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Synthetic fur vs. natural fur debate: the industries reached an aggregated value of $25 billion

While animal fur shows biodegradation, polyester-made fake fur can be down-cycled. But consumer opinion is divided with 47% adults in US deeming fur inappropriate

Is fake fur a more sustainable option than the animal one?

As an increasing number of brands and retailers – Dolce & Gabbana to name one of the latest to join the trend – ban animal fur; industry associations are promoting its sustainability. Stating fur is an example of the sustainable use of renewable natural resources – to quote Alan Herscovici, Senior Writer & Researcher at Truth About Fur. 

Both industries, according to Euromonitor International, increased their production by 120% in 2019; reaching an aggregated value of $25 billion. While according to data from Italy’s Associazione Italiana Pellicceria; retail sales of genuine fur have decreased by 50% from 2006 to approximately 800 million euros in 2018.  

Apart from the concerns about whether it is ethical to kill animals for their fur; the question is whether fake fur is a more sustainable option than the animal one. And there is already much speculation about the topic with many new viable fake-fur options coming into the market every year.

Consumer opinion is also unclear and divided on the issue. According to a Vogue Business poll in September 2019, two-thirds of British adults and 47% in the US deemed the material inappropriate.

Fake-fur releases micro plastics when washed

The main issue that pro-fur institutions raise when it comes to fake fur is the release of microplastics and the impact of microfiber pollution on the environment. «Fake fur used as alternatives to fur contain petroleum; a non-renewable resource,» explains Herscovici. 

«Every stage in the production of petroleum-based synthetics trigger pollution. From the extraction of the raw material, through emissions due to chemical processes. Fake furs and other petroleum-based synthetics do not biodegrade like real fur. Research also shows that tiny particle of plastic leach into the water every time we wash these synthetics; entering groundwater and the marine food chain»

When asked about the risk of microplastic leach, Arnaud Brunois, communication and sustainability manager at Ecopel, explains they do not recommend machine washing a faux fur coat; encouraging dry cleaning or hand washing: «Normally at a 30° temperature, microplastics won’t come out»

«Synthetic furs cannot go into the washing machine; for sherpas, instead, they can release minimal amounts of microplastics,» confirms Bernardo  Calamai, general manager at Tessile Fiorentina. «However, the innovative modern finishes and alternative or complementary fibers such as natural or biosynthetic have greatly reduced the loss of microplastics in the water».

The environmental success story of the animal-fur business 

According to fur-industry representatives, the animal-fur business is an environmental success story – to quote Truth About Fur website. As Herscovici explains, fur is an example of the responsible and sustainable use of renewable natural resources. And that fur garments’ production, whether from wild or farm-raised pelts, is a sustainable sector of the clothing industry in terms of environmental impact. 

The main concern is about plastic microfibers that constitute fake fur; which, according to research by the University of California at Santa Barbara, travel to local wastewater treatment plants, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes, and oceans.

These synthetic microfibers can poison the food chain. And because of their size, wildlife can consume them and tend to bioaccumulate; concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals higher up the food chain.

A report by the Organic Waste Systems, Ghent, Belgium and commissioned by the International Fur Federation and Fur Europe in 2018; compared the biodegradation of natural and fake fur. They declared that the biodegradation of undyed mink fur, undyed fox fur, dyed mink fur, and dyed fox fur started immediately.

On the other hand biodegradation of the fake fur never started. The undyed mink fur shows the highest biodegradation (25.8%), followed by the dyed mink fur (18.3%), the undyed fox fur (13.6%), and the dyed fox fur (6.6%).

Norms about trapping and fur farming in the US and Europe

The animal fur industry obtains raw materials in two ways in the US: trapping and farming. «Thanks to national regulations, trapping is strictly regulated in North America by state, provincial, and territorial wildlife biologists. We use only part of the surplus that nature produces», explains Herscovici.

Stressing the fact that furbearer populations, such as beavers, muskrats, martens, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons would have to be controlled in any case. To prevent the spread of disease or to protect livestock, other species, and the environment. «Trappers,» he continues, «are usually family-run small businesses that play a vital role in conserving the land, providing information for biologists about changes in wildlife populations and their habitat».

Talking about the other side of the industry, farming, Herscovici defines it as a «sustainable agricultural circular system; where furbearers are fed with left-overs from the food production chain. Using up to the 50% of the total biomass that might otherwise have ended in landfills. While their manure and carcasses then go in the production biofuels or fertilizers, completing the cycle»

The main concern is animal welfare

Christian Parmentier, chairman at Belgian Fur Federation also comments. «Fur-farming is a system based on circularity, there is almost no waste at the end of it; in Denmark, for example, carcasses of minks and foxes will become biodiesel; They also contribute to recycling poultry and fishing waste, to feed the animals».

Of course, the main concern about these processes is animal welfare, and Herscovici explains. «On one hand, North American trapping methods must comply with the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards in Canada and Best Practices in the US». AIHTS signed by Canada, European Union, and Russia in 1997 and encouraged the sustainable use of wildlife by hunters and trappers and the conservation of species by supporting the humane and safe live capture of wild mammals. 

Processing fur for garment production

The next step of the process concerns garment production. As Herscovici explains, the materials used to treat fur pelts are organic or naturally occurring compounds, and modern environmental protection controls ensure no harmful effluents. 

