fur – fake or real?
*EDIT* This post was originally posted Feb 20th 2010 to my older blog, but I have re-posted and edited it it since the topic is never getting old. I´m going to repost this post every fall to keep the conversation going. Peace.
Fur, that eternal hairy ugly fashion topic. Every fall season it comes up as animal activists battle fur loving fashion brands. Cheap fashion retailers are mostly avoiding this debate by flooding their retail spaces with fake fur for the masses although the inspiration usually comes from the high street.
Finland (where I live) is the largest manufacturer of fox pelts in the world and Denmark is the leading mink-producing country. Other major foreign producers include Netherlands, Russia, China and Canada. There has been many news and videos since the 90´s about the cruel and poor living conditions of these animals, but the discussion died in the 00´when the economy picked up and luxury fashions became in demand again. They still are. In 2012 a group in Finland raised the discussion back on the table weather Finland should also join countries like England, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, that have prohibited fur farming completely.
Fur sales dropped drastically after the lavish 1980´s (probably most due to early 90´s depression, but young people took on aggressive PETA and Fur Is Dead campaigning) but have made new record sales in the 2000’s because followed celebs are again parading themselves in season fur coats (faux and real), fueling the trend and inspiring a whole new fast fashion generation via blogs and social media.
Here´s my take on this issue. I wear fur jackets during winter. Why? For a number of reasons and I still consider myself an eco fashionista with an ethical value base.
IS SECOND HAND FUR ETHICAL OR ECOLOGICAL?
Newly produced fur is not ethical. Not, unless we are talking about fur types where the fur has been hunted or collected (road kill). Fur farm grown fur is not ethical. Like many industrially made things these days, the production method for fur is sick, just like many other modern production types involving live animals. I prefer if the current fur production would be stopped completely in Finland (preferably worldwide!) as some of the farmers obviously have no idea how to run their businesses ethically and morally even with clear guidelines set by EU on how animals should be treated and what is humane. China has no animal wellbeing laws in place so you can only imagine what the fur farming (and meat production) industry is there.
But on other levels and sides the fur issue is much more colorful than just black and white.
Where does vintage fit into the fur debate? The rights and wrongs of wearing fur coats from the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and Seventies is an ethical grey area. Thousands of fur coats hang like guilty secrets in the back of our wardrobes, passed down from grandmothers and mothers who wore mink and sable in good faith long before we started talking about animal rights and before high tech manmade fibers were invented. After all, wearing an antique / vintage fur coat means that you are walking around in a garment that is over 30 years old.
Personally I don´t condemn wearing fur if it is recycled or vintage. I see no point in making something new when the real material already exists, is available secondhand and is very good quality. I myself have three vintage fur coats (lamb, fox and rabbit), all bought used or inherited. They are all atelier made in Finland, between 50´s and the 80´s. I feel that they are perfect for evening wear in the freezing temperatures of Scandic winter (we go as down as -25 Celsius which is -15 Fahrenheit. I´ve had most of them over ten years and probably will for another twenty before recycling them.
If kept well, fur garments are good for 100 years which makes them very eco and sustainable in a way as they have a much longer lifecycle than for example cotton or most manmade fibers. This means that the same garment can be used at least by three generations! Also it is notable, that fur cannot and should be not composted or landfilled, because it is treated leather. Fur is only “natural” when it’s on the animal born with it. Once an animal has been slaughtered and skinned, the fur/skin is treated in skin tanneries with a mixture of toxic chemicals, along with heavy metals, ammonia, formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, and other chromates and bleaching agents, to convert the raw skin into a durable material (i.e., to keep it from rotting in the buyer’s closet). Much of the world’s fur is processed in China, where environmental regulations are often ignored. Read more about the environmental impact of Chinese tanneries here.
So, when discussing fur, the ecological issues are as much important as ethical issues. The usage time of the garment is crucial in order to prevent the environmental impact and animal suffering. The longer usage time the better. Making a fur coat also takes a lot of natural resources. I estimate that one maxi fur coat is worth over 30 000 liters of water (leather coat is 24 000 liters), the CO2 emissions are 10-20 times more than on other textile fibers. A chrome-tanning facility wastes nearly 56 000 liters (15,000 gallons) of water and produces up to a ton (2,200 pounds) of “solid waste” (e.g., hair, flesh, and trimmings) for every ton of hides that it processes. Leather tanning also generates 800,000 tons of chrome shavings annually, and much of this chromium waste ends up in landfills if the production country does not have strict environmental laws.
And you thought cotton was bad.
FAKE FUR? THE ETHICAL CHOICE?
Sure, using fake is generally regarded as an ethical choice, some online shops even go as far as calling it “vegan fur”. But I prefer to look at fashion on a larger scale. Not just from material production perspective, but also from the environmental issues and how long a garment will stay in use. These are also important aspects of defining if a garment is good or not. Fake fur might not cause any harm to the animals, but what about sweat shop labour? I have not seen any fast fashion companies labeling their faux minks “cruelty free” meaning fair wages to the people who made them. Cheap fashions are almost always made with cheap human labour, which resembles more modern slavery. So I don´t buy new clothes. I prefer vintage and second hand.
