Is Vintage Fur Sustainable?

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Vintage leather has long been considered a treasure and a staple found at any high-quality vintage store. An already broken down Harley jacket that hangs in a way it can only hang after ten years of wear. Or Doc Martins with the scuffs to prove they’ve been through their fair share of raves.

 But where does vintage fur fit into the ethical and sustainable world?

Much like a leather jacket, a fur jacket made many years ago means the animals used for it also died a long time ago. Your purchase today isn’t supporting fur farms or companies supporting these farms. Instead your money goes towards the vintage venders; maybe he’s a stall owner on Portobello Road or the woman behind 20s vintage clothing store. Does buying from these people make a fur purchase more ethical?

 “A lot of people come to us with old family coats they don’t want anymore. Either we buy it from them or they donate it to us,” says Toby Hughes a seller at Hilary Proctor fur stall, which has been part of Portobello Road market since 1972,  “It feels special to us to be trusted with people’s family heirlooms and we take the responsibility seriously by taking care of the coats.”

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 If you’re someone who already buys a lot of vintage and chooses ethical fashion over high street shops you might feel a bit icky donning a mink coat. Somehow sitting at a vegan restaurant in fox fur wouldn’t feel right even if you proclaimed to the entire room that you “bought it vintage”.

 “I love all things vintage, but personally I could never sell or wear vintage fur,” says Libby Mai, owner of online vintage shop Mai Bee, “Even if you’re buying it second hand there was still cruelty towards animals in order to create it.” 

 If wearing fur isn’t something you feel comfortable with, the fact that it’s vintage may not change your opinion on wearing it. But what if you are someone who’s searching to purchase a fur jacket, a vintage one could be a decision that makes the process much more sustainable.

For a long time, fur has been a signifier of wealth in high fashion. Starting in the Middle Ages in England when laws were passed so that only the highest classes could wear fur, to the 60s when designers first experimented with making fur coats short to be able to be worn in the day time, till the 90s when massive fur coats were adopted by hip-hop artists. Today, however, fur has been trickling out of high fashion houses.

Brands such as Stella McCartney, which has been fur free since its creation in 2001, and Calvin Klein, which became fur free in 1994, have paved the way for fur free high fashion.  In the early 2000s, during the time of tracksuits and low-ride jeans, there was the first wave of brands cutting out fur. Vivienne Westwood, who is now a pioneer of sustainable fashion, stopped using fur in 2007 after a meeting with PETA. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger also followed suit and banned fur around this time.

Much like with 2000s fashion repeating itself today, there is also a second coming of high fashion brands eliminating fur. In 2018 Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors, Jean Paul Gaultier, Gucci and Chanel stated that they would stop using fur in their collections. In 2019 even more brands followed the fur free movement with Coach, Victoria Beckham, Burberry, John Galliano, Diane von Furstenberg, and Versace all stopping fur use.

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“Being socially responsible is one of Gucci’s core values, and we will continue to strive to do better for the environment and animals. With the help of HSUS and LAV, Gucci is excited to take this next step and hopes it will help inspire innovation and raise awareness, changing the luxury fashion industry for the better,” said Gucci’s CEO, Marco Bizzarri, at a talk at London Collage of Fashion.

 Only a couple years ago, in 2017, you couldn’t walk down the street or scroll through Instagram without seeing a pair of Gucci Princetown slippers. The shoes were once lined with Kangaroo fur but since Gucci has gone fur free the slippers are now being made with lamb wool.

 High-end retailers are also stopping to sell fur or exotic skins from any brand. Selfridges banned fur in 2009 and in 2019 went further and banned all exotic skins. Net-a-Porter and FarFetch have also stopped selling fur products.  “It’s a huge step forward for sustainability for these high-end retailers to stop selling new fur,” says Mai.

 It is beginning to seem that if you want to buy a fur jacket, vintage is becoming the only option.

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“I would definitely buy second hand fur,” says Ele Ward, sustainable fashion activist and creator of Sustainable Hustle, “I would also say that synthetic fur could be the most unsustainable in terms of the process to make it and degradation to the environment.”