While the ecological impact of fur dressing has been equated with the polluting processes employed in leather tanning and finishing; in fur dressing, it is crucial to use mild chemicals to protect the hairs; unlike in leather tanning, in which the hairs are burned off. Also, furs are valued for their natural colors, reducing the need for bleaches and dyes». 

Fur processing is a step that concerns consumers since it is perceived as very polluting. This might be true for some countries, where processes have no regulations as in Western countries. For example, ACTAsia has indicated that China is now the world’s largest fur importer, exporter, and consumer, responsible for more than 53% of the global output and consuming 80% of its local produce. 

Fake fur concerns about the processing

As happens with fast fashion and other sectors of the clothing industry; garments produced without norms can contain chemical substances exceeding levels set by both international and national legislation.

These levels could disrupt sexual development or reproduction, may cause cancer. They might be highly toxic to the environment, animals, and humans. On the other side of the medal, fake fur also raises concerns about the processing; conventional fur is usually made from polyester or modacrylic – a modified type of acrylic, a petro-chemical fiber. 

However,  during the 2021 China International Fashion week the China Fashion Summit themed by ‘Building Sustainable Industry Chain, And Promoting the Updating of Green Consumption’, shared the FURMARK approach, promoted by the Fur Federation.

FURMARK will have to certificate multiple aspects such as environmental protection of fur processing; animal welfare of fur farming, humanistic care of fur industry practitioners. At present, the standard by international brands such as Fendi and Louis Vuitton is also promoted in China’s market.

Working in the Fur Lab, Parmentier, 2022

Fake fur industry looking for new materials

The fake-fur industry is investing budget and efforts in finding an alternative to animal fur that can be aesthetically pleasant and sustainable. Faux fur is a fabric material made by a synthetic process using acrylics or polyester.

It looks very similar to its natural counterparts and mimics natural fur properties. Also, the materials are available at a lower cost; making an increasing number of luxury brands and retailers adopt these products; which increased by 258% across the UK and US in 2019.

The main controversy regarding fake fur is its impact on the environment; when asked about it, Brunois explains: «There are two key concepts to understand: eco-efficiency and life cycle assessment. Eco-efficiency means that it is possible to replace factory farms with one well-regulated mill. Polyester and synthetics, in general, are easily available today. This is simply because there are billions of cars, planes, and cargos operating today. As long as there are cars using petroleum, polyester will be readily available because it’s an expensive by-product. Creating an animal-based material is not eco-efficient», he continues.

«There are multiple steps with various impacts on natural resources with the amount of water and food that is necessary. Keeping animals implies gas emissions and ammonia and various sources of pollution to the immediate environment».

Bio-based options: Ecopel’s Koba

To compete with animal fur and tackle the sustainable aspect; faux-fur companies found two viable solutions. To work with bio-based materials; to offer a product that is not from animal and sustainable at the same time; or to work with hybrid mixes of synthetic and natural fibers. For example, merino wool fibers, often regenerated, as explained by Calamai.

One example of a fake-fur made with bio-based materials is Koba by Ecopel; which is 37% from plants. «Koba it’s made using corn by-products from the biofuel sector», explains Brunois.

«The rest of the compositions are polyester or recycled polyester from post-consumer waste. We aim to reach 100% of preferred raw fiber in 2025. We also have started a collaboration with Seaqual to create a material made from regenerated waste collected from the oceans; and we also created a new type of fur made with a 100% biodegradable polyester»

Also, they work with Sorona, a bio-based fiber partially made from corn waste. The corn waste comes from the biofuel industry. The sugar part of the plant extracted; placed into a fermenter along with water, vitamins, and nutrients, and then turned into a monomer. 

Disposing animal-fur vs. downcycling fake-fur

At the end of their lifecycle, animal fur and faux fur garments follow very different paths; when asked about it, Parmentier explains that being a natural material. When processed according to norms; fur can be discarded as other organic waste. Even if before this step it makes sense to reshape the garment, prolonging its life. «Fur tanning is different from the leather one; it is less aggressive, and the product remains compostable».

On the other hand, Brunois explains how all polyester or bio-based furs are recyclable after use. «We suggest consumers bring their old faux fur coat to a collection system; where they can be downcycled and transformed into materials of a lesser value (for instance: car seat padding elements)».There are also other options, he continues, such as recovering the fur of the faux fur coat and repurposing it or donating it to animal shelters for the bedding of newborn animals. 

Apart from ethical reasons, the choice between animal and fake fur in terms of sustainability is complex. On one side, there is a natural product that – when correctly treated and processed – can not only last decades but also go back to nature and biodegrade. On the other side, there is the fake fur industry, which keeps researching to create more sustainable materials, working with bio-based products or regenerated wool.

Truth about Fur

The company brings together leading fur authorities in Canada and the USA with a mandate to provide accurate information about this remarkable heritage industry.

Fur Federation 

Belgian fur company part of the International Fur Federation, representing trade or farming associations in over 40 countries

Ecopel

A global faux fur textile and apparel manufacturer with a vertically integrated supply chain; straddling from fabric to garments all around the world. Tessile Fiorentina, based in Italy, first brought synthetic fur production to Italy in the 60s. It has been pioneer in pile and eco-fur production since 80s.

Maria Bellotto

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

check and buy on Prototipo Store
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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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