Fake fur is also made mostly from polyester which is oil based polymers. Production of polyester and many other man made fibers are also very polluting to the environment to produce and to transport, if made in countries with out a strict environmental laws. Logistics for example are average 30% of environmental effects. The British Fur Trade Association found fake fur was responsible for 50 per cent of our toxic nitrous oxide emissions and that it takes a gallon of oil to produce three fake fur coats. On the other hand, the University of Michigan came up with research suggesting that it took 20 times the amount of energy to make a real fur coat rather than a faux version.
In conclusion, both farmed and fake fur cause damage to the environment, but wearing vintage fur has no additional costs to the planet. Second hand (fake or real fur) just beats anything newly made on all counts when it comes to the entire production, recycling and lifecycle of an garment. In my mind anyway. So I don´t buy new clothes, and when I buy fur I make sure it is preferably vintage and not contemporarily produced (30 years or older).
WINTER JACKET DILEMMA – FUR OR A DOWN JACKET?
Fur is often talked about when the discussion of luxury winter wear comes up. It´s an easy topic to get behind. But what about down? How many of us check that the down jacket they buy (WARNING. links to graphic images) has an ethical certificate? Consumers should also read about down production and EDFA, which is The European Down and Feather Association. Their certificates make sure that the feathers and down used in clothes is made ethically. If wearing a fur coat raises discussion on how ethical are your fashion values, so should wearing a down jacket.
Again, using / buying second hand down jackets just beats anything newly made so there is no need for plucking any more birds for their feathers. Also the down jackets you find second hand are probably not 30 years old, but only a few years. Less than 20 anyway. There are no vintage down jackets. Also note, that second hand down jackets usually have bad components (because cheap fashions), like zippers and snap-on buttons, which shorten the lifecycle of a down jacket. So if you buy a down jacket (new or second hand), make sure that you are also willing to pay for fixing it. If not, then vintage fur is cheaper to maintain. Changing a zipper to a winter down jacket costs about 65€ at a seamstress atelje and there is very little they can do for broken snap-on buttons.
IF I WEAR SECOND HAND OR VITAGE FUR, WHICH ANIMAL?
Furs should not be judged in general as bad. It makes all the difference depending on which animal it came from. Mink is always farmed, but foxes can be also wild depending on the breed. Raccoon dogs are also farmed these days, but vintage raccoon dog (Finnish. supikoira) coats have been most likely killed wild. Same goes with rabbits and the rearer squirrel fur. Short haired and curly karakul fur is made from the pelts of karakul sheep, which is not cage farmed (Finnish. krimiturkki) and they come mostly from Uzbekistan and Afganistan. Shearling coats are lamb fur. Unlike farmed furs, sheepskin is a by-product of the meat industry.
So there are differences in the origin of the animal that the fur comes from. Also note that contemporary animal farming is mostly very industrial and not very ethical. The exception comes from smaller producers who have certificates in keeping their animals ethically. So if you buy (especially) new furs, check that the producer is certified.
For vintage fur the certificate cannot be verified, but the fur industry used to be more ethical back in the day, when it was done mostly by smaller producers. Also vintage fur coats were often made in small ateliers (labels can be found inside the jacket), which means that no cheap human labour have been used in sewing them together.
WEARING VINTAGE FUR SUPPORTS THE FUR INDUSTRY?
If you´re a vegan, you say no to all animal based foods and products. It´s cool. If the production cycle is monitored properly, there are any options for manmade technical fibers and winter wear that have no animal in it. But what about the rest of us?
Many argue that even using second hand and vintage furs we support the trend of using new fur. I disagree. For many years I did not eat industrially produced meat at all (no cow, chicken, pork, turkey.. ect.) but did eat fowl and game. It is said that if I wear a vintage fur coat, the people seeing me wearing it don´t know if it is now or not and therefore I support new fur. I think this question is wrongly put.
When I was eating reindeer at a restaurant, nobody knew about my no-industry-meat-policy. And frankly I think it is none of their business. I am not trying to effect the minds of all the people I meet during my day (my blog is for that purpose). It is my personal choice. If someone asks me or complements my jacket, I tell them it is vintage atelier work. The same goes for my smoking. I´m not responsible of what others do from my example, if they do not question it. If somebody starts smoking just because they see me do it, that´s just plain stupid. So with this logic, if they see me wearing (my second hand) fur does not give anyone the excuse to go and buy a new one, fake or real. Besides, if they know me at all it´s pretty obvious that my fur is second hand and vintage, as 95% of my clothes are bought used. I do this because I do not value only the ethical issues, but also the ecological issues of clothes.
And what about the low quality of our other fashions? I work for a second hand chain in Finland (Fida International) and my heart cries when I see clothes people donate. Most of it is just crap and cannot be re-sold anymore because of pilling, dirt, tears or just general poor quality. Most of the textiles given to charity are just junk. I wish sometimes consumers would come see how it looks like on the other end and not buying themselves a conscience by saying “I´ll just donate it.” as most of it will not be recyclable.
