Is fake fur better for the planet than real fur?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Jan. 5 2010 9:39 AM

A Hairy Situation

Should I choose fake fur over real fur?

See images of fur in this Magnum Photos gallery

Fur coat. Click image to expand.
Is faux fur more environmentally friendly?

Now that fur is back in vogue, I've been thinking about splurging on a coat this winter. I'm not too keen on the idea of a real fur, but isn't fake fur essentially made out of oil? Is it any greener than real fur?

This is a tough one to tease out. For many people, of course, a garment made from animal pelts will always be an inappropriate use of natural resources—thus making fake fur the greener choice. But what if you're neutral on the animal-use issue and just want the product with a minimal impact on the planet? There's no easy answer, since so much of the data in circulation comes from groups with a vested interest in swaying you one way or the other.

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Let's run down what we do know about the two options. The knock against fake fur is that nylon, acrylic, and polyester are made from nonrenewable petroleum. And it takes some energy to process that oil into synthetic fibers: According to design consultant Kate Fletcher's Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, producing one kilogram of polyester requires 109 megajoules of energy, with 46 megajoules going toward the raw materials and 63 megajoules used to turn those materials into a finished fiber. Nylon consumes 150 megajoules per kilogram; acrylic, 157. A handful of designers are now making faux furs out of cotton, which uses just 50 megajoules per kilogram. (Producing cotton can take a lot of water, though.) The other major downside with fakes is that synthetic fibers take a really, really long time to break down—anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years, if estimates for plastic-bag degradation are anything to go by.

Real fur would seem to address these concerns. It can be awkward to frame the issue in these terms, but animals happen to be renewable resources. (The vast majority of furs—85 percent—come from farmed animals.) And according to the Fur Council of Canada, despite the fact that pelts are treated to retard the degradation process, real fur will break down eventually. In theory, then, you could compost your fur coat when you were done with it. However, maintaining that coat in the meantime can require a significant amount of energy, since many furriers suggest storing your garment in a temperature-controlled vault during the summer.

Real fur also has impacts at the farm level. Like all animal production systems, mink, fox, and sable farms produce manure, which can cause water pollution if not managed correctly. Fur farms also have an additional waste stream to deal with: carcasses. (Composting seems to be environmentally preferable [PDF] to the other three options: burying in landfills, incinerating, and rendering into animal feed.) On the other hand, certain fur animals, like minks, will eat (and thus recycle) human food waste—like old cheese and expired eggs—as well as byproducts from meat or poultry processors.

Dressing and dyeing pelts requires the use of chemicals, but the Lantern can't yet reconcile claims from anti-fur activists that the process is "intensely polluting" and the industry's assertion that it's "relatively benign." For that matter, synthetic coats may also produce chemical waste, both in the manufacture and dyeing of the fibers.

The Lantern did come across one comparison of real and synthetic furs, which concludes that a coat made from a wild-caught animal requires 3.5 times more energy than a synthetic coat, while a farmed-fur coat requires 15 times more energy. These figures are often cited by anti-fur groups in their pamphlets and reports, and are usually attributed to a study from either the University of Michigan or the Scientific Research Laboratory at Ford Motor Company.

Whenever the Lantern comes across a mention of a study like this, her heart leaps—Someone has already crunched the numbers, she thinks. Looks like I can knock off early this week. However, the study in question should be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, the analysis is old—it was published in 1979. Plus, the report makes lots of assumptions without fully explaining how those figures were estimated. Those assumptions may be perfectly valid, but it's hard to know without more supporting information. And while the author does a good job tallying many of the hidden costs of real fur coats—like the gasoline used in checking traplines—he doesn't give a similarly full accounting for synthetic coats.

Finally, the report tends to be wrongly attributed: While the author is a graduate of the University of Michigan and was employed by Ford at the time, the analysis itself was commissioned by the Fund for Animals "to augment its arguments for abolishing the cruelties to animals resulting from the procurement of natural animal furs for human adornment." The fact that the figures come from an advocacy group doesn't necessarily make them suspect. But at the same time, it's a little shady to suggest that they come from a neutral or academic source.

So as much as the Lantern would like to, she can't wholeheartedly adopt the report's conclusions. Until someone does a fuller, more updated study—textile researchers looking for thesis topics, I'm looking at you—what's the fashion-conscious reader to do?

As with all inscrutable environmental conundrums, the Lantern recommends focusing on what you do know will make a difference. If you're going to buy a fur, go for something vintage, of the highest quality you can afford, and in a classic style. Cheap and trendy equals disposable—so whether you choose real or fake, think long and hard about whether you'll still be sporting that hairy, hot-pink jacket a few years from now. If not, put it back on the rack, because it won't ever be green.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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