Which is more sustainable — real fur or faux fur?

The use of real fur in fashion has long been recognized as unethical, especially when the fur comes from animals who are bred in small cages, tortured, or skinned alive. Animal rights groups and activists have been pushing for an end to the use of real fur in fashion for decades, and it seems to be making a difference finally. Over the past couple of years, major fashion houses like Gucci, Versace, Michael Kors, and DVF have announced they are going “fur-free”, opting to use faux (fake) fur instead. Unfortunately, what is ethical in fashion does not always match what is best for the environment. One of the biggest pro-fur arguments is that real fur is a natural material and will, therefore, biodegrade better than synthetic materials like polyester — the most common plastic used for faux furs. This stance has raised an interesting question, which is more environmentally sustainable: real fur or faux fur?


Real fur actually has a lot of pros compared to the standard fake replication. Animal fur is not only biodegradable, but it is also long-lasting. Fur is traditionally a luxury material, and full fur coats are often associated with wealth. This means owners would take extra precautions to maintain their furs and pass them down to several generations. Some new owners of fur have chosen to recycle those inherited heavy winter coats turning them into trims to match modern fashion trends and extending the life cycle of existing material. Real fur also doesn’t release micro-plastics during washing or wearing; whereas synthetic alternatives do, causing massive water pollution and plastic consumption by aquatic life and humans. Sometimes killing animals for fashion can even be beneficial for the environment. Hunting invasive species like minks, rabbits, and nutria for the fur trade can keep the balance in the ecosystem. It is important to note that most animals used in fashion are not caught in the wild, though. They are grown in farms, which brings us to the cons of real fur.


The farming of animals leads to the production of methane, which is about 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Much like industrial farming of cows, chickens, and pigs, breeding animals for the sole purpose of fashion increases the output of global warming-causing gases and uses resources like food and water, which are already in short supply for humans. Once animals in fur farms are killed, their skins need to be treated with preservatives like formaldehyde and chromium 33 — both of which are toxic — to prevent rotting. The fur dressing and tanning industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries — within the top five, according to Humane Society. In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined six fur production plants $2.2 million for pollution. And all those chemicals are still not enough to keep fur lasting forever. Most furs have to be stored in temperature-controlled spaces, increasing energy use and the carbon footprint associated with the fur industry. The storing and caring for furs is a hidden environmental impact increasing the overall footprint of the real fur industry.


When it comes to faux fur, there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions associated with production and care, but that is pretty much the only pro. Since most of faux fur is made with synthetic materials, it does not biodegrade and does release micro-plastics. Also, faux fur is cheap in cost and quality, meaning most of it will only last for a few years before it falls apart — similar to fast fashion clothing.


The good news is that faux fur is taking on a new meaning, and now fabrics made from natural materials are being used to replace real fur AND polyester copycats. Hemp has recently been making headlines as the best fur alternative. The fiber requires no pesticides or fertilizers and minimal water to grow, meaning it has one of the lowest environmental footprints compared to other materials like cotton, polyester, and animal skin. A company called Ecopel has also been making splashes in the sustainable faux-fur market. While a lot of their faux-furs use recycled plastic, the game-changer has been their unique KOBA plant-based fur. KOBA fur is made from corn-based ingredients that are a byproduct of the biofuel industry — supporting sustainable energy and making a cruelty-free biodegradable fur, win-win. Of course, not every designer has access to Ecopel level technology, that is why some brands are getting creative instead. Shredded denim has recently been making an appearance in the form of fluffy blue coats that closely resemble woolly mammoth fur rather than mink or rabbit. Regardless, it is proof that there eco-friendly solutions are out there for consumers who are concerned about the ethics of real fur in fashion.


Commentary:


As crazy as the shredded denim “fur” coats look, you may want to consider getting one in order to be completely sure that it is not real fur disguised as fake. That’s right, it is now possible for the real deal to be sold under the impression that it is fake without sellers or consumers knowing the difference. TJ Maxx and Amazon both got in trouble for selling products like shoes and bags with real fur trims, despite advertising them as faux fur trims online. Switcheroos like that have me thinking maybe we should stop buying into the fur trend altogether — especially while sustainable alternatives like hemp and Ecopel are still niche options. If the only widely available choice is between chemically treated animal fur and cheap plastic look-alikes, then I don’t think I will be buying anything that is or could pass as fur. Even the fashion influencer who popularized fur, Anna Wintour, is wearing less of the look, and she addressed the ethical and sustainable conundrums in a 2019 interview with Christiane Amanpour. Maybe it’s time for us to admit that neither real fur nor faux fur is the sustainable option; the sustainable option is no fur at all.