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Real Fur vs. Fake Fur: The Latest Dilemma for Socially Conscious Consumers

Coats made from animal fur.
Coats made from animal fur. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Paloma Esquivel felt good about the faux fur coat she purchased in October: “I don’t want to support things that are animal cruelty,” said the 18-year-old college student in Austin, Texas. But weeks later, she saw a tweet saying faux fur could be bad for the environment. She began to have second thoughts.

“I didn’t really know that faux fur was so harmful until I read that tweet,” said Ms. Esquivel, who can’t remember the source of the tweet. “It was a real eye opener.”

Anti-fur protesters at a Marc Jacobs show.
Anti-fur protesters at a Marc Jacobs show. Photo: Oleg Chebotarev/NurPhoto/Getty Images

That kind of reassessment is exactly what the fur business was hoping to achieve when it launched a campaign this year to fight animal-cruelty criticisms. Although fur has long been a target, the business reached a tipping point over the past year. Last fall, Gucci announced a ban on animal fur, followed by other labels including Michael Kors and Versace, citing concerns about cruelty. The fur business decided it needed to counter the bad publicity.

“It started with Gucci, and it was a bit of a domino effect after that,” says Nancy Daigneault, a vice president of the Americas division of the International Fur Federation, which represents the international fur industry and promotes the fur business.

An anti-fur billboard in Detroit.
An anti-fur billboard in Detroit. Photo: PETA

In February, the group launched a global campaign on social media: “It’s time to call out the fake news about fake fur.” It included a short video chronicling ways it said faux fur can hurt the environment, including potential harm from chemicals used in production and the types of plastic that faux fur is typically made from, which the group says takes decades to biodegrade. The fur business has also run ads in fashion magazines including Vogue, marketing fur as “sustainable” and “responsible.”

It has created a dilemma for socially conscious fashionistas, who once opted for fake fur thinking it was the more responsible choice but now say they worry about weighing animal welfare versus the environment. Environmentalists haven’t actively campaigned against fake fur, but share some of the concerns raised by the fur industry. “One of the problems with fake fur is the shedding of fibers on a microscopic level,” said Timo Rissanen, assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Hundreds of thousands of fibers are released when polyester clothes are washed, he said, fibers that don’t decompose.

Left: Model Ashley Graham in a fake fur coat at a Michael Kors show. Right: A model wears a real fur coat at a Dennis Basso show.
Left: Model Ashley Graham in a fake fur coat at a Michael Kors show. Right: A model wears a real fur coat at a Dennis Basso show. Photo: From left: JP Yim/Getty Images; Dennis Basso

There’s a lot at stake for the business. Sales of fur in the U.S. totaled $1.2 billion last year, up slightly from 2016, but down from a 2014 peak of $1.55 billion, according to the International Fur Federation. The numbers exclude sales of products that are fur-trimmed and accessories. The faux fur market is only a fraction of that.

A billboard from a fur industry campaign against fake fur.
A billboard from a fur industry campaign against fake fur. Photo: Ericka Burchett/The Wall Street Journal

The faux fur industry concedes that its use of plastic makes its product an imperfect solution, although it challenges some of the fur industry’s claims and notes the ways that fur isn’t eco-friendly, such as the chemicals used in the tanning and dyeing process.

Fake-fur manufacturers have been exploring ways to make their products more environmentally friendly. In September, Shanghai-based faux-fur manufacturer ECOPEL launched a range made from recycled plastics.

Kym Canter, founder and creative director of House of Fluff, an upscale faux fur label, says the company tries to use as many recycled polyester threads as possible when producing faux fur. She and her team are working with an environmental nonprofit group on developing a sustainable faux fur it hopes to bring to market in 2019. “My goal is to make a compostable faux fur,” said Ms. Canter, a former creative director at high-end label J. Mendel, which is known for its sumptuous real furs.

Designer Stella McCartney, who has long championed using alternatives to animal skins and fur, said in a statement: “I’m not perfect and am always exploring how to do better, looking at biodegradable fibres is very important and a big focus for us at the moment.”

Meanwhile, the fur industry has been trying to improve its farming and production techniques, supply chain and treatment of animals. Saga Furs, a Finland-based cooperative that is one of fashion’s biggest fur suppliers, plans to bolster its animal health and welfare program with a new way to confirm that animals have been treated appropriately, launching in 2020, says Charles Ross, head of international marketing and sustainability.

Still, some experts say the most responsible choice may be to avoid the look entirely. “In the big scheme of things, if you want to do what’s right, stay away from fur and from fake fur,” said Julie Gilhart, a fashion consultant with an emphasis on environmental matters and a former fashion director at Barneys New York. “Both are not great. That’s the real inconvenient truth,” she added.

For her part, Ms. Esquivel, the college student, says that if she does buy another faux fur coat, she’ll purchase it from a thrift store instead of buying it new. “I’d rather recycle it,” she says.

Real Fur vs. Fake Fur

FAKE FUR

Pros

*Animals aren’t killed for its production

*Improved technology means fakes can look and feel as plush as the real thing

Cons

*Made from petroleum-based products like nylon, polyester and acrylic that don’t decompose

*Microplastics can contribute to ocean pollution, threatening marine life

REAL FUR

Pros

*Garments can be handed down from generation to generation

*Animal fur will naturally decompose when discarded

Cons

*Animals are killed for its production

*Manufacturing process requires chemicals such as chromium that can have toxic effects

Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com

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