Consumers Are Turning Away From Real Fur, but Faux Fur Is Not a Perfect Fashion Fix

December 30, 2019, 4:00 PM UTC

From pom-poms on knitted hats to “teddy bear” coats, fur—real and faux—is coming out of hibernation as temperatures drop. Fur has long been a target for animal rights activists, but when it comes to environmental concerns, it’s become clear there are no truly good answers on the fur front. 

Fake fur may be the preferred fashion choice of the moment, but neither fake nor real fur are ideal, says Linda Greer, a textile expert with a Ph.D. in toxicology. In real fur, chromium which is bad for both humans and the environment, is used during tanning. And fake fur, she says, often contains a known cancer-causing substance, vinyl chloride, to make it flame-retardant.

“It’s sort of pick your poison,” Greer says. “In the toxicity of manufacturing, they both have problems.”

Also, fake furs are made from petroleum-based synthetic polymers, which means they are not biodegradable, says Preeti Arya, assistant professor at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

“They either end up in the landfills or the water system as microplastics,” she adds.

But for now, consumers are making it clear that faux fur is the winner.

“The demand is very high for something comfy and cozy,” says Allison Levy, merchandising strategist at The Doneger Group, a Manhattan-based consultancy. “Faux fur is a great color vehicle. You may see it in bright pink, pale blue, or some of the primary colors. It’s running the gamut of colors in addition to leopard print.”

In fall and winter 2019, there has been a 24% increase in the number of faux-fur products, with outerwear up 22% since last year, says Edited data market analyst Kayla Marci.

“In the luxury market, faux-fur products are up 13% year on year, with outerwear rising 23% year on year,” Marci says.

The popularity of faux fur parallels the changing definition of luxury, says PJ Smith, director of fashion policy at the Humane Society of the United States.

“Luxury is no longer about tradition,” Smith says. “It’s about what brand is being the most innovative, sustainable, the most socially responsible.”

An increasing number of retailers and fashion houses have decided to shed animal fur from their lineups. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s will stop selling fur by January 2021, joining an already long list of designers, such as Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Burberry, and Prada, and retailers, including H&M, Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, T.J. Maxx, and Zara.

That tracks with the 27% year-over-year drop in the amount of real fur used by U.K. luxury brands, says Marci. And in the U.S., there’s been an 86% drop in furs entering the luxury market.

The real-fur industry is also taking a hit because of stricter bans and regulations across the globe. California became the first U.S. state to outright ban fur sales; the law takes effect in 2023. Two cities are getting a jump on the ban, with San Francisco giving retailers until January 2020 to sell out their inventory, and Los Angeles’s ordinance taking effect in 2021. Across the pond, countries including the United Kingdom, Austria, and the Netherlands banned fur farming more than a decade ago.

The drop in demand has contributed to the world’s oldest fur auction house Toronto-based North American Fur Auctions’ recent filing for creditor protection, the Canadian equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The only other fur auction house left in North America is Ontario-based Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. 

A kinder, gentler fur future?

Sustainable fashion expert Alden Wicker says the real issue plaguing the fur industry is overproduction.

“Nobody is impulse-shopping a [real] fur coat. It’s a timeless purchase that people hand down to their kids,” Wicker says. “I have a fur coat from my mom, and I got it updated a little bit. I think that’s a much better option than doing what some people think I should do, which is throwing that coat out and buying a synthetic coat.”

Some fur shops are already starting to sketch the future of existing furs. Christos Furs of Westchester, Ill., sells a range of fur products from $300 rabbit fur jackets to a $60,000 Russian sable coat. Owner Toula Taltsidis says the store will work on redesigning and repurposing its existing furs to create new styles.

But there’s news on the faux front too. Luxury fashion companies including Maison Atia and Stella McCartney are addressing the environmental challenge by focusing on a more biodegradable faux-fur product.

Both companies are working with an innovative new fabric called Koba, considered the first sustainable faux-fur fabric.

The fabric, created by textile manufacturer Ecopel, is made from renewable plant ingredients and recycled polyester. According to Ecopel, producing the material requires 30% less energy and produces 63% less greenhouse gas than conventional synthetic materials.

McCartney plans to introduce Koba fabric into her collection next year. “[I]t is another big step towards the future of fashion being sustainable and animal-free,” she said in a recent statement.

Maison Atia has a goal to be “fully sustainable” by 2021. The brand recently launched a children’s coat collection using Koba, and the full fall 2020 collection will use a mix of Koba and recycled modacrylic.

“We try to be as close to zero waste as possible, using any fabric leftover from outerwear production and using [the fabric] for accessories and donating anything left over from that to Fabscrap,” says Gustave Maisonrouge, president of Maison Atia. “In addition to that, we want to make sure all the fabric we work with is either organic or recycled fabrics exclusively.” (Brooklyn-based Fabscrap collects and recycles leftover textiles from companies and individuals.)

Of course, the fashion world has been known to change its mind in the past.

“In 10 or 15 years, sentiment could change and go the other way,” says Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research. “There’s always going to be a country that will [produce fur] if people want something.”

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