We’re living in a plastic world. Quite literally. We have too much plastic and we don’t know how to get rid of it – it’s either pilling up on landfills or floating around the ocean – but it’s not going away. As companies, such as Coca-Cola is working on making its plastic bottles completely recycable by 2030 and Johnson & Johnson are switching from plastic to paper cotton buds, the fashion industry is welcoming plastic into the world of luxury concealed under a label of faux fur.
A shift towards an anti-fur fashion industry became apparent when fashion-giant Gucci last fall announced its distance from fur, only to be joined by brands such as Versace, Donna Karan and latest Maison Margiela.
“With leading luxury brands including Gucci, Versace and Tom Ford announcing a move to fur-free, we are expecting to see a massive shift in the fashion industry following their influence,” says Rebecca Wallace content manager at Positive Luxury, an online platform promoting positive consumption and sustainable brands.
And the change hasn’t only been limited to the brands. At the beginning of this year Norway pledged to close its fur farms by 2025 making it the first Nordic country to do so while UK MP’s are looking to completely ban the import of fur. Likewise, San Francisco will be the first major US city to completely ban sales of fur by January 2019.
“Ethical fashion has become the top priority for the new breed of consumers, and therefore also for the entire supply chain,” Wallace argues. “Millennials view themselves as global citizens with a responsibility to live more ethically and sustainably, and are deeply into the brands and companies they purchase from, expecting full disclosure of their values and practices. Many luxury brands have realised this, and are taking strive to connect with the new wave of conscious consumers by going fur-free.”
And while these initiatives indicate a more united fashion industry standing against cruelty and unreasonable killings of animals, anti-fur hasn’t exactly implied fur-less with several designers opting for the plastic replacement instead.
The man-made material featured in Gucci’s latest resort collection and was also heavily visible on the fall 2018 catwalk at Givenchy, a brand that has equally declared its goodbyes to animal pelts. On top of that the phenomenon has greeted high-end faux fur designer brands such as Shrimps and Charlotte Simone.
And it is not without reason, consumer demand for faux fur has increased 10 per cent over the last couple of years suggesting the material as the next big business.
However, faux fur might not involve the use of animals but it is made predominantly from non-biodegradable plastic materials giving it a complicated lifecycle. The assumption that a shift to faux fur is equivalent of a shift to sustainability is therefore not entirely true since fake fur wasn’t created as a sustainable option. In fact, it wasn’t even made to save animals. Originally the material was created as a fast and cheap substitute to imitate luxury fur of the upper-class centuries ago.
“It used to be called fun-fur, and some of it was hideous actually,” Sandy Black recalls. She’s a professor of Fashion Textile Design and Technology who works with Centre for Sustainable Fashion to create awareness around the environmental impact of fashion.
“Natural doesn’t equal good and synthetic doesn’t equal bad. It’s not as simplistic as that,“ she argues. “It’s animals versus minerals, and there isn’t always one answer. We have to look at it holistically. It’s easy to pick up one issue and think good or bad but I feel that’s too naïve. There needs to be much more information and then consideration.”
Although there is a current rise in the use of fake fur it hasn’t completely ended the sale of animal fur. The fur industry still turn over a double-digits billion revenue yearly. Indeed, none of the brands relying on fur sales has conveyed to its synthetic opponent. Although the move from Gucci was considered a turning point, fur sales only accounted for piddling 0.16 per cent of the brand’s turnover last year.
Instead of persuading fur regulars faux fur caters for a new consumer-base who would never touch animal fur to begin with. Rather than resolving the fur problem a move to fake fur leaves us with two furry dilemmas.
“While faux fur caters for a new consumer base of Millennials and Gen Z, who believe in positive fashion, real fur is unlikely to disappear from fashion completely,” Wallace says. “It is somewhat similar to the vegan versus vegetarian debate – meat eaters still exist, just like fur wearers do.”
Fur has a culture in many countries as being a symbol of status and wealth. Of course, the idea of wearing animal skins stems back from when our ancestors used to hunt animals for food, but later it turned into a product reserved for royals and the mere elite, outlining the luxury standing of the material. By the beginning of the nineteenth-century fur moved into Hollywood and became a staple of the trophy wives giving weight for the production of cheaper faux fur copies for people of lesser rank.
“It’s about what fur does for people,” Black argues. “We have to look more at the cultural aspect as to why they want it in the first place because I think that’s difficult to substitute with a synthetic of any kind. What you get from the physical quality of fur is very hard to replicate.”
Naomi Bailey-Cooper, a PhD candidate researching alternative embellishments to exotic animal materials such as fur, agrees that the fake fur options currently on the market might not appeal to neither fur-buying customers or designers working with fur. She suggests the industry start looking for other replacements. “Many fur alternatives focus on an engineered aesthetic replica product rather than opening up and exploring other appealing factors that fur has,” she says.
“I think there could be a product which accommodates both sustainability and animal rights issues. You see this being developed in leather alternatives such as Modern Meadow and leathers from waste such as Vegea and Frumat. So there is a lot of work that can be done for furs and other types of animal materials too,” Bailey-Cooper acknowledges.
Faux fur might save the animals but if it ends up killing the planet instead we need another alternative because as we’re learning; there really is no such thing as plastic fantastic.