By Samantha Conti
with contributions from Hannah Connolly
 on December 18, 2018
Fendi is sticking to its pelts in the great faux vs. real debate.

LONDON — To use fur, or not? That is the question vexing fashion brands and retailers large and small as a new generation of animal-rights activists rises up and does battle with the growing anti-plastic lobby — and the pro-fur one. With veganism on the rise and horror stories about plastic waste in the oceans, the debate has become hotter than ever.

Fashion, luxury brands and retailers are caught in the crossfire, with Burberry, Versace, Gucci, Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo among those that have dropped fur. A host of others — including Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Astrid Andersen — are sticking to their pelts and working with trade organizations to promote traceability, animal welfare and environmentally friendly practices in a global business that’s been valued at $30 billion by the International Fur Federation.

Arguments are becoming more complex — and shrill — with animal-rights activists ramping up efforts to move beyond fur and wage a war on wool and silk, even as the campaign against plastic pleads with consumers to stop wearing clothing made from petrochemicals, which cannot biodegrade.

“Fur is the most sustainable fabric that you can actually use,” argues Anderson, a Danish designer who shows in London, echoing the stance of pro-fur lobby. “It is 100 percent able to go back into the earth. And you also have it for a long time because it gets passed down through the generations,” said the designer who works with Saga Furs on sourcing.

PETA activists disrupted a Michael Kors talk with Alina Cho at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June 2017. 

Both sides’ battle cries are around sustainability, and the result is a consumer who is confused, defiant or just plain horrified at the thought of having to choose between a faux fur that sheds plastic microfibers into oceans and drinking water, and wearing animal skin, even if it is biodegradable. The brands, too, are divided: Some have an authentic anti-fur stance, others want to avoid the hassle of anti-fur protests and others still, according to industry sources, are waiting out this current cycle before returning to making fur.

Illustrating all the confusion — and polarization — around fur is this: In the same time span that Gucci, Versace, Burberry and others decided to ditch fur, Canada Goose — the brand famous for its coyote fur hoods and goose down jackets — was named the fastest-growing company in luxury goods, according to Deloitte’s latest Global Powers of Luxury Goods 2018 report.

Canada Goose’s fast compound annual growth rate came despite the regular anti-fur protests outside the company’s flagships on both sides of the Atlantic. The parkas, which cost just shy of 1,000 pounds, are so hot they’ve spawned a crime wave among moped bandits and thieves in the U.S. and the U.K.

The U.K. in particular is buzzing with the faux-versus-real-fur and poison plastics debates — and the hypocrisy surrounding it.

“Fashion tells us we can have anything we want, that we don’t want to kill animals to have our fur. But what they’re not telling us about is the carbon consequences of extracting the material for faux alternatives,” said Mary Creagh, the British member of parliament who has been spearheading an inquiry into fur, grilling high-street retailers, brands and industry players about fake versus real.

“These [fake fur] garments are made entirely out of artificial fibers like polyester that are a byproduct of the petroleum industry,” Creagh said in an interview over the weekend with The Independent.

On Monday, the British broadcaster and author Libby Purves riffed on those comments for her column in The Times of London. “There’s your choice: Take one species’ hide or condemn another to slow poisoning,” she wrote. “Farmed rabbit or free-swimming turtle, who shall suffer?”

Pressed on this issue of petroleum-based fur causing environmental damage, animal rights advocates offer different answers. “We are developing a faux fur option that is made from byproducts of crops,” said Stella McCartney, whose reasoned, even-handed arguments contrast with the bellicose, nasty campaigning by extreme groups such as Surge U.K. and Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, which love nothing more than shaming the press outside the London Fashion Week venues just because they are attending shows.

McCartney admits that her new faux fur isn’t biodegradable, “but it is made from a renewable input instead of being petrochemical based. We aim to launch this new faux fur material in 2019,” the designer added.

A protest by animal rights activiists CAFT (Coalition to Abolish the Fur trade) against the use of fur by the Fashion industry blockades one of the venues for London Fashion Week in the Aldwych.Anti-Fur Protest, London Fashion Week, UK - 17 Sep 2017

A protest by animal rights activists Coalition to Abolish the Fur trade against the use of fur by the fashion industry blockades one of the venues for London Fashion Week in the Aldwych. Anti-Fur Protest, London Fashion Week.  Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

PETA’s response to the same question is a little less nuanced.

“Fur is anything but green — it’s hugely damaging to the environment. Mink farms generate tons of phosphorus-containing feces, which can run into nearby streams and rivers and cause harmful emissions of nitrous oxide and ammonia,” said Mimi Bekhechi, director of international programs at PETA.

“Fur must also be loaded with toxic chemicals in order to keep it from decomposing in people’s wardrobes. The future of fashion must be about innovative and sustainable vegan materials, not toxic skins,” added Bekhechi, pointing to a 2011 study by the Dutch research company CE Delft, which says that compared with textiles made from wool, cotton, polyester and recycled polyester, fur has a higher impact per kilogram in most environmental categories, including climate change and toxic emissions.

According to a separate 2013 report from CE Delft, natural fur products had a greater impact on the environment than faux fur alternatives. “The environmental impact of natural fur products is at least a factor 3 higher than the least favorable faux fur variant,” the report said. “For some environmental impacts the impact is more than 10 times greater.”

