Image by Isabella Marino Barnes
This post is part four in a four-part series written by Joshua Katcher – fashion designer, educator, and author of the award-winning book Fashion Animals. In this series, Katcher examines how the fur and leather debate became a debate about plastic. Don’t forget to check out part one, part two, and part three!
How did plastic become the primary focus of the debate around replacing fur and leather when the data we have shows that plastic is not the single worst material for the environment? And how did concerns for torturing and killing animals get deemed sentimental and misguided or left out of the mainstream sustainable fashion conversation almost entirely?
PLASTIC AND POWER
Plastic is easy to hate: we can see it floating in water, killing wildlife; it’s cheap, it’s a mark of disposability; it can be made at an enormous scale quite efficiently; it’s often perceived as being ugly or seedy; and there is little legacy tying plastic to heritage brands or the many-centuries-established ideas about taste, aspiration, luxury, and social status. True quality, we’ve been told for ages, isn’t about easy access to mass, industrially-produced goods – it’s about the ability to employ skilled laborers and craftspeople and access to traditional, rare, or exotic materials that are often coming from animals.
It’s also about appeals to authenticity. Skins are marketed as real and genuine. Who would want to be fake when they can be the real deal? Faux fur and vegan leather have become central targets of the sustainable fashion debate – not because there is so much more of them than, say, nylon shoelaces, synthetic athletic sneakers, stretch pants, or plastic buttons, but because it subverts a sacred status symbol and systems of power act to protect and maintain that power.
I’m not saying that plastic isn’t a problem, but in fashion, the ease with which it has become the preferred problem to focus on is partly because of these hierarchies.
Sumptuary laws of the middle ages often enforced feudal dress codes with an iron first. This is when fur became “a luxury item and a sign of medieval class privilege,” as Julia Emberly describes in her book, The Cultural Politics of Fur. Our seemingly natural resistance to man-made fibers is more than just an environmental concern. Our preference to focus on it while ignoring materials that may have similar or worse impacts is an unveiling of social anxiety around the perception of who can readily display symbols of power and status. As Nancy Hass once tastelessly quipped in New York Magazine, “Who’d want a fur if their cleaning lady could buy one?” It’s also about kowtowing to a many-centuries-long enforcement of feudal fashion laws that could literally fine you, or land you in a dungeon or at the end of a rope for disobeying.
TAKING ACTION: CIRCUMFAUNA
Livestock is a huge ecological problem. So is plastic. So are the ethical implications of both industries, especially at scale. Since we are in an emergency situation, we need to think and act strategically and from points of leverage.
We need to be talking about leather and other livestock products with at least the same fervor we’re talking about plastic.
And if compassion is to be an important part of this movement, we need to expose industrialized cruelty without hesitation. If you’re horrified by the idea that snakes being inflated to death with an air compressor or water hose is considered standard industry practice, then it should be confronted. What animals stuck in the fashion system experience is unimaginable, and it deserves a place at the table. Compassion towards animals deserves to be added as a UN Sustainable Development Goal because it is an issue of justice and science that is tied to some of the most harmful industries on the planet.
This doesn’t mean leaving farmers and ranchers out in the cold, either. We’re seeing ranchers successfully transition away from livestock . Farmers are converting chicken sheds into mushroom sheds and farmland into solar, wind, and veganic farms. There are programs like the Rancher Advocacy Program to help empower transition with a “socio-economic, supportive model for ranchers that is financially viable that respects and honors the traditions and heritage of ranching culture.”
Ironically, we’re also seeing Kopenhagen Furs, the world’s largest fur auction house, switching over their mink and fox-feed on fur factory farms to plant-based feed in order to cut down on climate impacts. That irony is yet another unveiling of entrenched fiber systems that we hear very little about.
I also think it’s important to identify the pursuit of finding a way around animal materials. That’s why I coined the term circumfauna to describe these materials. My hope is that with all of the emerging innovations from plant-based leather like Natural Fiber Welding, bioplastic faux fur blends like KOBA© fur, agricultural-waste-based fibers like vegetable-cashmere, fungal leathers like Reishi and Mylo™, lab-grown furs, leathers and silks like Furoid™, Microsilk™ and ZOA™, fruit-waste fibers like Orange Fiber and Fruitleather Rotterdam, hi-tech recycled and other circumfaunal materials from FLWRDWN™, milkweed or Primaloft Bio™ insulation and AlgiKnit biomaterials to VEGEA leather made from wine production waste and Econyl® recycled nylon from ghost nets and trashed carpets, we will be able to tackle the problem of plastics, the problem of livestock impacts and animal exploitation at the same time as we scale production and create new jobs. And why shouldn’t we?