On the quest for an eco-friendly winter jacket

How hard can it be to find an environmentally-friendly coat? With freezing temperatures and the possibility of snow, Cai Nebe of South Africa sets off on the search for the perfect winter coat.

I've not been in Germany for long, but pretty much as soon as I got here, Game of Thrones fans were telling me: "Brace yourself. Winter is coming."

Culture | 04.10.2018

Being from Cape Town, South Africa, where 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) is considered cold, I figure it makes sense to invest in some seasonally appropriate clothing, not least a jacket thick enough to fend off the worst of the country's winter. 

So I fired up my laptop and began the search. The first coat I was offered was called the "Triple F.A.T. Goose Logan Jacket". But, oof! At €213 ($250), it's a bit out of my league. Then, on another site, I see a goose down coat for just €10.

Since goose down seems popular, I searched for more information.  

Nature and Environment | 17.12.2018

Oh. My. Word. Interspersed with images of white, cloud-like quilts and pillows are photos of standing, but bloodied and featherless geese. And a video published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shows a man live plucking a screeching bird — a common practice that means producers can let them grow back before pulling them out again. 

Read moreMounties' muskrat hats pit animal rights against tradition

Plucking downfeathers from live geese and ducks is very painful for the animal

Okay, time to reassess. There must be something as warm as goose down but less cruel. I close the tabs with the plucked birds and search for "alternatives to down jackets".

Read moreNo-kill chicken eggs go on sale in Germany

"Don't pluck that duck — alternatives to down" sounds more like it. But polyester… ugh. Wool? I've been on a farm, and seen sheep suffer, so that's another no. Air?! Apparently you wear a lightly inflated bladder disguised as a jacket that uses your body heat to warm… your body? Bladder clothing doesn't grab me, so that's out too.  

Icelandic tradition

I need inspiration from somewhere really cold. And where better than Iceland? It's all in the name really. They, of all people, must know how to keep warm. The question is, how do they do it?

Cai Nebe is looking for an eco-friendly winter jacket, so he doesn't have to freeze in Bonn

With the help of eider ducks that produce a down, Icelanders harvest the birds' feathers by standing next to their nests and waiting for them to step out so they can gather up the fluffy filling. A quick search and a phone call later, I'm speaking to Gudrun Gauksdottir, the head of the Iceland Eider Farmers Association.

"All the eider ducks are wild and have been protected under Icelandic law since 1847," she tells me.

I'm glad to hear they're not plucked, caged or battery farmed, and I'm impressed by what Gauksdottir describes as the "special relationship" Icelandic farmers have had with their birds since Viking times. 

There are about 400 active eider farmers in Iceland, and according to Jon Sveinsson, whose Eiderdown company makes down duvets and pillows, they're quite protective of their flocks. 

"They watch over the ducks' nests, sometimes through the night, and shoo off minks, foxes, ravens and seagulls," he says.

Read moreThe hidden human cost of fast fashion

And their work is labor-intensive. Collecting just one kilogram of eiderdown can take a skilled worker almost half a day, and that's before the cleaning process starts.

That said, just 60 grams of down feathers is enough for one eiderdown jacket.

The super expensive eider down feathers. But you don't need many: just 60 grams for a jacket

Out of my league

Sveinsson actually received an order for two kilograms (nearly four and a half pounds) of the fluffy filling from a Moscow-based company wanting to make a jacket for the "Number One Face of Russia." That could only mean President Vladimir Putin.

If it's warm enough for Russia, it should be warm enough for Bonn. So, how much for one?

"Five thousand euros," says Elin Logadottir, sales director at 66° North, an outdoor clothing company based in Iceland.

Now that's really out of my league.

Read moreIn search of eco-friendly fashion

"And once we know your size and the color you want, it will take four to six months due to the short supply of eiderdown," she adds. Because as it turns out, Iceland produces a grand total of just three to four tons of eiderdown a year.

Four to six months? By then, it will be springtime. For now though, it's winter in Bonn, and I still don't have a new coat.

10 reasons for Iceland

Spectacular natural features

Iceland is a country of contrasts, breathtakingly beautiful and home to extraordinary natural phenomena. Deserts, volcanoes, valleys, fjords, glaciers and many other landforms share the space here. A quarter of the country consists of volcanoes, twelve percent is covered by glaciers. A mere one percent of the island's surface is tree-covered.

10 reasons for Iceland

Active volcanoes

In 2010 Iceland shot to attention when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (Picture) erupted: partly because of its name, which news presenters and reporters struggled to pronounce, and also because the cloud of ash it produced brought air traffic in Europe to a standstill. Iceland is the world's largest volcanic island. It has about 130 volcanoes, some 30 of which are classified as potentially active.

10 reasons for Iceland

White giants

Many volcanoes in Iceland are hidden under enormous masses of ice. The largest glacier, Vatnajökull, has a surface area as big as 1200 soccer pitches. A tour of the ice cap is impressive, but should be undertaken only with a professional guide, because the ice is alive - new cracks and crevasses develop quickly.

10 reasons for Iceland

Raging waterfalls

The glacial meltwater makes its way to the coast through numerous river channels and tumbles down hundreds of cascades, sometimes with incredible force, as with the Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. The immense size of this waterfall becomes clear when you compare it to the tiny-looking tourists on the plateau on the left side of the picture.

10 reasons for Iceland

Seething Geysers

The water bubbles up to the surface and explodes: a 30-meter column of boiling water shoots into the air. The famous Strokkur ("Churn") Geyser erupts every few minutes and thrills tourists with its prodigious force. It's in Haukadalur valley, a geothermal area in southwestern Iceland.

10 reasons for Iceland

Hot springs

Not only in Haukadalur are there hot springs: they're distributed over the entire island and are sometimes used as hot pots and natural thermal baths. The best-known spring lies between Keflavik Airport and the capital Reykjavik: the Blue Lagoon - a geothermal spa with naturally blue water that's rich in minerals. Bathing in it is reputed to help relieve some skin diseases.

10 reasons for Iceland

Vibrant city life

That's not exactly what Iceland is known for; it's usually associated with natural scenery. And, in fact, its population numbers scarcely more than 320,000. More than half the residents, about 200,000, live in the capital Reykjavik (Smoky Bay) and its suburbs. So the city has a lot to offer, especially in the boutiques, restaurants, bars and clubs along Laugavegur, the main shopping street.

10 reasons for Iceland

Robust horses

Back to nature: the best way to explore it is in a jeep, on foot or on horseback. Icelandic horses play a large role on the island. They're not only a means of transportation, but also a source of income, because this robust breed has many fans. In the summer the animals graze freely in the highlands. Not until autumn are they herded back to the valleys. The round-up is quite a spectacle.

10 reasons for Iceland

Mythical creatures

If you travel through Iceland's fascinating countryside, you soon understand why many inhabitants believe in elves and trolls. There are even directories of living nature spirits and maps of where elves and dwarves live. Roads have to be built around such places so as not to disturb them. Is the rock in this picture also a troll? It has a name in any case: Hraunkarl.

10 reasons for Iceland

Glowing night skies

In Iceland it never gets completely dark in the summer, and never completely light in the winter - but that means you can see the Northern Lights, or Aurora borealis, in the darkness. The best time is between early October and late March, when the colorful displays glow magically in the nighttime sky.