A Rock and a Hard Place: Faux Fur an Environmentally Unsustainable Replacement for Real Fur

A model walks the catwalk at the Vera Wang Collection Presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Nata Sha / Shutterstock.com

In the mid-90s, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a series of investigative videos that revealed the abusive practices of fur farms around the world. The disturbing imagery, such as that of chinchillas being electrocuted and minks being injected with weed killer, led many fashion retailers to reconsider their use of fur. Companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Selfridges, H&M and Topshop turned to the PETA approved alternative of faux fur, but studies have revealed that faux might not be as sustainable as people believe. The recent shows at New York Fashion Week proved that the faux and real fur trend will continue in both high fashion and on high street, but its growing market brings about important discussions on how both materials are affecting the environment.

In 2002, PETA activists rushed the stage with picket signs reading “Gisele: Fur Scum” at a Victoria Secret fashion show. The protesters came to speak out against model Gisele Bundchen for wearing fur in a campaign for Blackglama mink coats. The protest led to Teresa Platt, the executive director of Fur Commission USA, to speak out against the animal rights protesters, telling CNS News that the faux fur was essentially an “eco-disaster.”

Fake fur, or evolutionary fur as it is sometimes called, was first introduced in 1929 and was widely available by the 50s, when fur coats and muffs were a growing fashion trend. The marketing by animal rights groups since the 90s has furthered the popularity of the animal alternative, but while fake fur is often seen as the ethical choice, its production, which includes synthetic fibers and petroleum, has been attributed to pollution, child labor and ill health of workers.

According to an email from Michael Whelan, the Executive Director of the Fur Commission, “faux fur and other synthetic materials are made from petroleum and other chemical agents. They are designed to last for a year or two, then be discarded and replaced (fast fashion). Their mass production takes place in many third-world countries, where child labor and unsafe working conditions are common. When discarded, these garments can remain in land-fills for hundreds, if not thousands of years.”

As Platt also mentions in her interview with CNS News, “While fur farmers are regulated by humane statutes in terms of animal care, manufacturers of Evolutionary Fur are regulated by the Clean Air Act.”

The process of creating a faux fur garment requires the production of non-biodegradable nonrenewable synthetic fibers using petroleum, that are then fastened on to a polyester backing.

According to the International Fur Federation, it is estimated that this process uses three times as much nonrenewable energy than the construction of real fur and can take up to 6oo years to degrade, similar to a plastic bag.

According to a breakdown in Kate Fletcher’s book “Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,” producing one kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds) of polyester requires 109 megajoules (approximately 30,278 megawatts/hour) of energy, with 46 megajoules going toward the raw materials and 63 megajoules used to turn those materials into a finished fiber.”

But PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange defends faux via email saying, “Every fur coat should come with a warning label that screams, ‘Toxic to animals and the environment!’ It takes more than 15 times the energy to produce a farmed-fur coat than a synthetic-fur coat, and the chemicals used to prevent animals’ flesh from rotting pollute the air and water near tanneries and make workers and local residents sick. PETA encourages eco-minded shoppers to steer clear of the chemically treated skins of animals who were beaten, electrocuted, or even skinned alive—and to choose natural, plant-based fabrics such as cork leather, bamboo or Tencel blends, and soy silk.”

Lucy Siegle, eco-reporter for The Observer also writes in agreement that faux is the greener choice, “Fur is also less polluting than fake fur (although this argument presupposes that we’re all desperate to wear any kind of fur, fake or otherwise). However, 85 percent of fur products come from farmed animals and although, according to America’s Fur Commission, it takes one gallon of oil to make three fake-fur jackets, the amount of energy needed to make a real fur coat from these farmed animals is 66 times greater than that needed for a fake fur coat.”

The investigations into fur farming lead to the UK passing the Fur Farming Prohibition Act in 2000 to “prohibit the keeping of animals solely or primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur.” But, in a piece for In Touch magazine, Ruth Rosselson says, “More than 50 percent of (the UK)’s emissions into our air of the poisonous ‘greenhouse’ gas nitrous oxide comes from nylon production,” which is used for the faux alternative.

Additionally, the nitrous oxide produced through nylon manufacturing is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Some producers of faux fur have turned to cotton as an eco-friendly alternative, but according to the World Wildlife Foundation it can require 2,700 liters of water to create one T-shirt and is responsible for the contamination of local water sources. In addition, the cotton industry, especially in Uzbekistan, has been under investigation for the heavy use of child labor.

Until 2010, consumers in the United States were mostly unaware if their garment contained real or faux fur. Before President Obama passed the Truth in Fur Labeling Act, items under $150 that contained fur did not require labeling of their origin. Brands like Sean John, who advertised fake fur trim, later found out that their clothing contained real fur. Now, all manufactures require a label listing the species and country of origin.

Many of the retailers who have now made an ethical decision to only sell faux fur, are ones that have been previously associated with the use of sweatshops and child labor.  Zara’s parent company, Inditex, discontinued the sale of Angora this year because of animal welfare concerns brought to light by one of PETA’s videos. The retail giant donated 20,000 of the remaining fur garments, approximately $900,000, to Syrian refugees.

While many praised the move to faux, Zara and similar fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 who have outlawed fur in their stores, continue to use overseas production where worker safety and child labor laws are loosely regulated and with the threat of harmful chemicals, could put workers at risk.

According to the Daily Mail, “Pro-fur lobbies also point to the unethical working practices of some faux-fur manufacturers. It’s already widely known that disposable fashion often relies on third world sweatshop labour, paltry wages and toxic working conditions. But the International Fur Trade Federation claims that the manufacture of fake fur doubles the risk of ill-health in workers due to the emissions of carcinogenic substances during production.”

In addition to the use of natural resources as a pro-for animal fur, Whelan explains the benefits that harvesting mink brings to other industries like cosmetics and bio-fuels.

“Another often overlooked benefit to fur is that mink are fed the by-products of human food production.  Products found unfit for human consumption are fed to the animals instead of dumped into landfills,” says Whelan. “In the US, this accounts for hundreds of millions of pounds of waste product put to good use.  Additionally, mink manure is a sought-after fertilizer, and after harvesting the mink remains are rendered into oils, pet foods, and other products.”

Several of the pro-fur organizations have also been working against the “myths” of the fur industry that have been perpetuated by animal-rights groups, making sure to be clear that animal welfare is one of their main concerns. The International fur industry states, “animal welfare is a top priority… Over the recent years, the industry has become increasingly transparent. Many European countries, such as Denmark, now operate an “open farm” policy inviting members of the public to visit farms to see for themselves the welfare standards in force.

While the pro-fur industry has made many valuable arguments against the belief that faux is the more ethical and sustainable choice, investigations continue to expose horrifying conditions in fur farms. Although each farm is different, according to PETA half of the fur in the U.S. comes from China, which has little regulation over their treatment of animals. The images of bunnies and dogs in cramped wire cages being hanged and skinned alive can be hard to ignore when making the choice to go faux.