It started with raccoon dogs. They have the bandit mask of a raccoon but are fluffier, like wild Pomeranians. Most consumers in the United States were unlikely to have heard of the species — before 2005, when a video began circulating on the internet showing a raccoon dog being skinned alive in a fur market in China where millions of them are raised and killed for their pelts every year.
But where were the pelts going? The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) began looking into what raccoon dog fur was being used for because it’s not heavily marketed like fox or mink fur.
“That was when we saw [advertising copy] saying it’s a raccoon, Finnish raccoon, Asiatic raccoon,” said PJ Smith, director of fashion policy for the HSUS. “What was worse, we saw it coming in as ‘faux fur.’”
Pulling the fur over our eyes
HSUS and other animal advocacy groups abroad began to run tests on products from multiple brands and retailers just three years after that viral video and found many items marketed and sold as faux fur that contained raccoon dog, coyote or other real furs. The U.S., Australia and the U.K. are just some of the markets where consumers can find real fur masquerading as animal-free.
Nearly two decades after animal rights organizations began flagging mislabeled faux fur, the problem remains. “Within 10 minutes, I could find examples of mislabeled and falsely advertised faux fur that was real,” said Smith. Faux fur has gotten too realistic to easily tell the difference between real and fake, and real fur has gotten cheap.
“Faux fur” trim on hoods or cuffs as well as items like fur-lined shoes or keychains made up the bulk of the products. What caught consumers off guard: Products with real fur masquerading as fake were being sold at low prices. Most people expect real fur to be more expensive than material made from synthetics.
“Real fur has this history of being a luxury item,” said Smith, “But trim allowed fur to be put on garments really cheap.” And thanks to an oversupply of intensively farmed fur from China as well as consumer demand for faux fur, the price of real fur has gone down. Fur trim from farmed animals like raccoon dogs became an appealing choice for companies who wanted to add luxury to their products while saving money.
The news media quickly picked up on the stories, and consumers were horrified. While once people might have been angry to learn their expensive mink was actually rabbit fur, it wasn’t about the swindle — it was about ethics. People wanted faux fur. They didn’t want to wear a dead animal. Switching the two would be like serving a beef burger to a vegetarian. The idea that people who were staunchly anti-fur might have accidentally bought an item that supported the fur industry was enough, as one BBC presenter tweeted, to cause “a few panics.”
The rise of fake fur in fashion
Humans have been wearing fur for nearly 100,000 years. At first, it was practical. The preserved hides were a byproduct of hunting that could keep the wearer warm. But fur quickly became a symbol of social rank and hunting skill, writes Jonathan Faiers in “Fur: A Sensitive History.” By the Middle Ages, societies had laws that forbid people of lower rank from wearing the finest imported furs. Fur had become more than just clothing; it was a visual cue for a system based on class. During the peak of the North American fur trade in the 19th century, people referred to pelts as “soft gold” — it was so valuable it could be used as a currency on its own.
Until relatively recently, people only had fake furs because they couldn’t afford the most expensive versions or because a furrier had swindled them. In 1923, a New York Times article warned readers against unscrupulous furriers who might try to pass off rabbit as expensive ermine, goat fur as monkey pelt or muskrat as sealskin.
Textile manufacturers have been able to create fuzzy fur-like materials since the early 1900s using cotton velvet. In the mid-1900s, petroleum-based synthetic faux furs woven into pile fabrics (imagine fabric made from upright woven loops like a carpet) began to take off. In 1964, they represented 10 percent of the women’s coat market.
But no consumer was at risk of mistaking these products for real fur. The use of synthetic fabrics in fashion continued to grow after the first polyester and acrylic fibers were invented in the 1940s. Faux fur grew in popularity thanks to rationing during World War II and, more recently, animal rights campaigns like PETA’s famous advertisements with supermodels insisting they’d rather “go naked than wear fur.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, oil companies began lobbying to promote petroleum fibers and polymers in the textile industry, said Preeti Arya, assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Suddenly, poly-blends were everywhere. A Federal Trade Commission representative told Grid that the intent of fur labeling rules used to be to keep real fur from being mixed up with imitation, “and now it’s switched.”
Animal fur used to be a symbol of luxury where the wearer would take on “the magnificence of the animals,” wrote Arnaud Brunois in an email to Grid. Brunois is the communication and sustainability manager at Ecopel, a company that makes high-end faux fur. “Nowadays that symbol falls flat as most furs originate from large factory farms where thousands of animals are confined in poor conditions.”
Even as real fur has become taboo in many circles, faux fur has proliferated. It’s hard to find a major home goods company that doesn’t sell faux fur accessories like blankets, pillows and even dog beds. The stuff is in our homes and on our bodies. Often, it’s not very expensive, but that’s changing too.
