But, ecologist Robyn Smith I know pointed out recently,
Humane movements are often more focused on welfare of individual animals, whereas conservation is mostly about managing whole ecosystems and populations of animals.
So here are the facts:
Fake fur is made from non-renewable, petroleum-based products, like nylon, acrylic and polyester, and then treated with heat and chemicals to improve its look and feel.
According to the International Fur Trade Federation, these industrial processes use three times as much non-renewable energy as real fur. Design consultant Kate Fletcher's Sustainable Fashion and Textiles reported that producing one kilogram of polyester requires 109 megajoules of energy, with 46 megajoules going toward the raw materials and 63 megajoules used to turn those materials into a finished fiber. Nylon consumes 150 megajoules per kilogram; acrylic, 157. A handful of designers are now making faux furs out of cotton, which uses just 50 megajoules per kilogram -- but producing cotton can take a lot of water.
(However, another study concluded that a coat made from a wild-caught animal requires 3.5 times more energy than a synthetic coat, while a farmed-fur coat requires 15 times more energy. This study is relatively old --- it's from 1979 -- and, while people often attribute it to researchers at the University of Michigan, it was actually commissioned by the Fund for Animals... so who knows?)
Additionally, synthetic fibers take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to biodegrade, whereas real fur is (apparently) compostable.
Real fur, on the other hand, comes from animals. Usually farmed. Like it or not, animals are a "renewable resource." Of course, farming has an environmental impact: mink, fox, and sable farms produce manure, which can cause water pollution if not managed correctly. Fur farms also have to dispose of carcasses. There are four ways to do that:
4) Turn them into animal feed
Of these, composting seems to be the environmentally preferred action.
Dressing and dyeing pelts requires chemicals... but it's questionable as to whether this process is as damaging as animal rights groups would suggest. Like, I literally have no opinion on it because the literature is so contradictory.
Considering just the difference in renewability and biodegradability, it seems that real fur is a lot more environmentally friendly than faux fur. But, as I wrote in You Say "Arrogant," I say "Right - The Problem With Debating the Masses: