Rossen Reports: Some 'faux fur' sold in stores comes from real animals

According to a May 2014 Gallup poll, nearly 100 million Americans think buying and wearing fur is "morally wrong."

Some of the nation's biggest retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom Rack, Belk, Jacadi and Gilt Groupe, advertise "faux fur." But a Rossen Reports investigation found that some of the items they're selling actually come from the fur of real animals, including rabbits, coyotes and raccoon dogs (a strange-looking species of wild dog).

Rossen Reports: Some ‘faux fur’ sold in stores isn’t faux

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The Rossen Reports team purchased jackets, a sweater and boots, with designer names such as Michael Kors, Aquatalia, Jacadi and Cluny, that they suspected might be real fur rather than faux fur. The items were sent to Microtrace, a laboratory in Chicago that specializes in microscopy and microanalysis. There a team of scientists tested samples of the hairs on each item using powerful microscopes.

"We found that all five of the items contain real animal hair," said Dr. Chris Palenik, a research microscopist.

One of the items the Rossen team purchased was a Cluny sweater from Nordstrom Rack advertised online as a “faux fur trim silk bamboo blend sweater.” 

"It's actually rabbit fur that's been dyed," Palenik said.

A Michael Kors coat purchased from Belk, a large department store chain in the South, was also advertised online as having a “tailored faux fur collar.” But the tag on the coat that arrived in the mail said real animal fur. Palenik said that the jacket actually contained "real animal fur from a coyote."

"It's outrageous," said Pierre Gryzbowski, who runs the fur-free campaign of the Humane Society of the United States. "We're talking products made from animals who probably suffered, and certainly died, for a product that is not even what the customer wanted."

So then why use real fur and say it's fake? "Some of the good faux furs can be more expensive to use when making jackets or other garments than low-quality animal fur," Gryzbowski explained. "They may use animal fur just because it's cheaper."

Two different Jacadi coats advertised as having “faux fur” trim on their hoods turned out to actually come from raccoon dogs. "It’s real fur from a raccoon dog," said Palenik.

“A raccoon dog is not a raccoon at all. In fact, it's a wild member of the dog family,” said Gryzbowski. “We have found that raccoon dog fur is probably the most misrepresented type of fur sold in the U.S. today. And not only that, it's probably the most mistreated animal — being raised and killed for their fur.”

Gryzbowski also noted that other animal rights groups have documented some raccoon dogs kept in deplorable conditions — and even skinned alive for their fur — in China, where most of the them are raised. 

When the Rossen team picked up the Aquatalia “faux fur ankle boots” at a Neiman Marcus store in New York City, two different employees told NBC News that the boots “contain faux fur.” In addition, a label on the inside of the boots read: "contains faux fur, 55% polyesters, 45% acrylic.”

But testing showed that, like the sweater from Nordstrom Rack, the Aquatalia boots actually came from rabbit fur. 

Last year the Federal Trade Commission charged Neiman Marcus with marketing real fur products as fake fur, and the retailer settled and promised not to do it. According to the Fur Products and Labeling Act, federal law requires that items that contain real fur must not only say real fur, but also list what animal species the fur comes from and the animal’s country of origin.

"They have to fix the problem," Gryzbowski said. "They're deceiving their own customers when they do this, and they're deceiving the American public."

Neiman Marcus blamed their vendor, Aquitalia, for the mistake. Aquitalia told NBC News the mislabeling was an "inadvertent error." Contacted by NBC News, Nordstrom, Belk, Gilt and Jacadi all apologized for the errors and said they're stepping up their training to make sure they don't happen again.

"There's simply no excuse for them not to have a quality control system in place to protect consumers and their own customers from being duped into buying animal fur," Gryzbowski said.

All the retailers told NBC News they'll offer refunds to anyone worried that they bought one of the products involved in the Rossen investigation. Neiman Marcus said they've now removed the boots the Rossen team purfrom all their stores and their website. Gilt Groupe went even further, giving customers an additional $25 credit. And Jacadi said that they plan to stop selling real fur products after this winter.

Here are some tips on how to tell faux fur from real animal fur without a microscope:

  • Don't go by feel and don't go by color. The new fake fur is actually softer than some real fur. And it can be dyed any color.
  • Look at the tips of the hairs. If the tips taper to a fine point like a cat's whisker or a sewing needle or a a sharpened pencil, it's animal fur. If not, it's probably faux fur (though not necessarily).
  • If you (carefully) burn a couple of hairs of a sample and it smells like human hair, it's real animal fur. Fake fur is made from plastics and will give off a distinct chemical smell when burned.

