Fake fur is a political statement as much as a fashion statement. When a celebrity or friend wears it, you can't help making some assumptions: She's the kind of person who cares about animals, sure, but maybe also gets her Shiba Inu massages, drinks $12 juices, and takes vacations in solar-powered yurts.
In other words, fake fur is part of a (cruelty-free, artisanally flavored) lifestyle espoused by those who claim to prioritize ethics and aesthetics. Should it be? Acrylic, the principal fiber in fake fur, is bad for the planet. It had the worst environmental impact of nine fibers studied in a 2014 report by the European Commission, coming last in four out of six categories including impact on climate change, human health, and resource depletion. The US Sustainable Apparel Coalition ranked acrylic 39 out of 48 on its list of fabrics with the worst effect on the environment.
Yet fakes are having a fashion moment. Shrimps, a London-based label, creates coats that look like mammalian carnival sweets. And then there's eco-stalwart Stella McCartney, who for the first time at Paris Fashion Week in March showed three shaggy faux coats after decades of avoiding fur of any kind.
What makes fake fur seem eco-friendly? For one, when it first rose to prominence, its alternative—real fur—was still being made from endangered species like tiger and jaguar. In the 60s and 70s, early animal rights groups were closely linked to wildlife conservationists. In an advertisement in Vogue, fake-fur brand Timme-Tation hawked its faux tiger with an early instance of fur shaming: "Does the international beauty who recently bought a 10-skin tiger maxi-coat know that there are now only 590 tigers left alive?"
Ultimately, as laws protecting endangered animals passed, the animal rights movement took on a bigger scope. Today, groups like PETA oppose the killing of animals for any purpose. In the early 90s, they helped fake furs take over the fashion world with ads featuring supermodels: In one famous image, Cindy Crawford wears a faux-shearling Todd Oldham hat and little else.
Faux fur doesn't have the naked-supermodel cachet it once did (neither does PETA). But at the time, the campaigns worked. In 1991, prices of mink coats were half of what they were in the late 80s, the Toronto Star reported that year. Canadian furriers fired back with their own PR campaign: Fur is green. The argument went like this: Fur is a natural fiber that biodegrades, comes from a renewable resource when animals are farmed or trapped correctly, and benefits indigenous business owners. Synthetic fabrics provided a useful contrast: They were known for polluting the environment and being nonrenewable.
Furriers continue to make these arguments on websites like FurIsGreen.com, maintained by the Fur Council of Canada. Is it propaganda? Animal rights activists say so. "They're trying every different angle because they know there's a lull in fur," Rob Banks, a vegan activist who has been protesting fur stands in NYC all winter, told me. PETA wrote: "Every fur coat should come with a warning label that screams, 'Toxic to animals and the environment!' It takes more than 15 times the energy to produce a farmed-fur coat than a synthetic-fur coat."
The thing is, that claim isn't so trustworthy, either. The study PETA refers to is from 1979 and was first commissioned by an animal-welfare group. Not that the fur industry's data is better. Look hard enough and you'll find that every study that's ever compared the environmental impact of fake and real fur was commissioned by an interest group of some kind. Independent sources, meanwhile, such as the European Commission, haven't included real fur in sustainability reports that measure acrylic and other fibers.
One point in fake fur's favor is that despite acrylic's low marks, it represents a tiny drop in the bucket of total environmental impact. Acrylic represents only 10 percent of total garment production, per the European Commission report, and fake furs make up an even smaller portion. Why, then, do fur-industry groups attack them? Alan Herscovici, current executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, concedes: "I'm not against synthetics; that would be just silly. I drive a car." The only reason fur-industry groups attack fakes, he says, is in response to animal rights organizations that claim the fabric is more humane and environmentally friendly.
Animal rights protesters, meanwhile, are willing to admit that fake fur might not be so great for the planet. After all, that's not their main concern. "The problem with fur isn't the environment—it's the issue of killing animals," Banks told me.
In other words, if a beautiful fake fox coat persuades someone not to buy the real thing, it's a win, even if in the long run it may help destroy the habitat those foxes live in.
This article is featured in The Earth Died Screaming Issue of VICE.
Text Alice Hines
Photography Philippe Jarrigeon