According to a report published by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation at the end of last year, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. “As well as being wasteful, the industry is polluting: clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.”
In 2015, "The True Cost"—a documentary about the fashion industry’s destructive impact on humans and the environment alike—came out. Since the release of the film and as our interest in the making of things we purchase has increased, eco-friendly, ethical clothing and beauty brands have constantly been on the radar. In recent years, many luxury brands have converted to being fur-free, such as Versace, Burberry, Gucci, Michael Kors, Armani, and Tom Ford.
Fast forward to 2018. Earlier in September, the British Fashion Council confirmed with a survey that designers will not be featuring fur in their collections at London Fashion Week. Other big cities in California like West Hollywood, Berkeley, and San Francisco already passed a fur ban legislation back in March. But on September 18th, Los Angeles, one of the world’s most famous centers for fashion and glamour, took a major step towards banning the sale of fur: a proposal to ban the sale of fur products advanced in the City Council. Members voted unanimously to direct the city attorney to draft an ordinance that will prohibit the manufacturing and sale of new fur products. The ordinance will be presented to the council at a future date for final approval.
The debate around fur isn’t solely rooted in ethics—it’s also a major ongoing sustainability debate between supporters and critics. On one hand, a fur ban would perhaps be sustainable due to the subsequent lessened exploitation of animals. But some critics have argued that the ban would lead to an increase in the production of faux fur, which has environmental consequences of its own. Faux fur is mostly made from acrylic or polyester, both of which are essentially plastic; as such, it would take up space in landfills and require up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
Critics of the ban
Despite an increasing amount of resistance from the public nowadays, many people still think that fur is a natural and sustainable resource. Organizations and groups like We Are Fur, Fur is Green, and Truth About Fur all stand in solidarity with the movement. Fur is Green, run by the Fur Council of Canada, claims that “Fur is a natural, renewable, and sustainable resource. That means we only use part of what nature produces each year without depleting wildlife populations or damaging the natural habitats that sustain them. The goal is to maintain long-term ecological balance.”
Aside from wild-sourced furs, some critics believe that farm-raised fur helps complete a sustainable, agricultural nutrient cycle. “Mink and fox are the most commonly farmed furbearers. They are carnivores, and are fed leftovers from our own food-production, e.g. the parts of cows, chickens, fish, and other food animals that we don’t eat. In some cases this may be almost 50 percent of the total biomass that might otherwise have ended in landfills,” Truth for Fur explains. “Farmed fur animals recycle these ‘wastes’ from our food-production system into a beautiful, long-lasting, and ultimately biodegradable clothing material, while their manure, carcasses, and soiled straw bedding are used to produce biofuels or organic fertilizers, completing the nutrient cycle.”
To many of these critics, the increasing sale of faux fur will be detrimental to the state of the environment. Fur industry lobbyists argue that faux is actually the less sustainable choice because it's generally made from acrylic, a synthetic material made from a nonrenewable resource that can take hundreds of years to biodegrade in a landfill. (Animal fur, by contrast, biodegrades in just a few years.)
The Huffington Post published in 2016 that “Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara have found that,on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash—and that this is having a devastating effect on our rivers, oceans and marine life.” These microfibers are tiny bits of plastic with the potential to poison the food chain. They can bioaccumulate and concentrate toxins in the bodies when they’re consumed by fish or other wildlife.
Undoubtedly, supporters of the fur ban believe it would be not only a moral win, but also better for the planet. According to The L.A. Times, “the effort to ban the sale of fur products is part of a national movement.” Christina Sewell, campaign manager of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), said, “Millions of these animals are killed in the fur industry every year, and we're just slowly chipping away at this…here in the United States, and we won't stop until every city in the U.S. is completely fur-free.”
“The fur industry has been identified as a major polluter by government agencies around the world,” Newkirk commented. “Many of the mordants used to keep the pelts from decomposing in people's wardrobes or on their backs are highly toxic and have been shown to poison rivers and streams, killing off fish and other water life, as well as raising rates of testicular and other types of cancer in those living near tanneries.”
Ethically driven supporters often face backlash from environmental critics. In 2012, The Ecologist, a platform which publishes environmental affairs and stories, published a piece titled “Cruelty or eco-friendly: is fur the ultimate sustainable material?” In this piece, the writer sited the BFTA’s (British Fur Trade Association) claim that “farmed fur plays a valuable role in the recycling chain by making efficient use of animal by-products from the fish and poultry industries—with more than one million tonnes used in the EU alone.” However, she wasn’t totally convinced by this information; the writer also cites research published in 2011 which found that “compared with textiles, fur has a higher impact on 17 of the 18 environmental themes, including climate change, eutrophication, and toxic emissions. In many cases fur scores markedly worse than textiles, with impacts a factor 2 to 28 higher.”
Anti-fur advocates, targeted with environmental concerns, agree that synthetics are a less-than-ideal substitute. But they also call attention to environmental hazards in the fur manufacturing process—the CO2 emissions associated with keeping and feeding thousands of mink on a farm, their manure runoff into nearby water and various toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, nonylphenol and ethoxylates, used in fur dressing and dyeing—as evidence that real fur is even worse.
It’s clear the fashion industry is heading in a fur-free direction. Ultimately, animal rights groups’s efforts to raise ethical awareness are taking their effect as consumers’ interest in sustainability increases. The argument that fur is eco-friendly is appealing to lovers of fur, especially when animals like rabbits are already a part of the meat industry. But fur manufacturing also involves processing and dumping of chemicals that can in fact have a negative impact on the environment. The production of faux fur, indeed, leads to a larger distribution of plastic in landfills and toxins in the ocean. It’s obviously not a better alternative compared to real fur despite what we’d like to believe.