Editor’s note: When I was first approached by Feel Good Fur, I took a look at what they offer and I said to myself, “Ah, an artisan fur fashion brand that cares about how it’s made! What a perfect opportunity to finally write about my feelings on fur.” As with all fashion brands that I work with, Feel Good Fur gave me this vest to photograph and keep, but did not pay me to write this post. These are my honest feelings on the issue. If you would like a deeper dive into all of animal fashion, read my recent article on the topic for Craftsmanship Quarterly. As always, EcoCult only works with brands we honestly believe are doing good things. Support EcoCult editorial by supporting them!
UPDATED May 2018 to reflect additional research I found while working on this story for Refinery29 comparing faux to real fur.
When I first moved in New York after college in the south, in 2009, my mom pulled her cropped fox fur out of her closet and put it in my arms. “You’re going to need this in New York,” she said.
At the time, I thought she was referring to the cold. New York City isn’t as cold as it used to be, of course. (Thanks, climate change!) But for a few days out of each year, usually in January and February, the temperature drops to the teens and the city becomes unbearably cold. We don’t have tunnels the way some northern cities do, so you find yourself scurrying down the street and having to repeatedly remind yourself that as absolutely terrible as this feels, you won’t die from 15-minutes exposure.
That fur did its job. The jacket didn’t even have closures in the front, and I was still walking around with my own personal climate control. It’s completely beyond anything that polyester or even wool could do. Still, for my first couple of years in New York, I was embarrassed. Fur seemed to me to be opulent, decadent, cruel, and outdated. For old ladies. Not for me.
Then, in 2012, I wrote a long piece for Narratively about New York City furrier, a first-generation Italian craftsman, whose work was drying up. Ethical fashion lovers have a fetish for craftspeople practicing their trade. How is his craft, practiced over a lifetime, so different than a leather-working artisan from Peru or Africa? I couldn’t really say.
I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, and it’s not because I haven’t heard all the arguments against meat, or haven’t seen enough videos, or haven’t received enough snide comments on the blog. I’ve thought deeply about this issue. I’ve considered the research on the sustainability of vegan diets (they require more land use than vegetarian and some omnivorous diets). I know a lot of vegans and former vegans and have discussed this issue with them. And still my decision is to be a conscious carnivore: I eat meat rarely and when I know where it comes from – at a farm-to-table restaurant, in my CSA, from the farmer’s market, or the green seal at Whole Foods. I support sustainable family farmers, whose farms are all too often converted into malls or McMansion neighborhoods, to the detriment of the ecosystem.
As I read and researched and developed my position on the issues of meat and traditional craft and environmentalism, the coat actually started coming out of my closet more and more. I became more confident in my informed decisions, and less swayed by what uninformed people think of me. I know what I believe.
And if I were to go by Marie Kondo’s directive to only keep things that spark joy, then the fur coat definitely stays. I bury my nose in the fur, and the scent reminds me of visiting New York City when I was 12 and seeing Phantom of the Opera and having brunch at the Waldorf Astoria. It reminds me of clicking down Bowery in my heels with friends on my way to a party in my mid-twenties, carefree and drunk on being young. It feels delicious. It is beautiful.
I see now that my mom meant for the fur to protect me from more than just cold weather. When she gave this heirloom to me, she was passing along a memento from her own happy days in the 1980s, living in New Jersey and heading into the city with my now-deceased father for nice dinners and shows. She was wishing for me happiness and love and success, hoping I would find myself in need of a luxurious coat to wear to symphony show or cocktail party, and would pull this out of the closet. In that way, the coat is more precious to me than a cabinet full of wedding crystal, or a silver cake cutter.
How to Find Ethical Fur (Hint: It’s Easy)
You may know that the leather industry is especially toxic and exploitative in Bangladesh, and that leather made in Europe is done so under REACH guidelines, which governs the chemicals used in manufacturing. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with this information as a consumer – leather often comes completely unlabeled, or with just the type of leather. Even for fashion in general, many e-tailers won’t say exactly where the garment is from, they just label it “Imported.”
Not so, when it comes to fur. Retailers are required to label from which country all real fur comes from, whether it’s a mink coat or a tiny rabbit key fob. The trick is to avoid fur from China, from whence all those alarming animal abuse videos come. The fur made under the best conditions in the world comes from Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Fur farming in Scandinavia is highly regulated. The fur farmers in Denmark are so proud of their operations that welcome visitors (try that on a pig farm in New Jersey). If you have the patience for it, you can see exactly how a mink farm in Nova Scotia runs. Videos out of Minnesota and Denmark show the same thing: minks in clean cages that look like large version of a pet hamster or ferret cage, being fed a mixture of grain and fish byproduct from other industries, having babies, and being cared for. The manure is composted for fertilizer. At the end of their life, the minks are gassed using carbon monoxide – they don’t suffer at all. In Denmark, all parts of the mink is used, for animal feed and even biofuel. Mink oil is highly valued as leather conditioner, and natural preservative in cosmetics.