Statements from Nordstrom Rack regarding Cluny faux fur-trimmed sweater purchased for this report:

"First, thanks again for alerting us to this. As I previously mentioned, our goal is always to ensure that our customers have all the information they need to make a decision about what they’re purchasing. We realize that some customers may not want to purchase a fur item, so we’ve always worked hard to be as accurate and clear as possible with our online copy and labeling on the thousands of products we sell. We’re disappointed that we missed the mark this time.

When we received your email we immediately researched this item to understand if our online copy was incorrect and if so, why. What we learned is that we did make a mistake here. While the label sewn in the garment appears to have been accurate, our copywriter did not have the production label in hand, did not follow our process for verifying the product information and made an assumption that the item’s trim was faux fur when it was not. We’ve addressed the error and are taking this as an opportunity to revisit and enhance our training on this subject.

We were also able to confirm that of the five customers who purchased this item (including you), three of them had already returned it so we’ve now reached out to the other two customers today (including you) to let you know about our error and apologize for making it. You should have received a telephone call or email today with the opportunity to return or exchange the item if you choose to do so.

Please let me know if you have any other questions and thanks again."

"I am reaching out today regarding your purchase of the CLUNY Fur Trim Silk and Bamboo Blend sweater. While the item was advertised as faux fur, we have been informed that it is in fact real fur. In the event you are no longer comfortable with the purchase due to this information, you may return the item for a full refund. Please e-mail or call me directly to arrange a return label and further instruction.

We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

Statement from Gilt Groupe regarding Jacadi faux fur-trimmed jacket purchased for this report:

"We have policies and procedures in place to ensure that all product descriptions are accurate and comply with applicable regulations. Unfortunately, the inaccurate description for this jacket that appeared on our web site was a result of human error by a Gilt staffer. We take issues like this very seriously, and are taking immediate, actionable steps to ensure a similar mistake will not happen again. In addition, we have since contacted each customer that purchased the jacket, informed them of the error, and offered them an opportunity to return the product for a full refund if they so desire."

Statement from Jacadi regarding two different faux fur-trimmed Jacadi jackets purchased for this report (one from Gilt Groupe, the other directly from Jacadi):

"Jacadi makes every effort to comply with all applicable U.S.A regulations and requirements.

Through careful research of our existing policies and procedures, we found that a human error was made on how this product was described online and the detail of information available on the product label. Please be assured that we are making every effort to undertake the necessary changes within our organization to ensure the current season fur product we produce, will have an accurate online product description and a product label which adheres to the Fur Products Labeling Act. We will contact each online customer to notify them of the error and to offer them a full refund if they wish to return the product.

Lastly, we would like to inform you that this Winter 2014 season will be the last to include real fur products. Jacadi will no longer produce this type of product worldwide.

We remain at your disposal should you require any additional information."

Statement from Neiman Marcus regarding Aquatalia faux fur-trimmed boots purchased for this report:

"Thank you for your inquiry. FTC guidelines require us to make sure that what we advertise is exactly what the vendor told us was the origin and makeup of the item and that it matches the labeling of the item. In this case, that is what happened. Dating back to April of this year, all the information the vendor supplied states that the fur trim on this boot is faux (55 % polyester/45% acrylic). Clearly, a mistake has been made on the vendors end. We have removed the boot from the website and from our stores.

We are also contacting all of our customers who purchased the shoe to make them aware of this mistake by our vendor so that they can return for a full refund, if they choose to do so."

Statement from Aquatalia regarding boots sold through Neiman Marcus purchased for this report:

“Aquatalia is committed to accurately informing consumers about the content of its products. We regret that, due to an inadvertent error, a small quantity of rabbit fur boots were mislabeled as “faux fur”. Fewer than 150 pairs of boots were affected. We are in the process of having this product properly labeled.”

Statement from Belk regarding Michael Kors faux fur tailored coat purchased for this report:

"Thank you for bringing this inaccuracy to our attention. As soon we received your notification we investigated the issue, and found that a clerical error led to the coat’s description as having faux fur. We had six of the coats in question for sale on our website, and those have all been sold. We apologize to our customers who would not have otherwise purchased the item, and will honor full refunds on those pieces. In addition, we have verified that similar styles for sale online are accurate, and we are taking additional steps to ensure this kind of error does not happen again."