Sascha Camilli discovers if faux fur is an eco-friendly choice and how it measures up to the real thing.
In 2018, a ground-breaking move shook the fashion industry: iconic Italian fashion brand Gucci, whose whimsical, seventies-inspired take on nerdy chic had taken over fashion pages since the arrival of creative director Alessandro Michele, announced that it was going fur-free, starting with its Spring/Summer 2018 collection.
The brand’s CEO, Marco Bizzarri, said at the time that wearing animal fur was no longer modern: “It’s a little bit outdated. Creativity can jump in many different directions instead of using furs.”
Gucci’s power move inspired virtually all of the other biggest names in fashion to follow in their footsteps: shortly after their announcement, brands including Burberry, Chanel, Michael Kors, Versace, Diane von Furstenberg, Jean Paul Gaultier and, most recently, Prada all vowed to ban animal fur from their collections. In just a few short seasons, animal fur seemed to have disappeared from the international catwalks entirely.
Animal rights activists everywhere rejoiced, but of course, the fur industry was not happy. Apparently in a panic after losing some of its most prominent supporters, the trade-focused their efforts on enhancing animal fur’s ‘natural’ factor.
“It’s time to call out the fake news about fake fur”, said International Fur Federation CEO Mark Oaten. “Natural fur is the responsible choice when compared with fake fur or other synthetics.”
But how natural is fur, really? If we look into the production of animal fur, it’s clear that it’s only natural while it’s still on the animal who was born with it.
To begin with, there is not much natural about keeping wild animals in extreme confinement, including semi-aquatic animals like mink, whose natural needs can never be fulfilled by life on a fur farm.
A large part of today’s fur comes from China, where there are no animal protection laws or regulations – but even on farms in so-called ‘high welfare’ countries, undercover investigations have found animals living in filthy wire cages, being left without adequate food, water and veterinary care, and living next to the rotting corpses of their cage-mates. Many of them resorted to cannibalism and self-mutilation, all of which can hardly be described as ‘natural’.
Fur production is toxic
As soon as the fur is taken off the animal, a very unnatural process begins – the one that’s put in place to keep fur from biodegrading. Yep, you read that right: despite sites like furisgreen.com, made by the Fur Council of Canada, touting the environmental benefit of fur by proudly proclaiming that fur is biodegradable, the last thing the industry wants is for the coats to rot on the wearers’ backs, so the pelts are treated with a toxic cocktail of harsh chemicals such as formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium (remember the cancer-causing chemical Julia Roberts was campaigning against in Erin Brockovich? That’s the one.)
In their report Toxic Fur: The Impacts of Fur Production on the Environment and Risks to Human Health, Humane Society found that ethylene glycol, lead and toluene, all known to be developmentally and reproductively toxic, are used in the processing of fur. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified lead as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and toluene “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that faux fur, as it stands, is far from being the most ecofriendly material on the planet. Mainly made from petroleum-based plastics, faux fur isn’t biodegradable and releases harmful microplastics into the waterways when washed.
But, while the industry is beginning to find solutions to these issues (such as using tools such as GuppyFriend, a washing bag to be placed in the washing machine along with faux furs and other synthetics to capture part of the microplastics and keep them from reaching the waterways), there is no escaping the fact that animal fur is part of animal agriculture, which we know contributes to many of the most urgent climate issues facing our planet today.
“A common misconception is that so-called natural materials are supposed to be free of environmental impact,” says Arnaud Brunois, Communications Manager at French faux-fur artisan Ecopel. “But we know that animal-based fibres have a huge impact on our environment.”
The impact of animal fur is staggering: studies of lakes and rivers in Nova Scotia found “degradation in water quality to be primarily a result of high phosphorus inputs resulting from releases emanating from mink farming operations.”1
The World Bank ranked fur dressing among the world’s five worst industries when it comes to toxic-metal pollution. In Denmark – one of the world’s top fur-producing countries, where more than 19 million minks are killed for their fur each year – over 8,000 pounds of ammonia is released into the atmosphere annually.
A CE Delft study compared fur with textiles and found that animal fur has a higher impact per kg in 17 of the 18 environmental categories, including climate change, eutrophication and toxic emissions.
Arnaud Brunois continues: “It’s false to imagine that animal fur is sustainable in any shape or form: in Finland, the factory farming of foxes for the fur industry represents 10 percent of ammonia emissions, a contributor to air pollution with a documented impact on human health. A fur coat is loaded with petrochemicals – this is why it lasts three decades, not because it is natural.”
Recycling faux fur
How does Ecopel – a leader in the newgeneration sector of conscious faux fur – aim to advance the production of eco-friendlier materials?
The pioneering company’s plans include collecting post-consumer plastic bottles at its mills in Asia to transform them into a luxurious faux fur, thus putting an end to claims that faux fur isn’t green, and helping solve the plastic pollution crisis.
Recycled faux fur is still in the development stages, but once it arrives, it will signify a big step for vegan fashion.
Another development from Ecopel that was unveiled is KOBA, the world’s first bio-based faux fur. Made partially from corn-based ingredients from the bio-fuel industry, KOBA incorporates the low-impact Sorona® technology developed by Dupont.
At the end of last year, Stella McCartney debuted the material in the form of a glamorous full-length coat worn by Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova. This new innovation will put to rest the notion that faux fur has to be made from plastic, which further goes to prove that we as humans can improve our production methods – but killing an animal will always mean taking a life, and there is nothing natural, ethical or sustainable about that.
1: Judith Lavoie, “Mink Farm Pollution Key Culprit in Rendering Nova Scotia Lakes Unswimmable: Report,” The Narwhal, 5 August 2014