The Corner

Energy & Environment

PETA’s Synthetic Excuse

A PETA activist protests outside a clothing store in Berlin in 2007. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Animal-rights group PETA recently reiterated its criticism of the harvesting of natural furs from animals for use in coats. ‘Tis the season, after all, to lambast people for wearing leather, wool, hide, and fur garments.

On December 13, PETA added “#CanadaGooseKillsDay” to their Twitter account. Currently, PETA has a page on their website dedicated to detailing what coyotes undergo for the sake of the creation of Canada Goose coats. It describes how wild coyotes are trapped and the physical and psychological effects they can suffer, including dehydration, shock, frostbite, and gangrene. PETA says that “Canada Goose jackets are products of cruelty.”

Of course, PETA is not advocating for an end to coats. The same page declares that there is “no need for any of this to occur when so many fashionable, functional fur and down alternatives exist,” linking to a series of faux fur brands.

While at first glance, faux fur and synthetic garments might seem like a reasonable and compassionate alternative to natural fur coats, synthetic coats have a surprisingly large effect on the environment.

The list of materials in the making of one of the winter coats of Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs — one of the faux fur brands on PETA’s list of recommended alternatives — includes acrylic, modacrylic and polyester fur trim. Other faux coats boast a similar make-up of synthetic fibers, principally acrylic and polyester.

Polyester, invented in the early decades of the twentieth century as a cheap and more insulating alternative to cotton and wool, shortly overtook the competition and became one of the most popular fabrics. In the fashion world, polyester, like other plastics in other domains, became a quick and easy alternative to organic materials.

However, there is nothing quick nor easy about the production or destruction of polyester, which is one of the least environmentally friendly fabrics. Unlike organic fibers, polyester and other synthetic fibers do not easily biodegrade; a synthetic garment can take from 20 to 200 years to break down, whereas leather takes 50 years at the longest. Wool can take only six months, and a cotton garment can take as little as five months, to biodegrade.

And unlike wool and cotton that is harvested exclusively from organic sources, polyester is in part derived from coal and petroleum, industries much maligned by PETA: Another page on its website bears the headline “Fight Climate Change by Going Vegan” and says: “Climate change has been called humankind’s greatest challenge and the world’s gravest environmental threat.” In another list on the ethics group’s website, “save the planet” is one of their top ten reasons to go vegan. But PETA’s concern for the environment only seems to crop up when it is convenient for itself.

PETA has criticized the environmental toll of the oil industry before. However, the group’s criticism took a strange tack. It declared that consumers should stop eating meat, which drives demand for oil. In one instance PETA flew a plane over Mobile, Alabama, with the banner “Meat on Your Grill = Oil Spill.”

It is absurd of PETA to put the brunt of responsibility on consumers with limited options, but this is becoming an increasingly common position for the animal-rights group. PETA has endorsed practices that have much more toxic results than the production of animal-derived goods at a time when warnings about the environment are growing louder.

The process of creating and maintaining synthetic coats takes a toll, the garments themselves remain pollutants for hundreds of years after they are discarded, and when they are washed for everyday use, they shed additional plastic fibers. According to the Guardian, “researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash.

And using the same coat from year to year will do little less damage. The amount of microfibers that synthetic coats and jackets release into water when washed only increases as the garment age. The same study found that “older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets.”

Manifest pollution from polyester microfibers in synthetic garments have already been found by multiple studies to be a primary source of plastic pollutants in oceans, lakes and rivers. Plastic pollutants contribute to increased acidification of the ocean, which, UN scientists recently warned, “is projected to amplify the adverse effects of warming” and affect the “abundance of a broad range of species, for example, from algae to fish.

If PETA truly cared about environmental health and the health of the animals whose very existence depend on that healthy ecosystem, they would not promote fake fur as adamantly as they do. PETA’s facile reasoning doesn’t take into account the long-term repercussions of using non-biodegradable alternatives to natural garments.

Natural fibers are ultimately more sustainable than synthetic, even though they demand a more immediate use of resources, including livestock. PETA ought to consider whether, in the long-term, it is promoting trends that will prolong the length and quality of the lives of the animals it claims to speak for.

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