Remember the days when anti-fur advocates would sling red paint onto the fur-clad fashion lovers dressed in mink? The fur debate has come a long way since then, with many key players in the fashion world now becoming some of the biggest voices in the anti-fur movement. But, instead of ditching fur altogether, some brands have switched to lavish faux fur options, and that has pivoted the discussion. Instead of focusing on ethics and animal welfare, the spotlight is now shining on its environmental sustainability.
Is it good for the environment?
Over the past couple of decades, faux fur has evolved from a cheap, itchy material to a luxurious, affordable option that looks just like the real thing. Faux fur now looks so realistic that consumers can’t tell the difference, but is this option really better for the environment?
If you are morally opposed to wearing fur, then it is easy to avoid it. However, if you are just trying to make the best choice for the environment, there are some things you need to know. Just because a piece of clothing might be animal-free, it doesn’t mean it’s not causing damage.
Fur industry lobbyists now argue that faux fur is a less sustainable choice because it is made from acrylic, which is a synthetic material made from a non-renewable source that takes centuries to biodegrade.
“Petroleum-based faux fur products are the complete antithesis of the concept of responsible environmental conservation,” says Keith Kaplan, director of communications at the Fur Information Council of America. “Right off the top, petrol-based plastic fur is extremely harmful to the environment. It isn’t biodegradable. It’s harmful to wildlife.”
Kaplan also points out that trapping wild animals like fox, coyotes and beavers— which is about 15 percent of the fur trade— actually helps manage the wildlife population, and it also provides a livelihood for many indigenous communities.
What do the experts say?
The research is starting to support this opinion, and we are just beginning to learn about the environmental impact of microfibers— the tiny plastic particles that synthetic fabrics shed when you wash them. A 2016 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that when you wash a synthetic jacket, it can release an average of 1,174 milligrams of microfibers. And, whatever isn’t filtered out by wastewater treatment plants can end up in waterways, and aquatic animals will ingest them.
Many designers, like London-based footwear label Mou, have taken the stance that real fur is a more sustainable option than faux fur because the synthetic is a “non-biodegradable pollutant.” Mou founder Shelley Tichborne says that the faux fabrics don’t “breathe” like natural materials, and that causes unpleasant smells and shortens the product’s lifespan.
“In contrast, the natural fiber materials we use such as calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin, antelope, lambskin and rabbit fur are by-products of the meat and dairy industries — all the animals are eaten for their meat, and some produce milk for human consumption,” Tichborne says. “The skins from these animals are naturally beautiful, soft to the touch, warm, bio-degradable and durable, lasting — with care — for up to thirty years.”
Anti-fur advocates admit that synthetics like faux fur aren’t the best substitute, but they say the environmental hazards in the fur manufacturing process make real fur the worse option. Advocates claim that CO2 emissions produced from feeding thousands of minks on a single farm, manure runoffs into nearby lakes and rivers and toxic chemicals used in fur dressing and dyeing is evidence enough that real fur is far worse for the environment compared to its alternative counterpart. They also mention that the traps used to hunt wild animals ensnare “non-target” animals like domestic dogs, cats and birds.
Which is best?
There is a ton of evidence that backs up both sides of the argument, and it is a lot of information to process. But, the reality is that banning fur outright doesn’t solve all of the issues in fashion’s supply chains since the alternatives are petroleum-based textiles. However, the consumer interest in this issue can only be a good thing.
We know for sure that cheap, disposable clothing— and our tendency to buy and throw out almost all of it— is terrible for the environment. But, is it really a good idea to wear genuine fur instead of faux fur? Ultimately, it comes down to your own morals and ethics, and the debate won’t be settled anytime soon. Fortunately, with technological advancements happening every day, it probably won’t be long before we start seeing faux furs that have a smaller environmental footprint.
Images via Shutterstock, Tamara Bellis