How sustainable is the fur industry?

Published

Credit: Tom Driggers/Flickr

Daniella Meehan
Writer

In the latest instalment of our environmentalism series, Daniella Meehan examines the fur industry’s impact on the environment.

Every year, more than 50 million animals are bred and killed for the production of fur in the EU. The UK plays a large part in this industry – it is estimated that we slaughter 2 million animals a year for their fur and import nearly £75 million worth of the animal product.

Given the fact that the UK banned fur farming nearly a decade ago in 2000, and with the majority of designers and high street brands publicly opposing the use of fur in fashion, it may come as a surprise to learn of the UK’s prominent involvement in the fur industry. However, the UK continues to contribute to the fur industry by making the sale (and thus importation) of fur completely legal. This moral inconsistency means that despite it being illegal to farm fur, it is still completely legal to import and sell fur from a range of species such as foxes, rabbits, minks, coyotes, racoon dogs, and chinchillas.

Another factor which contributes to these shocking statistics is the ongoing attempts by the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) to re-market and revive fur as ‘sustainable’, jumping on the ever-increasing environmental movement. The BFTA claim that animal fur is “a natural, renewable and sustainable resource that is kind to the environment” and the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) of which BFTA are part of, describe fur as “one of the most sustainable materials”. This re-brand may be drawing consumers in, as the BFTA claims that support for fur is growing and describe the UK fur market as one of the one of the “most buoyant and successful of fur markets”. For example, the increasingly popular Canadian brand ‘Canada Goose’, a winter clothing manufacturer which uses coyote fur in the trim of their coats, saw its sales rise by 150% in 2018.

However, with many animal rights movements and environmental organisations calling out the truthfulness of the fur industry’s claims, we must ask: just how sustainable is the fur industry?

Circular vs fast fashion

The IFTF claim that the fur sector “constantly promotes the concept of circular fashion”, a concept that means all clothing is manufactured in a way that makes it more suitable for remake, reuse, or repair at the end of its cycle. They also claim that “with the right care, fur can have an average post-retail lifespan of approximately 20 years”. As fur is often passed down from generation to generation and can frequently be found in vintage sales or charity shops, the IFTF claim that fur is far more sustainable than the fur faux alternatives. Faux fur, which can have a shorter life span than fur, is thought to contribute to the “throw away” culture of fast fashion, where low labour costs and cheap materials means that clothes are produced rapidly with the tendency to only be worn a handful of times. With this in mind, the longevity and reusability of fur is marked by the IFTF as sustainable in that it “considerably reduces waste at the post-consumer phase”.

However, if we compare like-to-like and look at the wave of fur-free designer brands such as Stella McCartney, Gucci, and Calvin Klein creating luxurious faux fur items with price tags of up to £5300, the argument that all faux fur pieces are designed to be worn a few times then chucked, hardly stands. Of course, it is fair to say the numerous faux fur items in high street shops such as H&M and Primark do contribute to fast fashion, but if we’re looking at high-end fur coats made to last a long time, we need to be making the fair comparison of high-end faux fur, which are also made to last. As Stella McCartney puts it: “Luxury does not mean landfill – it means forever”. The luxurious faux market is also set to grow, with last year’s London Fashion Week being the first fur-free major fashion event and many other designers pledging to go fur-free this year.

Chemical pollution

As noted, the popularity of faux fur is rising, which has led many to point out that the materials it is made up of (often polyester or acrylic) are not biodegradable, with polyester potentially taking up to 200 years to fully decompose. Fur, on the other hand, as claimed by some studies “biodegrades rapidly” and has “less impact on landfills and oceans than plastic fur”.

Yet fur is no longer an entirely natural product, with fur manufactures now having to treat fur with a variety of chemicals to prevent putrefaction, the process of decay or rotting in organic matter. This process is regarded as highly hazardous, as extensive international research has pointed out that toxic substances in fur pose a serious health risk, with recent studies even finding significant harmful amounts of toxic substances in the fur trims of children’s fashion items.

With both sides of the debate appealing to various studies to support their claims, it’s hard to know for certain whether fur or faux is more sustainable when it comes to chemical pollution. When the ethics of animal welfare is thrown into the debate, however, the choice becomes a lot simpler: choose the option that doesn’t result in the slaughter of millions of animals.

The fur industry and animal population control

The BFTA claim that the fur industry assists in animal population control and helps to prevent the spread of animal diseases: “The fur trade … is necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, population, and disease control”. In this sense, the fur industry has been branded as a sustainable conservation tool, by protecting various ecosystems from animal overpopulation and disease.

However, consumers should approach these claims with caution, as multiple studies have shown that human attempts to manage ecosystems by fur trapping can actually be detrimental and that animal populations often stabilize eventually through self-regulation. For example, coyotes, a popular animal hunted for fur, were found to increase their average litter size to nearly double when fur trapping was put in place as a population “control program”. It is also the case that many animals not intended to be trapped were accidentally injured or killed, with the Global Action Network, an animal and environmental protection organization, reporting that three to ten “non-targeted animals” were caught for every intended victim. Additionally, animals which are infected by disease are often unsuitable for the fur industry, meaning claims that animals are trapped as a means of disease control, is largely false. Finally, wild fur only represents around 20% of the world fur production, meaning the vast majority of fur comes from fur farming where animals are bred specifically for their fur, not because of population control, but profit.

Having examined just a few of the assertions made by the fur industry about their sustainability, it seems evident that there is a basis to the many animal rights movements and environmental organisations calling out the truthfulness of their environmental claims. With the fur industry having previously come under fire by the Advertising Standards Authority for marketing themselves as sustainable, it seems they should be cautious of doing so again.