‘Ethical’ seems to be a phrased tossed around today in much the same way ‘fat free’ was in the nineties. Essentially, it’s a term encouraging consumers to take standards of production into consideration, and to then decide whether whether purchasing an item can be deemed “right” or “good”.
Yet, when it comes to matters of morality, nothing is ever that clean-cut. While faux fur has been the darling of the fashion industry ever since animal rights activism came into vogue, new information is presenting uncomfortable challenges to all who espouse the virtues of vinyl (and it’s plastic counterparts).
It’s easy to understand why we fell so hard for plastics.
Plastic could be considered the latest ‘age’ of man – the logical successor to the long-gone ages of bone, bronze, metal and gold.
And it is, in it’s own right, a fairly remarkable substance. Depending on its chemical composition, plastic can wrap a sandwich for a lunchbox or a NASA astronaut’s head on the moon. Now that it has completely replaced the use of brown paper bags, glass bottles and nan’s calico bags, it’s hard to imagine a world without it.
In her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkal equates the emergence of plastic with a new human freedom from the natural world. No longer are we bound by material constraints and limited supplies. Now, even those of the most modest means are able to join the consumer game.
And, just as petroleum came to the relief of the blubbery whale, plastic has given the elephant and the tortoise respite in their native haunts, somewhat curbing our shallow enthusiasm to display wealth via savage trinkets and traps.
Cattle too are free to keep their horns for regular cattle activities and, with development of faux fur, more animals are able to roam woodlands and nature reserves without fear of being left bald, cold, or dead at the hands of man.
In short, plastic made it less necessary to ransack the world of many natural substances that cannot keep up with our demand.
So, why is faux fur a type of plastic that’s not so fantastic?
Since its invention in the mid 1950’s, the popularity of faux fur has steadily risen. High-end fashion lines get the credit for being ‘more ethical’ by doing away with killing animals. Consumers like the assurance that no fluffy mink or leopard was harmed in the production of their coat. And manufacturers enjoy the relatively cheap production costs incurred when they choose to use the minuscule fragments of plastic that form the basis of faux fur.
Yet, these fibres are derived from coal, petroleum, air and water. And, like all products that are manufactured en-masse, the fumes expelled during their formation leave our atmosphere worse-off.
Then there’s the topic of sustainability. Unlike real fur, when a faux coat sheds, the fragments it releases into the environment don’t decompose.
Instead, these easily airborne particles are inhaled and consumed by us, our ocean and all the little minks that have been saved. And no, we don’t know how to extract them once they’re out there.
That’s not to mention the tonne of textile waste that, much like the morsels of jacket that escape, fail to decompose or be recycled, thus winding up in landfill.
So, by opting not to hunt animals for small percentages of their body, we actively compromise our environment and consequently ourselves (let’s face it, with no earth it doesn’t matter what your coat is made from).
That’s not to say though, that the humble farmer in the modern world is not without fault.
‘Til death do us part: Real fur isn’t that “ethical” either
Unlike in the days of old when exotic furs were supplied by trappers, most fur in the 21st century is farmed.
And, as we all know, one of the main reasons for deforestation – aside from carving out the suburbs where humans live and work – is to meet the needs of industry and farms.
Fur-farming is most prominent in the United States and Europe, though China is becoming an increasingly large player in the market. Current international laws only loosely govern the production of fur – essentially, each country is permitted to produce however they see fit.
While Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand have incredibly strict guidelines and heavy penalties for misconduct, China has virtually no regulations in place to animals’ rights. This lack of guidelines extends through all stages of production – from the farm, to the slaughterhouse, to the factory. And, while her grip on the market increases, this lack of consideration for ethics is something our trade agreements don’t take into consideration, let alone challenge.
What should I wear?
Both the faux fur and the actual fur industries are pushing species towards extinction. And both are far from being ‘certified organic’.
At the end of the day, ethics become an individual decision made coat-by-coat. Ask yourself: which standards am I not prepared to waiver? What do you think is the most good and right?
The treatment of animals’ alone is a slightly frail argument – especially when a whale sucking up fragments of plastic at the other end of the production chain is not exactly ‘humane’.
We need to consider the entire line of production and, as consumers, demand to know more. Know the source, the farm, how companies dispose of their waste, where the clothing is made, and who makes the clothing. High-end labels don’t necessarily pay their seamstresses more, and while the person who made my coat is bound by a poverty cycle, whether or not the minx was entitled to a field and two grain-fed meals a day is hardly all that matters.
Though plastic freed us from the constraints of our own demand, the real, deeper problem still remains: Our insatiable appetite.
The shitty truth is, while we want the most from the least, nothing is ever going to be ethical. Something or someone will pay for the cost of production. The earth, the animal, the seamstress in a Bangladeshi factory working for below minimum wage. And while it’s not us, the buyer, we are happy to turn a cataract- concealed, glaucoma-encompassed blind eye.