Since I first saw the faux vs real debacle hitting the headlines last year, I naively thought this was an issue a lot of people knew about. However it seems that this may have flown under the radar for some; I’ve seen a fair few people I know who are definitely anti-fur, wearing pieces that I wouldn’t be 100% confident declaring as faux. Even within communities that don’t care about sustainable fashion at all, in Britain at least there’s a general anti-fur consensus. But here’s the thing. Because fast fashion just loves to cut corners whenever it can, over the last few years multiple retailers have been caught out, as their ‘faux fur’ products turned out to be anything but. Today I wanted to talk about this, because it’s inherently linked to the larger issues we see in fast fashion. While we’re here, I also want to add my voice to ending the myth that faux fur is sustainable, because it is not.

Whilst market stalls, small independent boutiques and e-commerce sites are the most common places where the selling of real fur under a faux label occurs, larger brands that have also been caught out include, but aren’t limited to, Urban Outfitters, Boots, Tesco, Fat Face, BooHoo, TK Maxx, Amazon, Miss Bardo, Missguided, House of Fraser, Forever 21, Debenhams, Romwe, Neiman Marcus, Kohl’s and Nordstrom (various reports I link to through this piece have discussed these brands by name, most of these names have been specified more than once). These ‘fake’ furs have been found to actually be made from animals such as mink, fox, chinchilla, rabbit, raccoon and even dog and cat fur. It seems that a lot of this selling is happening by accident, but why is it happening at all? Well the answer is both straightforward and very common for fast fashion: cheap prices and lack of supply chain transparency.

How real fur enters the supply chain

Most ordinary consumers lack the ability to distinguish between fake and real fur from simply looking at it, and it’s the same for fast fashion brands too. Although fur farms have been banned in the UK for over a decade foreign fur, particular from Asia, has been making its way into supply chains because  brands simply don’t know who is making their clothes. It’s very common for brands to contract with one hub factory who then subcontract out to various spoke factories. This accounts for both why brands can say they have ‘ethical working conditions’ when they definitely don’t, because they only see the parent factory and ignore the rest, and how these materials end up in their clothes. The Sky News investigation reported that all the items they found mislabelled as fake fur were labelled as made in China and priced at £30 or under. Fast fashion equals cheap prices, and cheap prices often equal unethical, unmonitored supply chains. While there are differing circumstances surrounding inclusion of real fur in products compared to unethical worker conditions, at its core it’s the same concept of conveniently slipping under the radar. The brand is able to easily claim ignorance, whilst it may have actually been knowingly looking the other way.

At the same time, pushing products out for a lower price often means that brands put pressure on factories to produce clothes at lower costs, otherwise they move on to a cheaper supplier. It’s this pressure that pushes factories to subcontract in the first place, and to swap out fake fur for real, especially as it is often only used for small sections on clothes or accessories.

‘Premium-grade faux fur is becoming more expensive. “It is because of this discrepancy in quality and price that there is a temptation to use real fur instead of faux fur,” says Moore. “When customers demand a better product the easy alternative for sewing factories is to use a real fur [as] it is cheaper to buy small scraps of real fur than lengths of high quality faux fur. Cat and rabbit fur is cheap to produce, especially where there is very little regulation.”’ (source)

When this fur has entered the supply chain, brands who sell these products are often then ill equipped to spot it or stop it.

‘Larger retailers, however, who rely on multiple suppliers for inventory, are not always as vigilant — Human Society investigations in the US and the UK have found it common practice to rely on the naked-eye judgement of buyers, copywriters and quality control staff to determine the authenticity of trims and smaller fur items.

“When the product reaches the point of sale we find often there can be different quality control mechanisms in place within the same company for their in-store sales versus their online sales,” explains Bass. “A lot of times it would go down to a copywriter who was putting the information on the website,” agrees Smith. “It would come to the fur and they would use their judgement to know if it was real or not.”’ (source)

Additionally, the legal requirement around using the word fur on labels are pretty complex, both in Europe:

Although it is technically illegal to mislead customers, according to HSI, the regulation is very rarely enforced.

“There is no legal requirement to use the specific word ‘fur’ on items containing real fur. EU regulations do require items defined as ‘textile products’ to carry the confusing wording ‘contains non-textile parts of animal origin’ but as well as not clearly telling consumers it means ‘real animal fur’ in practice this wording requirement is rarely adhered to at all,” HSI noted in a press release.

HSI also said that footwear, accessories, and e-commerce, are exempt from that requirement.’ (source)

And in America:

Initially Smith found that a loophole in US federal law didn’t require any fur valued at less than $150 to be labelled. “This is what led to a lot of problems where consumers that don’t want to buy fur were being duped into purchasing real fur because they didn’t see it on the label,” he says.

In 2010, US President Obama signed in The Truth in Fur Labelling Act, a bill designed to close the loophole and put legal safeguards in place so consumers could make more informed purchasing decisions. However, Smith says the problem of missing or inaccurate labelling still persists: “Even though the law is passed, it’s not being enforced. We’re still finding lots of garments without any sort of fur mentions. And then that’s just quality control on the retailer’s side.”’ (source)

So essentially, it’s a bit of a nightmare. Here are some things you can do.

