Pin It
Raf Simons Paris menswear fashion week 15
Backstage at Raf Simons AW20Photography Christina Fragkou

Could faux fur be worse than the real thing?

With fashion switching real for faux, it’s good news for the animals – but questions surrounding the environmental implications of fake fur must be addressed

At the AW20 menswear shows, Raf Simons wrapped his models up in slogan-adorned faux fur muffs, buttoned up stoles, and broad-shouldered coats; Dries Van Noten went for fake foxes draped around shoulders; and Vetements’ first show without Demna featured vintage-inspired faux fur ankle length coats, refreshed in electric blue and parakeet green.

The ranks of brands going fur-free are growing. Gucci, Coach, Versace, DKNY, Burberry, Margiela, and Prada have all pledged to ditch fur in recent years. Even Fendi, a renowned furrier, has begun to debut faux fur looks on the runway alongside the real thing. Compounding brands’ individual decisions, the British Fashion Council encouraged labels showing as part of London Fashion Week to go fur-free in 2018. Meanwhile, just yesterday, Peta announced the end of its naked celebrity-featuring anti-fur campaigns, given use of the material is dwindling among designers.

The big fur shun isn’t just contained to the fashion industry. In 2018, Oldham council banned the sale of fur on its markets and in 2019, Islington became the first London council to do the same. From 2023, the manufacture and sale of fur will be prohibited in California, as it becomes the first US state to do so. Cities such as LA, San Francisco and West Hollywood have done the same and in 2018, the Labour party vowed to ban fur imports to the UK – but sadly, we all know how that story ends.

For many, this about-turn from fur is a positive sign, a win for animals, but for others, concern surrounding the environmental implications of turning to polyester and acrylic alternatives is growing. Made in an automated process, faux fur is created using synthetic fibres which are mostly petroleum-based. 

The use of plastic in a world already drowning in it is a major concern, with many anxious about faux fur coats languishing in landfill, refusing to degrade for hundreds or thousands of years (of course, one solution to that could be just: don’t throw your coats in the bin). Another major side effect of our global obsession with plastic is microfibres. 83 per cent of tap water samples taken from around the world were found to be contaminated with plastic in 2017, and in 2018 another study found 10 plastic particles per litre in bottled water too. It’s not just us ingesting plastic, though: fish and marine life do too, with an estimated 1.4 trillion microfibres floating in our oceans right now.

The fur industry in particular has taken the plastic argument and run with it, positioning faux fur as a plastic scourge on the environment and real fur as the only real natural and sustainable option. Mark Oaten, former LibDem MP (the party responsible for the ban in Oldham, incidentally) and now CEO of the International Fur Federation (IFF), voiced his concerns in an interview with WWD. “There is a lot of talk about fake fur these days,” he said, “for me it makes no sense to use a product full of chemicals and plastics when you can have a natural and biodegradable fashion item like real fur.” 

“It makes no sense to use a product full of chemicals and plastics when you can have a natural and biodegradable fashion item like real fur” – Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation 

Backing up Oaten’s public stance, IFF launched a global campaign in 2018 to “highlight the colossal environmental damage caused by plastic based fake fur”, and there are some studies to support them. One 2012 report, commissioned by the International Fur Trade Federation, suggested that faux fur coats consume more non-renewable energy, have greater risk of potential impacts of global warming and greater risk of ecotoxicity impacts. Another, sponsored by Fur Europe, found that real fur biodegrades faster than faux fur. However, much like a study sponsored by Philip Morris that says smoking is good for you, they should be read with the underlying bias in mind.

In their list of fake fur’s ‘deadly credentials’, IFF pointed out that “fake fur is produced in factories from chemicals derived from fossils fuels”. What they fail to mention, though, are the many chemicals used during the processing of real fur, which include formic, hydrochloric and sulphuric acid, ammonia, formaldehyde and lead acetate, all of which are, or can be, toxic.

