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Fur and the necessity of consumer engagement

When it comes to fashion, there are often no “good” choices.

If you’ve scrolled through Instagram at any point in the last few weeks, you’ll be aware that faux fur is back for winter.  And not just the classic “oh this? It’s my grandmother’s” 50s-style coat. This year: the bolder, the better.  Influencers are swathed in their brightly-coloured Shrimps purchases, and the trend received the official stamp of approval by Burberry, who sent Cara Delevigne down the runway in a floor length “rainbow” cape earlier this year.  Inevitably this is has filtered down to the high street in a big way. Fur has truly become fashion.

Despite the variation in style, one thing is consistent: it is all “faux”.  Faux fur has long been championed as an ethical alternative to real fur; brands are at pains to stress that they do not use real fur, as are influencers, who (presumably to pre-empt a tirade of abuse from their followers) ensure that their captions clarify that their coat is indeed “faux”.  Real fur, it seems, is off the menu. Animals are not harmed in the name of fashion, the brand gets a good image, and consumers get that warm fuzzy feeling both inside and out.

Unfortunately, it is not that straightforward.  Recently environmental campaigners have been calling for a renaming of faux fur to ‘plastic fur’, as it is made from and sheds harmful plastic fabric that takes thousands of years to biodegrade.  This revelation is not particularly surprising; we have long been aware that the use of synthetic materials in clothing is hugely detrimental to the environment.   Like the anti-fur movement caused us to think about the consequences of wearing fur, this new movement against “fast fashion” is causing us to think about sustainability and the impact of our behaviour as consumers on the environment.

As exemplified by the real fur vs faux fur debate, it is not always possible to reconcile these two viewpoints.  From a sustainability perspective, real fur is far better for the environment: it can often be sourced second-hand, is biodegradable, and lasts significantly longer than faux fur; on the other hand, unlike real fur, faux fur garments do not cause direct harm to animals in their creation (though it has been observed that synthetic microfibres entering the water systems from washing plastic fabric are filling the stomachs of fish).  Ultimately, there is no single correct answer – the decision to buy real fur, faux fur or neither is a personal one, and depends on our individual moral and ethical views.

Crucially, this issue also highlights another decision that we as consumers need to make – whether to inform ourselves of the direct or indirect consequences of our purchasing habits, or to remain ignorant. The wealth of information now available to us, means that it is almost uncommon to read the news or to log into Netflix without seeing an article or documentary on the environmental impact of the fashion industry and plastic usage. It is no longer acceptable to let our purchasing decisions be guided purely by the latest trend in consumer sentiment, or what brands tell us is the more ethical choice.  

This type of herd mentality encourages a lack of engagement in our purchasing decisions, which can be harmful, as it may cause us to feel more easily satisfied by making “good” choices, and to overlook our other more problematic shopping habits.  Buying a faux fur coat does not make one an ethical consumer, and neither does eschewing plastic straws. The same is true for bringing our own bags to the supermarket if we then feel it gives us license to, for example, ignorantly shop at stores that have a record of poor supply chain practices. If don’t truly engage with why we are doing these things, it leaves the risk that any positive habits we have formed will fall by the wayside as soon as that issue is no longer at the forefront of public consciousness.

Educating ourselves on these issues will allow us to become more conscious consumers and to make better informed decisions about our purchases.  It would allow us to consider, for example, why many of us wouldn’t wear real fur, but would be perfectly content to buy a leather handbag or shoes.  Our motivations are complex, and our actions often hypocritical, and as such it is beneficial to take time to understand them in order to gain a better insight into why we make certain decisions.  Through the collective acknowledgement that every purchase also has an ethical and environmental price tag, this will result in a shift towards shopping habits that will be better for the animals, the environment, and the planet.  

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