Fur clothing: Ethics and sustainability

Friday, May 24th 2019
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We recently published an article looking in depth at the sustainability of luxury, bespoke menswear, which seemed to go down well. So here is the second part of that interview, with American writer Alden Wicker.

In it we specifically focus on fur, which is probably the most controversial of any type of clothing. Often to an irrational extent.

Permanent Style: Hi Alden. Continuing our discussion about fashion and sustainability, I’d like to turn to fur. It feels like this has had the most attention of any other issue in the past 30 years - yet there’s a lot of misinformation out there. What’s your view?

Alden Wicker: I think the biggest issue here is fake fur - which has had a lot of good coverage recently.

Fake fur is just plastic, which will not biodegrade. It is not a good alternative to fur, environmentally or in terms of animal welfare either. We’re only just discovering all the damage microfibre is doing to animals and the environment.

Yes, fake fur was called out quite strongly - at the least in the UK - for its harmful effects. But it feels like it is still being sold on an ethical basis. It reminds me of companies selling clothing and footwear as ‘vegan’, just because it’s plastic.

Yes that’s a perennial issue with fur. There’s very little informed discussion going on. Canada Goose is a good example here in the US.

They’ve been a focus in the UK too - there were protests outside the shop on Regent Street for a long time.

OK, so it makes a good example. And it’s perhaps the kind of place your readers might be interacting with new fur.

The fur that Canada Goose uses is coyote fur. The coyotes are trapped wild in a traditional way in Canada, and they’re allowed to be killed because they’ve become so numerous, breeding and moving far beyond their natural range. They’ve become a menace to other animals like the caribou in the North.

They’re in no way endangered, and if you kill one of them, you’re taking the life of one animal but also saving the lives of others - probably baby caribou.

I think people that aren’t familiar with the countryside (including myself) often don’t understand this idea of land management: of controlling animal numbers in order to preserve other animals, or the flora even. They see culling as cruel, but there’s no way to avoid animals dying, one way or the other.

Exactly. I was actually doing a lot of research around this on deer hunting in Austria. Animals have to be killed to avoid them becoming too numerous - mostly for their own sakes, as they’ll all starve to death when the population gets too big.

At this point in history, you have to accept that humans are part of the ecosystem and for some animals - like deer - we are the top predator. We might not want wolves re-introduced (because they’ll prey on sheep we’re farming) so we have to take on that role, and not abdicate responsibility because we’re squeamish about death.

And if the fur, antlers or anything else from those animals can be used, it should be. Otherwise it’s just wasted, right? I’m told lots of governments destroy animals they cull - such as red fox in Germany, or muskrat in Holland - partly because they don’t want the bad PR of selling them.

Yes, that fear is very strong. But of course not all fur is from culled animals.

I have mixed feelings about mink production. On the one hand, when it was done in Scandinavia it was farmed well. But on the other, mink are actually carnivores, so raising them is pretty energy intensive and not that sustainable.

Rabbit is a lot better, but at this point most rabbit comes from China, which has negligible controls when it comes to animal rights.

Does the same general guidance apply as in our first post, that fur sourced in Europe or North America will usually be better regulated, and therefore better in terms of treatment and the environment? 

Yes, that's a good guiding principle. There will always be exceptions, but that's the place to start.

The point about the climate impact of fur is interesting - I don’t think it’s one that would occur to most people.

True, but it’s important. I read a couple of competing papers recently looking at this, one commissioned by an animal-rights group and one by the fur industry. They came to different conclusions, but only because they used different assumptions about how long someone would own a fur coat vs a synthetic coat.

Basically, if you buy a full-length mink coat and keep it for less than 10 years, and you keep a fake-fur coat for more than two years, then the fake fur is better for the environment in terms of energy used.

But that’s a full mink coat. If you’re talking about the fur trim on a Canada Goose coat, or fur accessories, then they’re not environmentally unfriendly.

And that doesn't include the effects of the plastic itself as a pollutant?

Yes, without that.

So it seems like the effects of fur are very dependent on the animal used, how much used, and how long you keep and wear the piece for. Even a fur coat is OK when it’s passed down between generations.

Yes. I completely understand vegans who don't want to take anything from animals, but for everyone else they can't really treat all fur as the same. 

I remember last year during Wool Week here, a video was being circulated showing British farmers mistreating sheep. But it must be quite easy to expose one bad practice, and much harder to show the thousands of bad ones somewhere else.

Yes, and in fact there was an exposé a few weeks ago that showed a famous video - where Chinese fur farmers skin animals alive - wasn’t real. The farmers were paid to do it by the people doing the filming. It didn’t even make sense - skinning alive would produce a terrible skin. It would destroy the farmer's livelihood. 

There was another incident where there was campaigning against fox fur because foxes were allowed to over eat, to make them fat and have more skin. But that's a question of context: lots of people allow their dogs - particularly pugs - to over eat.

I guess mass-farming of cows is a lot worse, given that involves over eating and growth hormones. And of course foie gras, which requires force feeding.

Exactly, it’s a matter of scale, yet fur always gets the most attention.

As a consumer, is the best approach to try and avoid mass production - eg caged eggs - and to buy based on stamps of better treatment wherever there is one?

Yes, and down is a good example there. You can buy much more humanely plucked down, usually stamped with the Responsible Down Standard.

The Humane Society is also worth looking at in that context. They’re less extreme and more considered around animal welfare, for example pushing for the banning of gestation crates rather than pig farming as a whole.   

Finally, my biggest piece of advice would be to use vintage fur. There’s so much of it around, it’s not that expensive, and it’s very sustainable. Buy vintage, then take it to a furrier and have them make it into something else.

I’m glad you said that, because that’s what I did recently - I used second-hand rabbit with a company called Yves Salomon to make a lining for a vintage field jacket. [I promise readers, I didn’t prompt Alden to say this!]

In fact that was one thing that prompted this discussion. There was some very considered feedback from readers on my post about it, and some said they would like to hear from someone independent on the issue, rather than a fashion company.

Oh great. That’s certainly a good idea: vintage as a whole is the most sustainable thing there is, and if you’re going to buy fur, then vintage is the way to do it.

It’s hard to say without full life-cycle analysis exactly how new fur and fake fur compare, but re-using old fur will always be better than both of them.

I’m so jealous of that jacket now. Fur is so warm. I don’t think it’s possible to explain to people how warm it is until you’ve walked around in it.

I know what you mean. It's like it's generating its own heat, rather than just trapping it. Well, thanks for the chat Alden.

You can read our first article on sustainability in general, here.

Alden is a writer, speaker and contributor to magazines such as Newsweek. Her site is EcoCult.com.

If you would like to know more about fur and its regulation, a good resource is the International Fur Federation. This is of course an industry group.