That report looked at the environmental impact of the furs while they were being made, worn and stored. It did not look at the furs’ long-term impact on the environment once they were discarded.

The debate is only set to get hotter in 2019, with animal-rights activists broadening and hardening their stance to include silk and wool, two biodegradable materials, and the pro-fur lobby preparing to fight harder for sustainability, transparency — and the consumer’s right to choose.

An illustration by Bailien.  Bailien

According to PETA’s Bekhechi, wool poses several environmental problems as sheep are among the top emitters of the greenhouse gas methane. Their food and anti-parasite potions are also polluting, according to the organization. Silk is also a no-no, according to PETA, as it’s made from the cocoons of silkworms, which the organization argues are sometimes boiled alive in their cocoons.

PETA is urging companies to use organic cotton, Tencel, hemp and soybean fiber, and pointed to the virtues of vegan silk and synthetic spider silk, which have been used by Salvatore Ferragamo and Stella McCartney respectively.

In 2019, the pro-fur lobby promises to speak up louder than ever with more aggressive campaigning. Mark Oaten, chief executive officer of the International Fur Federation, said his organization is preparing to release some new reports, as it aspires to ever more transparent practices.

Earlier this month in Manhattan’s Times Square, the IFF blasted out a billboard message saying fake fur kills fish. During an interview in London, he pointed to a recently completed, independent study that compares the biodegradable qualities of natural fur versus fake fur.

“One biodegrades in 30 days, to the same extent of a leaf from a tree, while the other takes 300 years,” said Oaten, adding that IFF is also backing FurMark, a global certification and traceability program that aims to cover sustainability, animal welfare and the dressing and dyeing of fur. FurMark will launch as a pilot program in the spring and aim to be fully operational as of Jan. 1, 2020.

Oaten said FurMark has been consulting with groups including Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to develop the certification program.

Earlier this month in New York, Oaten’s colleague Nancy Daigneault, vice president Americas, International Fur Federation gave another plug to FurMark, arguing that it “sets high standards and ensures that each step of the production process meets strict, globally recognized standards of animal welfare and sustainability.  We want everyone to feel confident and reassured when they buy natural fur. This is why the certification is also transparent, traceable and will be readily accessible.”

Looking ahead, Oaten said he wants the IFF to be “a little bit more robust about challenging the animal activists, calling out their real agenda and saying to the fashion brands and designers ‘Be careful who you listen to, be careful who you associate yourself with.’ We are not going to be driven out by a few protesters who don’t even buy our product.”

Oaten, like many pro-fur campaigners, praises McCartney’s ways of furthering the debate — and finding solutions. “She is trying to find authentic, viable, natural products [that] are not necessarily chemical based. She has intellectually thought this through. The brands I struggle with are the ones that are jumping on a bit of bandwagon at the moment. I would like them to think again, and then come back to us on this issue.”

Charlie Ross, business manager, sustainability and supply chain management at Saga Furs, said in an interview that instead of fighting claims by anti-fur activists, the Nordic company has been looking at boosting transparency even further — and “going beyond” government requirements and recommendations in the sector.

A few years ago it launched STS, or Saga Traceability System, which — according to Ross — allows participating brands to trace their furs straight back to the farms that produced the pelts. “We allow the brands — or the people using our furs — to have the utmost confidence in Saga and the ability to visit the farms that are in their supply chains.”

Saga has also bulked up its sustainability department, and will this year join WelFur, the pan-European animal welfare assessment program that launched in 2015. It will also adhere to the FurMark program. “Our hope is that the consumers and the protesters will go online and do their homework, and that will bring them back to fur and leather, cashmere, wool and silk, crocodile and python,” he said.

He believes progress is being made: “I’m hearing from brand after brand that their fur businesses have increased this year, while the brands that are still using fur are seeing double-digit increases. Online fur sales are in the double digits.” Ross also believes Millennials have been coming out in support of fur.

“You can’t look around London, New York or any big city without seeing fur-trimmed parkas. [Consumers and retailers] have done their homework and they have seen that the farms in Finland are certified; they have made a very strong decision to buy a fur trim. We are excited about the future and I think this trend of protest will eventually die down, and people will begin basing their purchasing decisions on the facts rather than emotions,” he said.

Andersen, who will be showing next month at London Fashion Week Men’s and unveiling a new collection with Fila at Pitti Uomo in Florence, would agree: “I do not like when things are either/or. I think there should be a platform where everything can live side by side, fake fur should be produced in a different way and real fur should be sourced ethically.”

There are those who argue that the flare-up in fur is part of an ongoing cycle of animal-rights protest movements targeted at the fashion industry and dating back to the late 19th century.

Who can forget the 1995 PETA campaign “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur”? Many of those Nineties supermodels quickly turned their barebacks on the campaign and went on to wear fur on the street, the catwalk and in ad campaigns.

“Fashion is cyclical. It is fashionable to be anti-fur and soon it will be fashionable to be into it again,” said Judith Watt, the fashion historian. “This is not to degrade or denigrate the people who are anti-fur. I am talking about the designers. They will decide to do fur again. If they really, really want to make an alternative to fur, they need to think about it very intelligently, instead of just being knee-jerk.”