Natural vs. faux fur, Part 1: The Environmental Cost

Natural vs. faux fur – chances are, you’ve heard arguments supporting both sides. I’ve often wondered which was better for the environment. Initially, I assumed natural fur was better, since it is not a petroleum product and seems easily biodegradable.

Of course, as with many questions related to animal agricultural there are three key issues at stake:

  1. Environmental cost
  2. Health cost
  3. Ethical cost

I’ll touch briefly on the ethics involved, but today my focus is on the environmental impact. I would like to determine, once and for all, which product causes less damage.

It’s not always possible to have real certainty about a product from both an environmental and ethical perspective, but in the case of fur, it actually is. After you read this article, I hope you can feel confident about your choices and have solid facts to support your decisions.vintage fur model

Environmental cost: natural vs. faux fur

The fur industry has done an excellent job lobbying consumers. In fact, since the 1990s, when PETA’s anti-fur campaigns were in full force, fur consumption is up nearly 60% and 73% of haute couture fashion shows feature fur (source). Many now see fur as a “natural” product and are concerned about the biodegradability of fake fur.

The fur industry argues that natural fur biodegrades in a few months, whereas fake fur does not.

This is true: if you bury a fur coat, it disintegrates fairly quickly. Fake fur, on the other hand, must be incinerated for disposal, which releases harmful chemicals into the air.

It seems simple. But it’s not.

CE Delft, an environmental consultancy firm located in the Netherlands, performed a “cradle to grave” assessment of both materials in 2011. They found that, even taking into account natural fur’s longevity, it was orders of magnitude worse for the environment than fake fur.

Specifically, they concluded that the “environmental impact of natural fur products is at least a factor 3 higher than the least favourable faux fur variant. For some environmental impacts the impact is more than 10 times greater.”

This is counterintuitive. We know real fur breaks down quite easily – wouldn’t that automatically make it better?

No. You see, fur isn’t natural once it’s taken from an animal. Most people don’t realize it, but producing even the “greenest” fur requires a variety to toxic materials to tan the hides and make the fur suitable for human use.

environmental impact fur

Source: Delft, June 2013 – Natural mink fur and faux fur products, an environmental comparison by Marijn Bijleveld

The table above (found on page 31 of the pdf) demonstrates that natural fur results in greater expenditure of fossil fuel. But this information is for a single coat. What happens when we account for the greater longevity of natural fur?

fake vs. real fur

Source: CE Delft Natural mink fur and faux fur products, an environmental comparison, by Marijn Bijleveld

It doesn’t look good. The graphic above begins from the assumption that 1 natural fur coat lasts about 5 times as long as fake fur. Given a 30 year lifespan for mink and a 6 year life for fake fur, faux fur still comes out on top, especially when combined with a non-wool backing.

Even if you never clean or properly store your fur, it’s still worse than the alternatives. And if you choose a vegan material for the backing, faux fur has 1/3 the environmental impact of its “natural” counterpart.

Fur industry response

Naturally, the fur industry has responded to CE Delft’s research. In an article entitled “Lies Activists Tell: The CE Delft Report,” a well known fur industry website, truthaboutfur,  questions Delft’s research. They argue, that real fur lasts longer than fake, that mink waste is good for the environment, and that mink eat less than Delft claims. I encourage you to read both articles and do the math. Also, keep in mind that the strongest argument that truthaboutfur can provide is that mink eat less than Delft claims. To support this argument, they cite a 2010 paper from Denmark (which unfortunately I was unable to find), in conjunction with “their own survey” (no actual paper cited).

But even if natural fur is 30% less harmful than Delft claims, a brief glance at the tables shown above will tell you that it’s still far worse than fake fur. What I found most interesting is that the fur industry isn’t questioning the other environmental impacts of fur, shown in the first table.

We should also take into account that most fur is shipped to China for tanning and processing. Some is sold in China, and the rest is sent back to the West. This is a massive waste in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also unnecessary in the case of fake fur, which can be produced wherever it is being sewn into garments, no “processing” required.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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