Over the past few decades, luxury designers began going fur-free and embracing fakes — with faux furs of the highest quality of course. London Fashion Week went fur-free in 2018, and in 2019, Kim Kardashian posted she’d had her “fav furs” remade in faux fur. Major brands and retailers like Nieman Marcus, Prada and Gucci, and designers like Vivienne Westwood and Calvin Klein have all gone fur-free as well.
Anna Tagliabue, now the founder of the faux fur label Pelush, got her start working in the fur department at Fendi in the 1990s. She became familiar with the way real fur felt and moved but didn’t like the realities of the fur industry. Faux fur at the time nearly screamed “fake,” so she kept the idea of starting a luxury faux fur fashion line in the back of her mind for over a decade. A decade ago, at a fashion trade show in Paris, she encountered the luxury faux furs she’d been dreaming of; the technology had finally caught up to her imagination.
“When I first touched the beautiful, supple fabrics, I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing,” Tagliabue said in an email to Grid. In 2014, she officially launched Pelush, which makes coats that look so much like fur, when Dame Helen Mirren wore one of the blue faux fur jackets on the red carpet, she clipped an anti-fur pin to it so people knew it was a fake.
“Today we can reproduce, replicate, and mimic any type of fur that exists in nature and even invent new ones,” said Tagliabue, whose fashion shows have been described as “performance art” for their anti-fur content as well as for having animal activists walk the runway. While less expensive than a $60,000 chinchilla coat, coats from Pelush are definitely a luxury item and can cost up to $10,000.
“Faux furs of today have an amazing quality compared to the ones created two decades ago,” Brunois said. But it’s not so much who is behind the trend as what: petroleum. And while animal welfare activists might be upset that there might be real fur in their fake fur coat, environmentalists argue fake fur is just as bad.
The animals or the environment?
All faux fur — the inexpensive fast-fashion jacket from Shein or Forever 21 and the thick coats from Stella McCartney — starts off with polymers made from petroleum. The fibers are carded in a large machine, which untangles them and aligns them in the same direction. From there, they are knitted together and attached to a backing, explained Brunois. As a final step, the fabrics might be heat-treated or have chemicals applied that improve the look or feel of the faux fur. Ecopel often works directly with designers to decide the length of the “hair,” fabric density or colors of fabric to produce. This is all complicated work, but at the end of the day, faux fur is essentially plastic.
“It’s not green. It is depleting petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource,” Arya said.
Many designers are trying to use recycled polymers or working to create “bio-based” polymers from plants instead of petroleum, but that’s still problematic. Any petroleum-based polymer garment sheds microparticles in the air when worn and into the water supply when washed, Arya said. Thanks to the chemicals used to produce fur and leather, those products are “non-sustainable, but they are biodegradable.”
As much as two-thirds of our clothing is produced with material made from fossil fuels. Faux fur is a small percentage of that.
“We understand the critics even though we never claimed any sort of environmental perfection,” Brunois said. All consumer goods come at a cost. For natural materials like cotton, it might be water use, pesticides and labor concerns. Acrylics are derived from petroleum and shed polluting microfibers that are now found throughout the oceans, and their low price point has helped drive the fast-fashion industry. (In the U.S., 85 percent of all textiles now wind up burned or landfilled.) Regardless of what clothing is made from, buying closets full of it just to throw it away is inherently unsustainable.
If neither faux nor real fur is both an environmentally and animal-friendly option, why wear it at all? But it seems strange to imagine a future without clothing or blankets or pillows that are shaggy, soft, endlessly pet-able. Once upon a time, fur kept us from freezing and had an almost magical quality to it — allowing us to literally walk in the skin of wild animals. Today, it’s hard to know whether it’s the feeling and look of fur itself that we’re so attracted to or whether our love of fur (and fur-like fabrics) is just a yearning for the luxury of a bygone era. Faux fur, with all the technology it requires, takes what is least animal about us and shapes it into something wild.
One thing is for sure: Real fur, at least in the West, is on its way out and has been for decades. When covid-19 began spreading in mink farms in 2020, Denmark required the country’s fur farms to cull 17 million of the animals to prevent the virus from mutating. A temporary ban on mink farming in Denmark just ended on Jan. 1, yet it seems unlikely the industry will pick up again. Kopenhagen Fur, a 90-year-old fur auction house and the largest in the world, is planning to close once it finishes liquidating its existing fur inventory. The demand for fur in China continues to drive what remains of the fur industry.
But maybe we shouldn’t give up on faux fur just yet. It’s an area still ripe for innovation and new technology to make it a more sustainable option. Plant-based faux furs — which aren’t made from oil and therefore wouldn’t shed plastic microparticles — are on the horizon. “Polyester is easily available because humanity still uses petrol,” Brunois said. “Polymers from plants are harder to create.” It’s a developing science, but designers are excited about the potential of plant-based faux furs or “leather” made from mushrooms.
Improvements in faux fur over just a few short decades show what is possible when consumers demand change or, in this case, demand to wear something other than real fur.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.