Fur and leather have been controversial players in the fashion industry for years. While the animal cruelty argument has always had staying power, the development of artificial furs & leathers has created a problem as well. Synthetic fabrics & materials made to mimic the look and feel of skins present a long-term environmental impact.
PROS OF FUR/LEATHER
- Animal skins & pelts are a renewable natural resource, when collected responsibly. With proper trapping techniques and ethical farming, we can ensure that populations of species collected for the use of leather & fur products are not endangered. There is also a movement towards using fish & eel skins that would otherwise be thrown out as waste to create fish leather! Check out this awesome designer from Iceland who uses fish leather.
- Fur is a part of Canadian culture. Aboriginal trappers & artisans alike have passed down techniques & skills for generations. However, it should be noted that a very small percentage of commercial fur production in Canada comes from Indigenous peoples (thefurbearers.com). Regardless of this, it is important to recognize fur and leather as a part of Indigenous culture, and to be respectful of that.
- Fur is durable and has a long lifespan, and will biodegrade (win-win)! This is a big one for me. Quality fur and leather products are extremely durable, able to withstand years of use & many different climates. Why do you think leather bomber jackets were given to pilots during the Second World War, or leather gear is worn for protective motorcycle apparel? Although leathers and furs are treated with a chemical to preserve them, they will eventually dry out and biodegrade, as they are organic material.
- More fur farms are concerned with zero waste. The farmed animals are fed animal by-products from other industries (such as Fishing), where waste would normally go to a landfill. The actual material waste (read: poo) from fur farms has even started to be used as biofuel to run the farm themselves. When the animals are killed, the by-products are used for meat & blood meal, and to make organic fertilizers. Looking at wild fur, animal meat is consumed and/or used to feed other wildlife, and bones & teeth are used for arts. It sounds pretty gross, but focusing on zero-waste is an important aspect of the industry.
CONS OF FUR/LEATHER
- Let's state the obvious right off the get go here. Fur comes from animals. We kill these animals and take their skin. There are "fur farms" where animals are bred & kept in captivity (often in poor conditions) for the purpose of providing fur. Canada (very unfortunately) has no federal legislation dictating proper care for fur-farmed animals. Provincial regulations vary, but there is very little information available to the public about the legislation surrounding this industry. Fur.ca vaguely states that "requirements vary from province to province, but all address manure management and waste disposal, air and water quality, biodiversity protection and other land stewardship measures". I found the Alberta Act for Farmed Fur here, and was shocked by how little information was available. There is no indication on what "clean and sanitary condition[s]" entails. This is extremely important to consider if you are choosing fur & leather. Research products for "Farmed Fur" vs "Wild Fur". If you're buying farmed fur, try to gain some knowledge on where it came from and how the animal was raised.
- Certain tanning processes uses harmful chemicals which negatively impact the environment. Basically, there are two different ways to tan leather, Chrome Tanning or Vegetable Tanning. The chemicals used in chrome tanning (such as formaldehyde - yikes) are terrible for the environment. Even vegetable tanning, which uses plant-based ingredients (usually derived from trees) can still lead to a ton of waste. On average, "1 metric ton of raw hide yields 250-300 kg of leather but also leaves 600 kg of solid waste, including sludge" (P. Short). To figure out how an article of clothing has been produced can be a daunting task...and you might not be able to find out the information easily. Again, this is problematic.
PROS OF SYNTHETICS/VEGAN LEATHER
- Green Vegan Leather products are on the rise! Most are made from bad Polyurethane (more details on why below); however, there are some alternative vegan leathers available, such as cork, kelp, and even pineapple based 'leathers'. Some brands (including bigtime vegan players Mat & Nat) used recycled materials such as water bottles or bicycle tires to produce faux leathers. With this said, beware of green-washing. The term 'vegan leather' has recently been used to describe what we used to call 'pleather', which can be misleading for consumers, especially when PU or PVC is used. Try to find brands (like Ananas Anam) that use plant based materials to reduce environmental impact!
- Vegan Leathers & Synthetic Furs are easy to care for. Some synthetic furs are even machine washable, and faux leathers can be easily wiped down. Because they are often much cheaper than the real thing, consumers can be a little "tougher" on them.
CONS OF SYNTHETICS/VEGAN LEATHER
- Synthetics are most often petroleum based. This is BAD. Petroleum based textiles are highly toxic to produce, cannot be recycled, and do not biodegrade. Look for PU (polyurethane) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) on the materials list and steer clear. PVC coated fabrics are often used to create waterproof or water resistant garments. They are rarely breathable, & will not breakdown over time. Super gross fact - PVC will get all melty/oily if you leave it exposed to sunlight long term. Blehhh.
- Life cycle is not yet known for all faux furs and leathers. Some materials are just too new, and we don't know how they will degrade yet! What a problem to have, hey? Science, bitch.
- Green Washing can confuse consumers. What am I talking about here? Okay, picture you're on your favourite clothing retailers website, and you see "NEW! Vegan leather jackets!". Wow, you think to yourself, Vegan leather! That must be so environmentally friendly! Vegans only eat plants right? This is the normal connection people make. However, retailers have become deceptive in their wording. What used to be called "Faux Fur" and "Pleather" is now marketed as "Vegan", when in reality the article may be made of a horrible synthetic fabric! This is why we need to be vigilant consumers and be conscientious of our purchasing choices.
So...what to do?
The most important thing for consumers to do is ask questions. What is this article made of? Where did it come from? What will its lifespan be? Do I agree with how it was produced? Can I stand behind the brand and what it represents? It may seem like a lot of work to do over one article of clothing, but we can impact the market by asking these types of questions!