argue with something that prevents from adding more fur — or faux-fur — pieces into the market.
Photo: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.
Calvin Klein 205W39NYC fall 2018.
Photo: REX/Shutterstock.
Gucci fall 2018.
Will it ever biodegrade?
One thing all of these studies lack is a component examining waste from real fur versus faux fur. Real fur, since it's organic in nature, will eventually biodegrade. (That’s why it deserves such special upkeep and storage.) But we’re not really sure how long faux fur, which is mostly made from acrylic or polyester, will take to break down — if ever. Polyester is essentially just plastic spun into a thread, and plastic could take anywhere from 500 years to more than 1,000 years to biodegrade.
On a similar point, the fashion industry now stands accused of filling the stomachs of fish (and people) with synthetic microfibers, tiny pieces of polyester, acrylic, or rayon that wash into our water systems every time we (or a clothing manufacturer) put a synthetic piece of clothing in the wash. They’re so tiny that they flow past water treatment plants and are now, according to a worldwide study, found in 83% of tap water samples, and are laden with heavy metals and toxins. This is such a new issue that there's a lot more intensive research that needs to be done in order to actually determine which types of synthetic fibers are the worst offenders.
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The gist: If you hate plastic and love the oceans, real vintage fur would be the better choice.
Is the animal invasive?
Fur from destructive invasive species can actually benefit the environment and other animals. For example, nutria are chewing up the Louisiana wetlands. Invasive American minks are hellbent on wiping out the beloved vole in Scotland. And rabbits have led to the extinction of several native species in Australia. Of course, it’s not always easy to find fur from invasive species; it’s a niche market at best.
The gist: If you can find a nutria fur accessory, go for it. You’re doing a solid for Louisiana’s wetlands.
What about climate change?
The fashion industry contributes to one thing that's sure to be a huge animal killer: climate change. Eight percent of total global emissions are attributed to the fashion industry alone (more than air travel). But when Quantis and ClimateWorks put out their own exhaustively researched report on the fashion industry’s contribution to climate change at the beginning of this year, they were more explicit on their exclusion of the most controversial material: “furs and exotic leathers were not included in the study due to their minor mass flows, correlated with the resource investment required to access corresponding data.” In other words, researching the tiny fur industry’s environmental impact was simply not worth their time.
The gist: If we really care about ALL animals — not just the fuzzy, cute ones — we need to focus on the fashion industry’s most dire issues: factories being powered by dirty energy, the proliferation of microfibers in the ocean, and toxic effluent (a.k.a. wastewater) being poured into rivers.
So, why are we focusing so much of our energy and ire on fur? It’s not just because it’s currently well in favor across Instagram feeds and slinky fashion editorials. Maybe it’s because, as a brand, going fur-free is a lot easier and cheaper than helping your factory in China transition to wind power, and will garner you more press. (Most consumers simply cannot be bothered to read about energy retrofits, or the information isn’t that easy to find in the first place.) Maybe it’s because it’s not possible to create a shocking video showing the slow displacement of endangered frogs because of climate change.
Or maybe it’s because, “I’d rather go naked than wear petroleum-based, microfiber-shedding polyester products” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Either way, as consumers who care about fashion and the future of the planet, we all have choices to make. But when it comes to decisions that take a variety of ethics, statistics, and priorities into consideration, it's crucial we're relying on real information — not faux ones.
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