The linked video above is not as sensational as a PETA video – in fact, it’s quite boring – but that’s the point. Even the critical news segments show the exact same thing, albeit with a narrator concern-trolling about the animals being in cages.
Should the minks be released into the wild? Probably not. Most minks raised for fur are descended from wild North American minks caught after the Civil War. When activists released domesticated minks from a Danish fur farm, they ended up wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem (they are vicious little hunters) leading to the decline of native animals like voles and European mink.
Update: I’ve found research indicating that when comparing mink fur to faux fur, mink is less toxic and more sustainable if you plan on keeping it for 30 years or more, and you would only keep a faux fur coat for less than eight years. However, mink farms are not great for the environment for two reasons: the amount of meat feed they require, and the manure they produce. However, these two concerns are addressed if you turn to herbivores (sheep, like the pictured vest, rabbits, beaver, etc) and animals who are not raised in an enclosed space where manure is concentrated, but either responsibly grazed (sheep) or wild-trapped (coyote, nutria).
The pelts are sold at auction to furriers in limited quantities. “That is why fur is expensive,” Elena says. She visits the traditional ateliers of skilled Greek and Italian furriers and picks out her fur, which is turned into the modern styles you see here. She’s had to learn how to be patient and creative with what she’s offered. “You can’t mass produce it,” she says. “In the beginning, you are frustrated. But in the end, you feel it’s better. In China, anything is possible. But they also have colorful rivers,” she adds.
“With leather, you can do anything,” Elena says. “With fur, you have to be careful. You can’t use harsh chemicals, or it’s going to be ruined.” Fur is processed using table salt, water, alum salts, soda ash, sawdust, cornstarch, lanolin, vinegar, and sometimes formaldehyde. (Formaldehyde is indeed toxic, but it’s still present in human hair dyes and straightening potions at your local salon, and is used on many wrinkle-free cotton items. Make sure to ask how the fur you want to buy was treated, or use common sense! Any fur that is not naturally straight on the animal but is now straight on the coat was probably treated with formaldehyde.) All European fur processors are under REACH guidelines, which govern which chemicals are used in manufacturing.
Fur That’s Fun
“I entered this business because I wanted to produce something that lasts,” says Sendona. As opposed to faux fur coats, which at their very best come off as a fun, casual thing to wear over jeans, real fur is something you just can’t bring yourself to ever throw away. “I would prefer to have one mink coat and have it forever, and give it to my kids. People say, ‘I can’t wear fur,’ but you already have it in your closet. It’s there!”
Feel Good Fur is a modern, direct-to-consumer (read: affordable) fur brand that is trying to do fur in a thoughtful way that will appeal to women like me, who want the warmth and craftsmanship of a natural product, but want it to fit into her fun, fresh wardrobe. No more full-length mink coats. Instead, there is “bathrobe” coat with an optional colorful tie, that somehow looks upscale and casual at the same time – suitable for heels or for white sneakers. There’s a Grandpa Cardi with vibrant, fluffy pockets. There’s a bubblegum pink jacket, a zip-up poncho, and a hooded mink vest with a pink fox mohawk.
“The fur industry has been so conventional,” Elena says. “We wanted to make a twist. They use showy materials: gold plated rings, leather. We are doing a different way: reflective tapes, elastic bands, trimming made of fabric. We want to avoid leather as much as possible.”
Have something in your closet you can’t bear to get rid of? Feel Good Fur will also take your mom’s old coat, repair and update it, change the lining, change the closures, or going beyond that, making it into a vest, or, if it’s a full-length coat, creating two pieces out of one. She’s done 20 of these in the last year. “We turned a long coat into a bomber jacket,” Elena says. “We started this as a side project. Because people keep fur in their closet, and they want to change them. If it’s not relevant, it just occupies space.” If that interests you, you can email her via the site.
If you believe in the #30wears movement, then you could do worse than buying a modern fur coat. “You can wear it with jeans and with everything,” Elena says. “I started convincing people with my styles that they can have maximum use of this product.”
What Is Faux Fur?
Faux fur is marketed as the compassionate choice, but it seems only be compassionate to cute, photogenic, domesticated animals.
Polyester is a petroleum product. The raw material is oil, which is turned into plastic, which is turned into the fine synthetic hairs that make up a faux fur coat. Polyester also makes up the fill in synthetic puffy coats, and it doesn’t even perform as well as fur.
And once that faux fur or puffy coat is done, it will be taken to the landfill (we don’t know how to recycle these things yet), where it will take 500 to 1,000 or more years to biodegrade. And don’t get me started by polyester microfibers in the water.
Fur biodegrades, it doesn’t poison animals or marine life who eat it. And it gets passed down from generation to generation, an heirloom. All the things environmentalists, and I, love.
*Gifted to me to keep