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15 June 2017

The Real Cost of Faux Fur Fashion

by Tamara Dumas

Dazzlingly colourful and irresistibly fluffy, faux fur is taking over the High Street. Luxury retailers like Selfridges and Harvey Nichols have dropped real fur in favour of ‘more ethical’ options.

Yoox Net A Proter is yet another fashion giant who announced a Fur-Free earlier this month. Born from the merger of Italy’s Yoox and rival Net-a-Porter in 2015, said at group level it has been phasing out selling fur products since last year, but has now announced the policy. Matteo James Moroni, Yoox’s head of sustainability, said: “Our goal is to act as an industrywide catalyst for change.” A noble desire that is guaranteed to receive high praise from every side.

One the other side of the argument are fur lovers. In wake of the aggressive anti-fur campaigning, a lot of fur lovers feel intimidated by good-doers who feel empowered to lecture anyone wearing fur at social events and in public transport. PETA is even tirelessly preparing videos on how to jump onto people on the street with anti-fur propaganda. Some have experienced more drastic response – London Fashion Week showrooms were sabotaged by anti-fur protests, while Luis Vuitton customers had to hide inside the Bond Street store fearing for their safety.

There are many reasons one might prefer faux fur to the real thing. For some it’s affordability, for others it’s the question of animal cruelty and ‘ethical’ or – out of ignorance - more ‘environmentally friendly’ clothing. We respect the right of choice, an unwritten rule of capitalism. I find it concerning, however that affordable faux fur has become the synonym of Fast Fashion and reckless consumerism. There is no need to save for years for a coat and then look after it so that it lasts for decades. With faux fur coats prices starting from under £100, everyone can afford to buy ‘fur’ – not once in a lifetime, but several garments a year. And then dispose of them after a few seasons. I will get back to the issue of faux fur ending up in a landfill in a while but let’s first look at the manufacturing process. 

"There is no need to save for years for a coat and then look after it so that it lasts for decades. With faux fur coats prices starting from under £100, everyone can afford to buy ‘fur’ – not once in a lifetime, but several garments a year."

There is nothing ethical about fast fashion

The issue of faux fur is three-fold. First of all, there is nothing ethical about fast fashion. While the largest natural raw fur exporter in the world is Europe, according to the UN statistics of 2015, - with regulated health and safety and welfare standards - the greatest producer and exporter of faux fur is China. Child labour and horrendous human rights records in China have long been exposed and are sadly perceived as the norm.

The World Production of fur
Source: © European Fur Information center

Environmental outputs of faux fur production

Secondly, fake fur is made from non-renewable petroleum-based products, such as nylon, acrylic and polyester. The petroleum industry alone is very controversial, with own animal lives’ claims through frequent spillages, corruption and pollutant emissions - if any of the faux fur advocates care to look below the surface. 

In order to calculate the overall environmental impact of the fur and faux fur production, the cradle to grave lifecycle cost analysis (LCA) was commissioned in 2012 by Fur Trade Federation. The LCA is a tool to determine the most cost-effective option among different competing alternatives to purchase, own, operate, maintain and, finally, dispose of an object or process.

Before we look at the results of the LCA, there are a few points I would like to draw your attention to. To start with, the analysis of the impact was calculated based on the European production standards, which may differ greatly for Third World sweatshops. In addition to that, the useful lifespan of a faux fur coat is assumed to be 6 years, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the current trend of fast fashion and ‘cheap clothes for one season’. This newly emerged trend is likely to drag the outputs of the faux fur industry down further.

Speaking of hard-core data: the report that is available here, evaluates four ‘end factors': 1. Human health impacts, 2. Ecosystem quality impacts, 3. Climate change impacts, and 4. Demand on resources supplies. The outputs are presented in the tables below:

The Natural Fur production outperforms the Faux Fur Production in all four categories.

The four end factors are broken down further on the following ‘mid-point’ indicators:

Health Impacts:

1. Carcinogens 2. Non‐carcinogenic toxins 3. Respiratory organics 4. Respiratory inorganics 5. Ionizing radiation 6. Ozone layer depletion 7. Photochemical oxidation

Ecosystem Quality Impacts:

1. Aquatic ecotoxicity 2. Terrestrial ecotoxicity 3. Terrestrial acidification 4. Aquatic acidification 5. Land occupation

Climate Change Impacts:

1. Global warming potential

Demand on Resources Supplies:

1. Non‐renewable Energy Demand 2. Mineral Extraction.

For the performance against mid-point indicators, see the table on he right.

