By Jody McCutcheon
“Fur is an ecological nightmare. The fur industry has been identified as a major polluter by government agencies around the world.”
“Real fur garments are much less polluting to manufacture than synthetic faux furs, which are made with some of the most toxic chemicals known…”
Thus goes the back-and-forth between pro- and anti-fur camps, about which is more eco-friendly, fur or faux. The above quotes also hint at an answer: trick question.
The first, unsurprisingly, belongs to Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), famous for their paint-throwing escapes at fashion weeks and “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaigns, featuring the likes of Cindy Crawford (who has since actually modelled for prominent fur company Blackglama). The second is more a defense disguised as attack. Interestingly, it comes not from the fur industry, per se, but from IWMC World Conservation Trust president Eugene Lapointe. Does the IWMC have a vested interest in fur, or is Mr Lapointe simply stating what the IWMC believes to be true? Sometimes it’s tough to tease fact from rhetoric.
Here’s what we know: Fur is a renewable resource. Faux fur isn’t; it’s petroleum-based, with an estimated gallon of oil used in every three jackets. Fur farms recycle: farmed mink, for example, consume human food waste and meat-processing byproducts. And fur itself, as a material, is more or less biodegradable: as any fur-owner knows, without proper care, it soon disintegrates; faux fur, however, will clog landfills for centuries to come. Faux is, of course, more animal-friendly–unless it secretly contains dog, cat or raccoon hair, which occurs more than one might think, according to CNN. Faux-fur production is also ultimately more energy-efficient, using as little as one-fifteenth the energy required for farmed-fur production.
There are some who argue that not to use ‘road kill’ fur (yes, that is actually a thing–several companies use ‘found’ fur from roadkill) and fur derived from government sponsored culls (such as the badger cull in the UK or the fox cull in Switzerland) would be a waste of the animal’s life, and that furs taken from these wild animals are eco friendly as there has been no energy-intensive process involved in ‘raising’ the animals.
Toxic Chemical Soups
But is that really true? The processing of both fur and faux fur excretes toxic chemical soups that harm water, air and soil. Unmanaged fur-farm animal waste can seep into local waterways. A 2011 study by Dutch independent researchers CE Delft calls fur production worse than textile production, in terms of environmental degradation. Carcinogens like chromium and formaldehyde, employed in dressing and dyeing processes, compromise fur’s biodegradability, not to mention ecological stability. According to British fashion-ethics journalist Lucy Siegle, “the industrial pollution projection system … rates fur-dressing as one of the five worst industries for toxic metal pollution to the land in the world.”
That said, many companies such as SAGA and the Gucci Group (PPR) are now insisting that all their furs are vegetable dyed and tanned with traditional, non-toxic methods. Valentino has even received the thumbs up from Greenpeace for his ethical leather and fur sourcing practices. The Fur Council of Canada even launched a “Fur is Green” campaign, claiming that fur is “durable, recyclable, and and biodegradable”, and that trapping certain wild animals helps native communities preserve their traditions and earn an income, and also helps balance animal populations in the wild. Indeed, in New Zealand too, the government is encouraging people to buy what they call “the world’s most ecological fur” crafted from the Paihamu, a non-native species that is threatening native wildlife, including the iconic kiwi bird.
As for faux, In Touch magazine’s Ruth Rosselson stated, “More than 50% of (the UK)’s emissions into our air of the poisonous ‘greenhouse’ gas nitrous oxide comes from nylon production,” and indeed, that is the basis for many of these coats. Synthetics also take more energy to produce than natural materials. A kilo of nylon needs three times the energy required for a kilo of cotton, for example, writes design consultant Kate Fletcher in Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Maybe faux fur’s most disturbing aspect is that, with each machine wash, the garment releases up to 1900 microplastic particles into the water, and into the food chain, ultimately harming all animals, including humans. Good grief.
Does ‘Eco Fur’ Exist?
Vegan animal lovers will say there is simply no excuse for wearing fur because it harms animals; fair enough, it undoubtedly does. But to paraphrase A.A. Gill in his Sunday Times article, while killing animals for meat and fur may be sad, it’s not like they are going to live forever anyway. Plus, faux fur undoubtedly harms the environment, unless it is made from organic materials, like cotton, bamboo or hemp. A few companies, such as M. Patmos, are indeed making eco-friendly fake furs from wool, alpaca and other natural animal fibres: no harm comes to the animal at all, and the fibres need no tanning and can be vegetable dyed, but companies like this are rare.
But what about vintage fur? There are millions of coats in great condition from decades ago, often passed down from generation to generation. Clearly, throwing these furs away would be wasteful, to say the least–if the animal has been long dead, surely it’s best to maximise the product that resulted from the sacrifice of its life? Some would say no–this sends a signal that wearing all fur is fine, and paves the way for a stronger modern market.
The fact is, it’s a bit of a moral quagmire. If you must wear fur, the eco-gentlest choice is probably to buy vintage. Another option would be to buy from companies who stringently inspect animal welfare and use natural dyeing and tanning methods, such as Valentino, SAGA and those companies in the Gucci Group.
But let’s face it: unless you live in deepest Siberia, isn’t a nice wool number good enough for winter?
Main image: Victorija Pashuta Photography http://www.pashutaphotography.com/ Other images: Fendi