After thinking about this for a long time I came to the conclusion that genuine vintage fur and other vintage winter jackets are a quality. They last forever and keep me warm, so I have not had to buy a new winter jacket (I live in freezing Helsinki, Finland) in 15 years.
A quality fur coat lasts up to a 100 years if kept well. Therefore just the usage time makes it ecological when you compare it to regular winter coats and how many would you need for that time period. I mean, what other garment you can use daily for three generations? Army surplus are pretty much the only pieces that can reach this long in use. Too bad it is really difficult to find a feminine looking or sized army surplus coat.
RECYCLED & WILD FURS ARE THE NEW LUXURY?
Genuine fur is a high end luxury material. If production of new is stopped and the prices of secondhand furs rise, would this luxurious (recycled) material finally have the diamond status it should, but made sustainably. Like a rare piece of fashion antique. Secondhand stores around the world have more than enough of fur from past years to supply fashion industry for a lifetime. If supply for new fur is stopped or rapidly decreased, wouldn´t it mean that the value of secondhand fur raises and fashion industry has to seek new ways to design fur through recycling and reusing it?
Fur differs from other fashion materials. It can be used to the last piece unlike regular fabrics or leather. It´s kinda like second hand zero waste. Even if the garment is constructed from hundreds of small pieces, you can hardly notice it as the hair covers it all.
I´d be very interested to see what kind of designs high street fashion houses come up with from recycled fur. Surprisingly even with the current eco and recycle boom that´s been going on the couple of years there are still very few fashion brands that use recycled fur in their collections and too many that use new fur. Using recycled post consumer materials for new collections is more difficult that using new pelts and is harder to produce in a large scale. But small collections are possible.
Canadian Harricana by designer Mariouche Gagné bases all their collections on recycled fur. Recycling fur into reusable products can be seen to make environmental sense. Harricana has been recycling vintage coats since 1994, turning Montreal’s old fur coats into practical hats, mittens and skiwear for Canada’s minus 40-degree winter temperatures. “I think everything that is going to be thrown away should be reused, even if you don’t believe in the original product,” says Gagné. “I’ve recycled more than 50,000 fur coats in 14 years. It takes about ten animals to make a fur coat, so the way I see it, I’ve saved half a million animals by offering people an alternative.” Kudos to you Mariouche!! Read her 2010 interview from EcoSalon.
Younger generation recycle fur designers are also few. UK born designer Milena Silvano uses recycled (vintage) sheep furs and deadstock to make her geometric patchwork sheep skin collections. It is a fresh modern take on a traditional English countryside craft.
I´m amazed that even after 15 years Harricana, Milena Silvano and Finnish Wild by Marita Huurinainen are still one of the few companies using second hand furs to make their products. Maybe the stigma is still too much. I hope fashion people alienate themselves from new fur and see it for what it is. I hope more designers take recycled furs into heir collections.
Real new fur? Never. Not even as a decorative detail.
New fake fur? Naah, plastic will not keep me warm. But it is suitable for vegans and 100% ethical if you don´t count human labour. Check the brand ethics for labour use. If it is cheap fashion, the chances are that it is made in dodgy conditions.
Real vintage / second hand / recycled fur? Absolutely. It is functional and vintage fur is a precious material. Lasts a lifetime if kept well. It is also cheaper than new real fur and most new fake furs, but might require some repairs. Find a local fur atelier to fix it, because it is worth it. Learn to recognize different animals.
Real wild fur? Totally. I´d work it if I could afford it. It is ethical. To be able to know farmed and wild furs apart, you have to learn how different animal pelts look like, so read up about it or find someone to educate you. Google image searches are amazing.
Fake second hand fur? Hard to find, the quality is such crap these days that most of them do not survive for round 2 (if they are made in the 2000´s). But if I find any that I think will keep me warm, I´ll def use them also. To check if the second hand fur is really fake, use a burn test. Burn a couple of hairs. If it burns to ash, it is real hair. If it burns to a black melted blob, it is plastic aka faux.
Using fur in warm climate? Using real fur in sub zero temperatures makes sense to me. Wearing them for summer is more of a status choice, as it has very little to do with functionality.
So I look for my winter wear only second hand (genuine or fake fur + down jackets). Many charity shops are selling their winter wear in spring with discounts, so you can find a good deal for next fall if buying a new second hand coat is too much for your budget now. Ask around from family who has a coat they are not using. Store it always well (hanging, no folding, keep dry) no no little critters can get their teeth into it.
Look on the inside. If the jacket is real vintage, the lining should be thick satin, there should be hand sewn ribbons and a pretty looking old school label from the maker. I´m also on the lookout for any new ecological winter wear labels with an transparent supply chain. If you know any, drop me a line.
Fur is back big time – Jezebel.com
Kemikaalicocktail – Villiturkis, eettisesti ok? (article in Finnish)
Ma-Material Girl – Minä käytän turkkia. Haittaakse? (article in Finnish)
Luonnonturkisyhdistys Ry (website in Finnish)
Lainahöyhenissä – Asiaa turkiksista (article in Finnish)