The following article first appeared in the July 2000 edition of “Fur Farm Letter”.
It’s Opening Day at California’s Del Mar Race Track, “where the surf meets the turf”, as they like to say.(1) I am here with bells on. And so is everyone else. Literally. This is the day of the great big floppy hat and white gloves. The ladies move slowly on oh, oh, oh, so steep, high heels, topped off by outrageous hats. Hats sprouting flowers, grains, vegetables, cuddly critters, hats with organza, taffeta, gossamer and lace. You name it, sooner or later it floats by.
The track is chocolate colored, the horses come in a range of hues. Soot and champagne mingle with rust and sienna. They snort nervously, prance with excitement, a few are calm and ready to race.
A friend and I sit in the stands overlooking the track and enjoy breakfast. The sun warms us and we are glad of hats and sunglasses. I can feel more freckles finding their way to my nose and arms where they bask in the morning glow.
A blonde in a floppy straw hat decorated with teddy bears joins us and we are introduced. I offer that I am executive director of a trade association representing mink farmers. She recoils and exclaims huffily, “Could you be any more politically incorrect!!??” I smile and try an explanation but she is not listening as she gobbles her scrambled eggs and sausage, lox and bagels, adds more milk to her coffee. She barely notices the prime horseflesh a few hundred feet away. I take a deep breath. The air is thick with the odor and perfumes of animals of all kinds, dead and alive.
A gaggle of gentlemen and ladies joins us. On the next introduction, I try something new. “I represent a group of 600 families who have invested in a bio-based business, recycling food production waste into organic, biodegradable, recyclable, cold-weather clothing material.”
“Biology at its most basic,” I reply.The blonde in the floppy straw hat decorated with teddy bears stops her fork in mid-air, confused. All heads turn. “Bio-tech?” someone asks.
“Tell us more,” asks an older man in a dapper bow tie. He bites into a breakfast sausage.
“Well, take that sausage, for instance,” I say. “And those eggs, the cheese, the milk, the lox. All these products result in organic waste, parts of the animal that are inedible for us and therefore a disposal problem. Through good genetics, my investors have developed an organism that consumes 20 to 35 times its body weight annually. The mountains of fish guts piling up next to the fish-processing plants, the leftovers from the dairy, poultry and beef industry, our food production waste, hundreds of millions of pounds annually, all this is food for this organism.”(2)
A filly prances beneath the stands, below our table. Heads turn. “In fact,” I offer bravely, “even disposal of that horse, years from now, is a snap to this organism.”
“Wow, amazing!”, they comment.
“In turn, all waste generated by our organism is utilized for organic fertilizer for growing vegetables and grains,” I continue. “The organisms are harvested to produce fine oils, protein meal and other products, but, most importantly, a cold-weather clothing material that is biodegradable, recyclable and sustainably produced.”
“Very cool,” states a thirty-something male with a ponytail. “It takes one pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow three pounds of cotton for one T-shirt and a pair of jeans!(3) Boll weevils, thrips are a plague. But organic farmers use natural biologically based systems, rather than man-made chemicals, to raise organic crops. So I invested in organically grown cotton stocks and Patagonia.”
Heads nod. Everyone at the table knows the story of California-based Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturer. In the early 1990s, Patagonia developed “Synchilla”, a synthetic fleece recycled from petro-chemicals. In response to concerns about the environmental impacts of California cotton production, Patagonia switched to organic cotton fibers.
The young man with the ponytail continues, “Then I invested in companies developing hybrid seeds. These seeds are genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pesticides and poisonous to insects like boll weevils so less pesticides are needed. Sounds like a win-win, right? Not! I’m taking a beating on my stocks over that GMO scare campaign.” He shakes his head in frustration.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are much in the news today. Are we going too fast? And yet, with all the pesticides used globally, a better question might be, “Why are we moving so slowly?”(4)
“Our investors haven’t expanded to gene splicing and GMOs,” I explain. “We still use selective breeding – you remember Mendel’s peas? Selective breeding relies on nature to mutate, change, and we pick and choose preferred traits, breeding a sub-species of a living organism. Mankind’s being doing this for ten thousand years. The horses running today are fine examples of selective breeding.”
The group is getting it now. “But even if you produce an organic, biodegradable product, what happens if you lose those organic benefits during the production process?” asks the pony-tailed cotton expert. “What if you take organic cotton and dye it or finish it with chemicals, even formaldehyde?”
“Our product is selectively bred to produce dozens of shades and colors,” I reply. “No dying is needed but labels are required stating whether a garment is dyed or a natural-color so the consumer can choose. Environmentally conscious designers and consumers can ask for simple, natural finishes using lanolin (wool grease) and low impact and plant-based dyes.”
“Of course, anything used is subject to the ‘zero discharge’ requirements of the US Clean Water Act which requires full collection, proper recycling and disposal. Luckily, waste is not economically sound – manufacturers recapture anything used simply out of economy, using water in dye vats over and over again. Some corporations have guidelines for production and disposal practices around the world but designers, consumers and investors can push for continuing improvements here.”
“And what about the manufacturing, finishing of the clothing, this formaldehyde?” someone pushes.
“Formaldehyde is used as a permanent press coating for fabrics.(5) Our product does not need a ‘permanent press’ so it doesn’t require using formaldehyde,” I explain. “Our cold-weather clothing material does need to be stored in a cool, dry area during the very hot summer season, and there are already specialists offering this type of storage. They’ll even pick up and deliver.”
“Yes, but how much does it cost? Is this material expensive?” queries a young woman.
“It’s not cheap. It’s definitely more expensive than synthetics which are a product of the petro-chemical industry. However, with proper care, the material is a great investment and will last for generations. And it can be restyled over and over in response to fashion trends. And we have an amazing recycling process in place for old garments. No one tosses this product away!”
“Amazing. What’s it called?”
“Fur,” I respond. “Fur. As in mink.”
“Ah!!! Of course!” laughs the group. The blonde in the floppy straw hat smiles and the teddy bears on her hat bounce up and down. She giggles and adds, “Very politically correct.”
I grin. The people of the fur trade are so far ahead of politically correct that others are racing just to keep up. “We can win this race,” I think to myself as I study the horseflesh hooving the track.
(1) Using artistic license, this piece was reconstructed from conversations at Opening Day at the Races and elsewhere.
(2) See Super Duper Recyclers: How Fur Farmers Turn Waste into Beauty; FCUSA commentary, Oct. 28, 1999.
(3) For this and similar statistics, see The new cotton debate: What is sustainable cotton?
(4) See “Position statement on insect-resistant transgenic crops: Potential benefits and risks”, by J. Benedict, Dept. of Entomology, Texas A&M University, June 1998.
(5) Formaldehyde report, by Eco-USA.