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How to buy fur and leather sustainably

15 November 2021
Seal Fur

Buying Environment-Friendly and Socially Responsible Fur

Every purchase we make has environmental and social impacts, and it is our responsibility as consumers to minimise the negative impacts and maximise the positive ones. So as we all strive for more sustainable and ethical lifestyles, let’s look at some things to consider when you buy leather or fur.

How Far Has Your Fur Travelled?

Everything we consume is transported, and transportation uses energy and pollutes the atmosphere. So, all else being equal, the environmental impact of what we consume is always less if it is made locally.

Unprocessed goods like fruit and vegetables usually go straight from the farm to the market, but even this can be a long way. For example, Canada is a major exporter of potatoes to Indonesia and Thailand!

Manufactured goods, meanwhile, often contain multiple raw materials and components produced in more than one factory, and often in more than one country. They may then be sold in markets around the world. So the distances travelled by these goods can be staggering.

Because quality fur pelts are only produced in a few regions, and most of these lack cheap, skilled labour, many pelts travel half way around the world and back. If you buy a quality mink coat in Milan, the pelts likely originated on a farm in North America or northern Europe, before heading to auction in Ontario or Finland. They would then have been flown to a factory in China to be transformed into your jacket. This would then be sent to a warehouse in Europe, and finally delivered to the store in Milan.

Almost all garments these days make long journeys like this, whatever they’re made from.

Still, with a little thought, it is often possible to reduce the distance our clothing travels. For example, if you live in Canada and need a fur coat or jacket, buy one made from Canadian furs, processed and transformed into a garment by Canadian artisans. You may have trouble matching the price of a garment mass-produced in Asia, but you’ll be helping your local economy and doing the environment a favour at the same time.

Consider the Whole Supply Chain

Your fur garment’s “supply chain” covers all the stages that go into its production, and as a responsible consumer, you should consider the environmental and social impacts of each stage. Did the pelts come from a legal and humane harvest? Were any chemicals used in tanning and dying disposed of properly? Were the people who made your garment paid a decent wage?

In practice, of course, it’s impossible for us to know everything about how the products we buy are made. Mostly, we rely on the integrity of government regulators, manufacturers and retailers. But we should still stay alert for red flags.

When buying fur, compare the label with the actual garment. If the label says the trim is synthetic but it looks like real fur – or vice versa – that’s a red flag. Or if the label says rabbit but the fur feels like your pet cat, that’s a huge red flag. Also know that when a label says a garment was made in one country, the raw materials may well have come from another country. And look out for “greenwashing” terms like the newly popular label “vegan fashion”. It sounds like it should be good for the environment, but most vegan clothing is made from polluting and non-renewable synthetics.

So there’s still a lot of guesswork, but the importance of “traceability” is increasingly being recognised in all types of manufacturing. Just this year, the International Fur Federation launched Furmark (, a global certification and traceability system for farmed and wild furs that pass through major auction houses. Hopefully it will be widely adopted, and other initiatives will cover artisans who operate outside of the auction house system.

Does Your Fur Come from a Plentiful Species?

Thankfully, this is no longer something consumers need to worry about. Historically, there was a market for the furs of “exotic” species, and a few were driven close to extinction. But those days are long gone, thanks to multiple layers of national and international regulations, and the growth of fur farming which cushions wildlife from market pressure when demand is high.

In short, if you buy fur today, and certainly in North America, it comes from a plentiful species.

That said, if you are shopping for wild fur, you can go a step further and opt for a species that is being culled anyway – perhaps as a pest or predator – and could go to waste if you don’t buy it. And by giving the species value, you may also be supporting jobs while relieving taxpayers of the cost of wildlife management.

For example, if coyotes or skunks are controlled in your neighbourhood, check with authorities if you can buy the fur from the trapper. Then find a local artisan to transform it into a garment.

Or if you’re in the market for some serious rain-proofing, you could help the sealing industry, and indirectly fishermen, by investing in a sealskin jacket. The harp seal population of Atlantic Canada is estimated at 7.6 million, and the fishing industry is convinced they are hurting fish stocks. Meanwhile, the sealing industry is facing weak demand for its products, and having trouble meeting its quotas. So purchasing sealskin can simultaneously support sealers’ jobs while helping fish stocks too!

Grey Seals and harbor seals on the 20 square kilometer Koresand sandbank in UNESCO World Heritage Wadden Sea

Are All Parts of the Animal Used?

Again, if you’re buying a garment whose pelts originated in North America, you don’t really need to worry about this one.

Profit margins in fur farming are so tight these days that farmers simply can’t afford to be wasteful. On a mink farm, for example, after the fur has been removed, the fat is rendered into oil for use in hypoallergenic cosmetics and leather conditioner, while the rest of the carcass is composted to make fertiliser, used as biofuel, or sold as crab bait.

As for wild furbearers, some make fine eating, such as muskrat, bear and beaver. And there may be other products too, like castoreum from beavers, which is used in perfume. When species like wolves and coyotes are trapped for their fur, it’s the middle of winter when the fur is prime, so their carcasses are a treat for other carnivores struggling to survive.

Sealers also hate waste. They all prize the meat and fur, but Inuit and indigenous communities also use the brain, eyes, tongue, heart, liver, kidneys and intestines. Commercial sealers harvest the loins, flippers and ribs, and use the fat to make omega-3 dietary supplements. They only discard the thighs, organs and bones because there is no market for them, but ways are being studied to turn these scraps into pet food.

Recycle or Repurpose

Last but not least, one of the greenest things we can all do is consume less by making our purchases last longer. Enter recycling and repurposing.

Furs like mink, beaver, fox and seal, which have strong leather, are durable if cared for properly, and therefore well-suited to recycling. Often garments are passed from generation to generation, and more and more people are realising that grandma’s old fur can be remodeled into a trendy style, or repurposed as something completely different.

Here are just some of the things you can try:

Reshape. Shorten a classic full-length fur into a modern jacket, or remove the sleeves to make a vest. Or recut the entire garment. A quality coat can be completely transformed by using the “letting out” sewing technique unique to fur.

Downsize. One old fur coat can be used to make trim for your whole parka, and maybe even a scarf and hat. Or how about a fur teddy bear, or massage glove? Really small pieces can be turned into jewellery and trinkets.

Linings. Most garments have the fur on the outside, but it also makes great linings. A fur-lined raincoat with matching boots and mittens will keep you warm and dry!

Cushions and blankets. If you’re worried the leather of your old fur may be too dry and brittle to make a new garment, cushion covers and blankets are another favourite. They’re easy to make too!

Natural Seal Pillow from Bilodeau Canada