 One may think that because they are buying a designer faux fur jacket the materials used will be of high quality and more environmentally friendly. However, the materials used to make faux fur are primarily synthetic fibbers that are extremely harmful to the environment. A hooded pink fur coat from Burberry is 100% polyester. Coach, Gucci, Calvin Klein, and Michael Kors use a blend acrylic, modacrylic, and acetate to create their faux fur. These are the same materials that fast fashion giants, Zara, Topshop, and Fashion Nova use for faux fur coats.

 “Vintage is always more sustainable than buying anything new. I realize people have certain opinions about fur and I would never push anyone to buy fur if they didn’t believe in it,” says Oxana Korsun, from vintage store, Found and Vision, “But if you compare the sustainability of our shop to a fast fashion store, any choice here, even fur, increases the life time of a garment and therefore is more sustainable.”

It may seem that these high fashion brands are supporting the animals by not using fur but the impact of the synthetic fabrics the companies use for faux fur have larger effects on the entire ecosystem - more than just minks and rabbits..

In fact, a report by Quantis and ClimateWorks, published in 2018, on the fashion industry’s contribution to climate change stated that, “Furs and exotic leathers were not included in the study due to their minor mass flows, correlated with the resource investment required to access corresponding data.” Showing that they did not consider fur to have enough of a significant effect on the environment to be included in the study.

Determining whether fur is a suitable material is a tricky task. Animal rights groups, such as PETA have said that real animal fur is not only harmful to the animal but promotes cruelty to all animals.

 “The idea that vintage fur is more acceptable than new fur is simply not true,” says PETA in a statement, “All vintage means is that the animals were killed long ago, but whether the animals were killed yesterday or 50 years ago, all fur sends the same unacceptable message – that it is OK to torture animals.”

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Fur companies have published contradicting statements that say that while an animal’s life is lost, a fur product has much less of a negative effect on the environment as a whole. In a study entitled, Comparative Life Cycle Analysis: Natural Fur and Faux Fur, commissioned by the International Fur Trade Federation, it stated that, “The life cycle of a faux fur coat results in greater risk of potential impacts associated with ecosystem quality, resource consumption and climate change,” compared to a real fur coat. This is because fur is a natural and biodegradable material. The common tanning process allows fur to last longer but the tanning will eventually dry out and the fur will biodegrade.

While fur can biodegrade it cannot be recycled into anything other than fur. This is a problem for many people who have been handed down a fur coats as a family heirloom, don’t feel comfortable wearing the item but can’t imagine it sitting in a landfill. Many fur shops can refurbish your coat into a different style of coat or into smaller accessories. There are also companies, such as Stadler Fur Bears, that will turn your coat into fur teddy bears to have as keepsakes.

PETA advertises that they will recycle your fur coat for you. However the first option the organization offers is that your coat will be covered in fake blood and used in protests. While this may aid in dramatic affect it  is not exactly a sustainable option. Other animal rights groups, such as, Four Paws and Coats for Cubs, will take your fur and make cozy beds for rescued animals.

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If contributing to landfill waste is your only ethical concern when purchasing clothing, then natural vintage fur is the more sustainable choice.

 “I think it’s important to say that there is no one right answer to how you can be sustainable with your choices,” says Ward, “For me, the transparency of workers’ rights and environmental impact is most important. Therefore vintage fur definitely fits into my values because it’s a product that has already been made so it has little environmental impact.”

 If you want to send the message that cruelty towards animals of any kind from any time period is wrong or if you’re just not comfortable wearing fur, then there are plenty of other vintage coats without fur for you to purchase.

If the history of garment is important to you, then you might side with vintage fur sellers at antique markets. As market fur seller Hughes says, “A real mink coat last multiple life times and it can become part of a family’s history. A fake coat would never become that”

 Being a conscientious consumer means being informed in your decisions and making the best choice based on what is most important to you. Just make sure the information you’re getting isn’t ‘faux’.

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Shot on a Yashica L-AF

Words: Sophie Butterfield

Model: Trishna Goklani

Photographer: Sophie Butterfield

Styling: Sophie Butterfield

Hair and Make-up: Trishna Goklani