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Is fur the ultimate sustainable material?

Opponents say fur is cruel and unsustainable. Supporters, however, argue that it's a natural source of renewable textiles

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Cruel or eco-friendly: is fur the ultimate sustainable material?

Ruth Stokes

10th April, 2012

Renewable, natural and long-lasting, some claim that it’s time for us to take another look at real fur - or maybe even embrace it. But as Ruth Stokes found out, not everyone is convinced

It was on the A/W12 catwalks, it's in the shops and can probably even be spotted on a high street near you. According to the British Fur Trade Association (BTFA), global sales have never been better: fur is back with a vengeance. Still, while some eco-fashionistas are happy to wear vintage, the same can't be said for other types of fur with animal cruelty and petroleum by-products among the reasons to avoid them. Meanwhile, the fur debate, whether vintage or not, is still raging. But are we missing a trick? Is fur the ultimate renewable, eco-friendly material? Or is it as cruel as activists would have us believe?

Many in the fur industry argue that not only is it a natural, sustainable resource, it's also a way of helping to control populations of wild species that might otherwise put native wildlife at risk. The Fur Council of Canada claims that: ‘Fur is a natural, sustainable, renewable resource. We only use part of what nature produces each year without depleting wildlife populations or damaging natural habitats that sustain them. The goal is to maintain long-term ecological balance.’ Fur processing, it maintains, is carefully regulated to protect the environment. In addition, fur tanning and colouring are relatively benign (in contrast to leather) and only small quantities of formaldehyde are used. Fake fur, on the other hand, uses up to one gallon of petroleum - a non-renewable resource - to produce three synthetic jackets.

The BFTA, meanwhile, claims 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. This is another sign, the industry says, that fur is sustainable. The industry has long been dogged by claims of animal cruelty but the environmental issues are less well known. Could it really be offering eco-conscious consumers a way to have their cake and eat it? Well, it's not quite as clear cut as that, warns Elizabeth Laskar, an ethical fashion consultant and one of the founders of the Ethical Fashion Forum, adding that fur cannot automatically be regarded as sustainable.

‘The terminology “renewable material” is interesting for the fur industry to be using,’ she says. ‘The term is misleading and the fur industry needs to come up with a better communications tool to support their claims that fur supports the environment and ecosystems - especially farmed fur.’ She adds that while some countries have laws and regulations to put a standard in place, this differs from country to country, and implementing such laws can be a challenge in places like India where the work is done in rural areas. ‘Questions that come to mind are: how water-intensive is it, what chemicals are used and are they safe for the environment and humans, how are the chemicals used to prepare the fur disposed of (is it safe), how has the culling of animals affected the biodiversity of the landscape, how are the parts not used disposed of, and what is the environmental impact of farming (methane, food, carbon, vegetation etc) and keeping the animals?’

Wild fur, rather than farmed fur, is often thought to be the more sustainable and eco-friendly of the two. American journalist Jenni Avins recently explored this idea in a feature for Vice magazine in which she set out to trap, skin and sew a fox fur coat herself - the idea being that wild fur has the potential to be the fashion industry equivalent of free-range, farm-to-table meat. But if you're picking a fur coat off the rack in a shop you probably won't know where it's come from - and the reality is that it's much more likely to have come from a significantly less sustainable fur farm than from an animal caught in the wild in its natural habitat. Farmed fur accounts for 80 to 85 per cent of global trade, with the remaining 15 to 20 per cent sourced from the wild.

Up-to-date facts and figures about the ecological impact of the wild fur industry are hard to find but a 2011 report - commissioned by three Dutch NGOs and conducted by independent research organisation CE Delft - has shed some light on the farming process. In it, the environmental impact of mink fur farming was compared to those of common textiles such as cotton, acryl, polyester (imitation fur) and wool. The report indicates that fur has a higher impact on 17 of the 18 environmental themes, including climate change, eutrophication and toxic emissions (the exception was water depletion, where cotton comes off worse). For a supposedly natural material, these results show that farmed fur at least, is no more sustainable than textiles made from petroleum.

But for activist group PETA, who argue that the entire fur industry is cruel, it's not just farming that's having a negative impact on the environment but the industry as a whole. ‘Fur is an ecological nightmare,’ says founder Ingrid Newkirk. ‘The fur industry has been identified as a major polluter by government agencies around the world. 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.’

If nothing else, it seems as though some in the industry are taking a broad-brush approach to the issue and downplaying the allegations of it being cruel and unsustainable. In March, a campaign by the European Fur Breeders' Association (EFBA), which claimed that it is ‘eco-friendly to wear fur’ was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. The small print stated that fur is ‘naturally long lasting’, can be ‘recycled easily and biodegrades’ and is ‘one of the most ecologically balanced systems in agriculture’. ASA has said that the campaign and the supporting documents provided for the investigation did not show that the fur trade was 'eco-friendly', would cause no environmental damage and that ‘taking in the full life cycle of the product from manufacture to disposal, we concluded the ad was likely to mislead’. In response to the ban, EFBA argued that once in coat form, a mink can last 30 years or more - longer than the majority of conventional materials.

Rob Phillips, creative director of the school of design and technology at the London College of Fashion, believes that brands and designers alike have a responsibility to start being clear about where their materials are from and the processes involved. He also believes it's worth looking at the alternatives. For the past two terms, he's been running a project with the theme of fur and anti-fur, an exploration in the processes involved in producing clothing from real fur as well as how fashion might think more creatively about the other options instead of immediately resorting to fake fur. For the anti-fur modules, students have been exploring hand-crafted techniques that have ‘the appeal of the animal’ and celebrate it, rather than taking from it. Phillips says that while fake fur is not a viable alternative for the eco-friendly consumer, there are types of weaving and beading that have a smaller impact on the planet but are just as beautiful.

It's undeniable, however, that the fashion world is still very much in thrall of fur. The argument that fur is a renewable, eco-friendly material is an appealing one - and is, on the most basic level, true, especially when animals such as rabbits that are already part of the meat industry are taken into account. But once the processes and chemicals needed to make it wearable are factored in, it gets rather more complicated. One thing, at least, is clear: the industry's claims to sustainability are not quite as glossy as they first appear.

 

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