How to tell if your fur is real

Don’t go by price

Most of the time real fur is actually cheaper than fake and, seeing as most of the products we’re dealing with are things like trims or pom poms, cheap prices doesn’t mean that the fur is fake. In fact, it may mean the opposite.

as technological advances boost the quality of artificial fur, telling it apart from authentic fur is becoming more and more difficult. Bass says that common feedback from roundtable meetings intended to discover where things went wrong with retailers caught falsely selling animal fur as faux was that they were using price as a guide to deciphering its legitimacy. “A cheap price point is no indicator of [whether] a product will be fake,” she explains, pointing to China and Poland as good examples of where mega-fur farms are producing animal fur very cheaply.’ (source)

Don’t go by colour

I think there’s an ingrained belief that if the fur is colourful, it must be fake. After all, bright yellow, blue or purple are colours we’d normally associate with a man made material. Well, real fur can be dyed too. A quick google search will reveal real fur in orange, teal, baby pink and green, to name a few, so colour alone does not determine substance.

Beware of buying online

EU regulations state that “textile products” (ie clothes) containing fur should be labelled as containing “non-textile parts of animal origin”. However, HSI says this doesn’t need to be included in online product descriptions. If it’s a brand with little supply chain transparency, I wouldn’t trust their online store.

Look at the ends and base of the hairs

The tips of the hairs in real fur taper and have pointed ends, whereas the hairs on faux fur are blunt where they have been cut in manufacture….

Part the hair to see how it is attached. “Animal fur has a leathery backing because it’s attached to the animal’s skin, whereas faux fur will have a material woven backing.” Hairs on real fur will also be different lengths, while faux fur tends to be more uniform.’ (source)

Additionally you can try pushing a pin through the material. If the fur is real this will be difficult, like trying to push a pin through leather, while it should pass easily through material.

The Burn Test

This is obviously something you can only do at home, perhaps if you have something you’ve bought in the past that you’re a little suspicious of. Real animal fur will singe and smell like burning human hair, while faux fur will melt in a sticky way, smell plasticky and will cool to form hard plastic balls.

If you’re still unsure

You can send a sample to the Respect for Animals office for a microscopic test. The test will quickly discern real from fake, before sending you their findings. You can email to arrange a test.

Why faux fur also isn’t good for animals

While avoiding real fur is a major concern for many consumers and mislabelling must be addressed, let me also say: faux fur is also terrible for the planet and animals. It’s made from acrylic; a synthetic plastic derived from oil that is neither natural nor biodegradable, requires toxic chemicals to process, and is considered both a carcinogen and a mutagen (scientific study on that here). Additionally acrylic was ranked by the US Sustainable Apparel Coalition as one of the worst ten fabrics concerning its environmental effects, in 2014 it was found by the European Commission to have the worst environmental impact of nine fibres studied, coming in last for impact on climate change, human health and resource depletion (source), and researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara have found that synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash, which is toxic to marine life and waterways. Whilst fur isn’t exactly the top eco-friendly material itself, to say that faux fur is more sustainable or more beneficial to animals is to ignore long term thinking, because mass consumption of faux fur ultimately leads to the destruction of natural habitats, marine life, biodiversity and flora and fauna. To buy new fur may kill animals now, but buying faux fur will lead to animal death further down the line.

So what do we do?

The great thing is that switching to ethical fashion is a good way to get two for the price of one. Taking the ethics out of the debate for a second, the real root of the real fur labelled as fake issue is lack of transparency, supply chain knowledge and mislabelling. All of these things are avoided if you choose to purchase from brands that are truly ethical and sustainable instead. Brands that are truly sustainable know their supply chains, regularly visit their suppliers and don’t pressure them to make things as cheaply as possible, which greatly reduces the risk of real fur ending up in your product so that it can remain cheap. Yes their prices will probably be higher, but that money will be correctly distributed to pay garment workers a living wage, and to keep your hat from being made from cat hair. It is a perspective shift that may take some time, but ultimately you get what you pay for.

That being said, I do think it’s achievable for many of us to avoid first hand fur, real or fake, altogether. I don’t think it’s fair to get on any kind of high horse while wearing faux fur, because faux also causes a whole host of problems that threaten the environment and animal welfare. I’ve never struggled to keep fur out of my shopping life as there are a myriad of other natural fibre options out there, and if you really want fur then I think the best option is to go secondhand (as it often is for normal shopping too). Additionally not all secondhand is real fur, I actually have a fake fur coat passed down from my Grandma (yes I checked, it’s definitely fake) that has lasted at least fifty years now. The beauty about shopping secondhand, especially vintage, is that these pieces have already lasted the test of time, so are likely to continue on doing so, and both keep garments out of landfill and add no extra demand for virgin materials simultaneously. Make use of what’s out there, and make sure to check the care instructions for your piece and invest in some washing bags so that you can avoid shedding acrylic fibres into the environment (pro tip, if you need to dry clean your piece take it to an eco-friendly dry cleaners, and you should be able to still use the bag – dry cleaning isn’t actually dry!).

Overall it’s a tough issue, but my hope is that by spreading this information we can work to protect ecosystems and animals in a way that is sustainable in the short term and the long.