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

by Vera Lovici • 19 Jan 2019

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


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 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.

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 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 organisations, 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.

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.

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 really 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 a 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 essence: 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.

Was it from a farm or wild-caught?
Maybe you’re considering buying a Canada Goose jacket, which has a hood lined with a 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 the coyote is 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 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 spruce up any ordinary winter coat.

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 microfibres, 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 fibres are the worst offenders.





Vera Lovici

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