Unsurprisingly, given the high stakes of the real versus faux debate, for every pro-fur study, there’s an anti-fur one to match, pointing out everything from the unsustainable amount of feed it takes to produce 1kg of mink fur (aka 11 minks), to how the industry adds almost 1,000 tons of phosphorus to the environment each year.

But just as the fur industry bankrolls pro-fur studies, the ones that highlight the negatives are often sponsored by animal welfare organisations, leaving people with the feeling that they don’t know who to trust, unable to navigate the best way forward. Consumer organisations in countries such as Denmark, France, the Netherlands and England, however, have tended to lean against the claims made by the fur industry, their argument being that there simply isn’t enough empirical data to support them. 

What’s lost in the who’s-more-eco debate, though, are the animals themselves. It’s their welfare, more than environmental concerns, which is often the reason for people boycotting real fur. So should those who will simply never wear it ask why they’re so worried about the synthetic alternative all of a sudden? Especially when they likely have a wardrobe full of synthetics in the form of leggings, underwear, t-shirts, dresses and most other garments you’d pick up in any high street shop.

“Currently the most bio-based faux fur on the market (KOBA) is made with only 37 per cent bio materials, then the remainder is either recycled polyester or just polyester” – Kim Canter, CEO of cult faux fur label House of Fluff

“Of course we are aware of the environmental impact of faux fur, even though we are always surprised to see the intensity of the debate when it comes to faux fur, as we are a small niche, with less impact than animal-based materials,” says Arnaud Brunois, communications manager for EcoPel, a French company which has created KOBA, the first bio-based faux fur. “The defamation campaign created by the fur lobby surely has created a very toxic conversation, as all fibres have their own issues and faux fur has never claimed some sort of perfection,” he continues. (EcoPel has also released a report on faux versus real, showing faux winning out against real on the environmental impact index).

Kym Canter, CEO of House of Fluff, a cult faux fur brand launched in 2017 that has been seen on the covers of Elle and InStyle and worn by Drew Barrymore, Sarah Harris and Oprah, agrees. “Changing the conversation and moving it away from animal welfare, which they can never win, and rebranding themselves as a natural fur alternative was an incredibly smart move,” says Canter, who previously worked as creative director for a fur brand before having a change of heart.

The likes of EcoPel and House of Fluff don’t deny their use of plastics but innovation is happening to move towards more sustainable alternatives. “This year we launched a faux fur made from 100 per cent recycled post-consumer plastic. So it’s made from old straws and bottles that are melted down, turned into a thread and rewoven,” says Canter. The brand also uses Tencel, a cellulose fibre, for lining, and recycles their factory offcuts into plush ‘Scrappies’.

Like EcoPel, Canter is currently working on a bio-based fur made from all natural materials in order to be even more sustainable. “Currently the most bio-based faux fur on the market (KOBA) is only made with 37 per cent bio materials,” she says, “and then the remainder is from either recycled polyester or just polyester. And so, we’re just trying to get a lot better on that bio-based number and hopefully bring it up to 100 per cent.” Canter hopes to bring her bio-fur to market for AW20 but until then, where do vegan, anti-plastic advocates turn? 

Vintage fur is great in theory – it already exists, it won’t be using up any more resources, and it’s cheaper. But in reality, many just aren’t prepared to wear it. “I don’t wear fur as it creeps me out,” Clotilde says, while designer Becky said she tried a fur cape that had belonged to her great aunt but “felt icky just touching it”. Vivienne, meanwhile, has concerns about the stigma attached to wearing fur. “I’d worry I’d get abuse!” she says. Her concerns aren’t unfounded

If you can’t stomach the vintage fur, faux fur as it stands is no worse than most other polyester or acrylic hanging in your wardrobe, and buying it second hand offers a more sustainable approach. But if you’re still feeling plastic-phobic, you might have to place your bets on those bio-fur innovations and hold out for the next gen of faux.