The technical bit: Out of the thirteen midpoint indicators with non‐zero scores, a faux fur coat scores significantly better ONLY for three indicators, namely, respiratory organics emissions, ozone layer depletion and terrestrial acidification/nutrification. Still, not enough to outperform natural fur in given categories.

On the other hand, the life cycle of a faux fur coat results in considerably greater consumption of non‐renewable energy, greater risk of potential impacts of global warming and greater risk of potential impacts from ionizing radiation.  As well, there is greater risk of potential impacts from carcinogenic and non‐carcinogenic emissions and greater risk of potential terrestrial ecotoxicity impacts with the life cycle of a faux fur coat. An environmental credit associated with avoided land occupation is present only with the life cycle of a natural fur coat.  As a result, the life cycle of a natural fur coat reduces the potential impacts of land occupation by 2.2 times compared to the life cycle of a faux fur coat.

The report further claims: From a fur industry perspective, mink feed rations are continually being improved and these improvements will largely yield improvements in the overall environmental performance of natural fur.  Much less potential exists to improve the environmental performance of faux fur. The potential for significant efficiency gains in the production of synthetic materials like faux fibre is becoming less and less. For this reason, the life cycle demands of faux fur are less likely to diminish over time compared to those associated with natural fur. By closing the loop in natural fur production, considerable further improvements are possible. 

There is of course, concern that the report was commissioned by the Fur Trading Association, which could have impacted the results. The assumptions made during calculations however, are referenced in the report and everyone willing to revisit these is free to do so – a costly procedure. The only other similar report was produced back in 1979 and was commissioned by the anti-fur lobby. Since then, the processes and production mechanisms have improved as has improved the modeling software. In general, most data concerning fur industry is produced by interested parties – either by PETA or by the Fur Sector, which makes getting to the truth extremely hard.

That being said, it is worth a mention that the model used for the report is very generic and doesn’t allow for small variables of the environmental impact, such as the release of plastic in water mains during wear. With every machine wash, says 2011 paper for the Environmental Science & Technology journal, each garment releases an average of 1,900 tiny particles of plastic, which are then swilled into rivers, lakes and, eventually, the sea. And while the beauty products’ plastic micro-beads were banned, the faux fur - or any man-made wearable fabric for that matter – are not considered to be harmful.

Recycling the faux fur

Lastly, the faux fur garments don’t have any re-sale value and are not recyclable. This in turn can mean only one thing: all fancy fur jackets end up in landfill, some after just one season (!). Just like petroleum-based plastic bags, it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. I personally find this figure most telling; a bit of synthetic ‘fashion' fur will witness four generations of our offsprings, potentially releasing chemicals into the atmosphere - what a great legacy!

Real fur, meanwhile, biodegrades naturally within six months to a year, and can even be composted in the garden, says Mike Moser, CEO of British Fur Trade Association.

This article won’t put an end to the Faux Fur V Natural Fur debate but consumers and fashion brands should have access to the information and be able to make calculated decisions about sourcing, production and purchasing and not just jump on the bandwagon of a ‘faux' buzz trend. 

It is everyone’s personal choice whether to buy natural fur or not, but I believe that the fur shaming in the name of the environment should stop once and for all. Alternatively, we should consider including the faux fur in the category to be shamed for.

Costume designer Minna Attala, who has worked for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Asos and is a life-long vegetarian, believes that it’s a grey area. “I’m not pro-fur but, because I’ve been educated on the subject, I’m not against it either. Killing animals for vanity is not right, but there are whole communities of people who rely on this industry for employment, and, in the majority of cases, the animals are treated well, so that they’ll have healthy coats…”

The solution for the environment conscious brands, especially those who see themselves as ‘champions' would be to steer clear of any fur, faux or otherwise, altogether. 

Faux Fur doesn't age well and doesn't have resale value
Faux Fur generally doesn't age well