There’s nothing quite like down—it’s a natural, incredibly warm, and breathable insulation that we stuff into winter jackets and sleeping bags, couches and blankets. No wonder ducks look so comfortable paddling around ponds on sub-zero days.
Yet the way some farmers harvest this fluffy material might make birders uncomfortable. The vast majority of the 270,000 metric tons of commercial down produced each year is a byproduct of goose and duck meat industries in Asia and Europe, where the birds might be live-plucked or force-fed for foie gras before heading to the slaughterhouse. Animal welfare advocates consider these cruel practices that they want to see eliminated from down’s complex supply chain.
Concerns about down sourcing spurred Taiwanese artist Sheng-Wen Lo to sidestep the entire down manufacturing process: In 2017 he decided to collect goose feathers and fill a coat himself. So on summer mornings he pedaled to parks, ponds, and forests in search of loose down and small feathers left behind by geese.
Squatting and picking up each individual plume was a meditative process. And a time-consuming one. Gathering down is a tradition that native people in the Arctic and farmers in Iceland and Norway have practiced for hundreds of years if not longer, but Lo was new to the method. It took him almost two months to collect the 3,000 down feathers that he washed and stuffed into a coat he’d gutted—less than half of the 8,000 typically found in a down jacket. On an art fellowship to the Arctic, which spurred the project, he used thermal heat cameras to document his down coat’s insulating ability. When he wore the coat for just 30 seconds, his surface body temperature rose by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
“People don’t think about the source of their purchases because it’s all too convenient,” says Lo, whose work concentrates on human-animal relationships. “All of my recent work is about fighting this mentality, fighting taking things for granted.”
Conscientious consumers don’t have to go to the extremes Lo did to find products filled with ethically sourced down—today there are several standards that track the supply. The effort started in 2010 when Four Paws, a Vienna-based animal welfare group, asked companies to show that their down was ethically sourced. The task was complicated because companies simply weren't sure where the down was coming from, says Bryan Mortensen, audits and certification director for the International Down and Feather Laboratory (IDFL), a group that tests and certifies down feathers and textiles. “They couldn’t trace it back [to the source].”
Companies including Patagonia, The North Face, and others quickly got to work tracing the material used in their products through the supply chain. They developed standards for ethically sourced down, putting in place traceability measures that now require on-site audits at the parent farms where egg-laying birds are kept, conditions under which birds live, and where they are killed. The list of brands using these standards, which have become stricter since 2010, is growing. (While down bedding accounts for roughly half of the feathers harvested each year, outdoor bedding brands lag behind outdoor apparel companies in obtaining certification.)
“The whole industry has changed for the better and really progressed,” says Melanie Lary, a campaigns officer for Four Paws.
The Science of Down
Down feathers grow beneath stiffer exterior feathers. Each down plume is a three-dimensional sphere consisting of a network of filaments that branch into barbs that branch into barbules. The complex structures, which are the size of dandelion blooms, trap air close to the skin, keeping waterbirds’ core temperatures toasty when the mercury plunges. (Feathers that cover down have quills with branched filaments that repel water and help birds fly).
“Down gives amazing amounts of thickness with very, very little weight—that’s the key to its warmth,” says Matthew Fuller, a down expert and project engineer at outdoor gear company Mountain Equipment. It isn’t just about providing warmth; down is remarkably durable, lightweight, compressible, and springy. “It’s the perfect combination of mechanical properties.”
So even if a hiker smooshes her down sleeping bag into a pack, the material recovers its shape quickly. That ability to bounce back lasts for decades, crush after squash after squeeze.
All of this makes down one of the best insulating materials in the world. The main drawback, from an insulating standpoint, is that it doesn’t retain heat when it gets soaking wet, as moisture causes the structure to collapse. Manufacturers are addressing this quirk by treating down with a hydrophobic mixture that helps it repel water. (Ducks and geese have a built-in water-proofing system: They smear a waxy substance produced by a preen gland at the base of their tails over their down, dispensing the stuff as they clean and comb their feathers into place).
Most down products are a mix of down and feathers. In the United States, a down product has to be at least 75 percent down in order to be called a down product. The higher the down-to-feather ratio, the better a product’s insulating quality, but that often means a higher price tag, too.
Sourcing and Animal Welfare
No birds are raised solely for down production. While some comes from wild eider ducks, most comes from geese and ducks raised to meet the demand for Christmas geese in Europe and Peking duck dishes in Asia, for instance. Between 2009 and 2013, farmers raised an estimated 653 million geese and 2.7 billion ducks for food, according to the International Down and Feather Bureau. As much as 90 percent of all down comes from Asia, and the majority of that is from China, due in part to increasing wealth leading more people to consume meat. At least 75 percent of the world’s supply is duck down. Here are the most common down sources:
Eiderdown comes from wild Common Eider ducks that live in northern climes including Canada and Iceland, and it is some of the most coveted—and expensive—down in the industry.
All commercial eiderdown comes from females. Hens pluck their own breast feathers to line the nests they build on rocky shores, and rarely get up during the nearly four-week incubation period, largely relying on their fat stores to get them through. Some are so dedicated to their duty that they starve to death.
Eiderdown’s reputation as the warmest down may be warranted: A comparison of goose to eiderdown revealed that, in the latter, barbules end in hooks that hold the down together. That means that if a hen gets up to drink water, her hard work won’t fly off in the wind, and it makes the insulation even warmer by trapping more air.
A main upside is that no birds are harmed during collection. What's more, the purchase of eiderdown can support habitat conservation, as it does on Canada’s Lower St. Lawrence Islands. And in Iceland, where eiderdown collection is a multimillion-dollar industry, farmers protect nesting colonies so they can collect the down once the chicks fledge. The downside is cost: Since eiderdown is hand-collected, it is by far the most expensive down; comforters can command price tags of upward of $16,000 and a jacket might go for $2,000.
Goose down is considered a superior insulator to that from ducks, a quality quantified by fill power—a measure of volume. The higher the number, the more space, measured in cubic inches, 30 grams of down can capture. Though many factors affect how warm a coat or comforter will keep you, generally speaking the higher the fill power the warmer the product.
Farmers usually harvest goose down after the birds are slaughtered for meat, and most geese are killed about 15 weeks after hatching. But farmers may also pluck the feathers when geese are still alive, a painful process akin to someone ripping out human hair, animal welfare and advocacy groups say. This usually happens to egg-laying geese, which can live for up to five years, on parent farms. Though geese and ducks naturally molt once and twice a year, respectively, farmers may pluck the feathers more often to get the most down they can, a process that can happen up to 16 times in a goose’s lifetime, says Four Paws’ Lary. And larger, older birds grow larger fill clusters, which can trap more air.
Though it’s unknown how much down comes from live plucking, parent farms produce, at most, 13 percent of the global supply, says Matthew Betcher of Allied Feather and Down, the leading supplier for down for apparel. “It garners all the attention because it’s shocking,” he says. (Lo’s internet search for information on live plucking in Mandarin yielded a number of tutorials.) The China Feather and Down Industrial Association condemns the practice but has not outlawed it. The European Union prohibits live plucking, making some goose down from there ethically harvested. Live plucking isn’t the only ethical concern; some geese are also force-fed to produce foie gras.
While goose down isn’t as pricy as eiderdown, it is expensive, and consumers can expect to shell out hundreds of dollars for a coat.
Domestic ducks raised for meat in Asia and Europe provide the largest percentage of down used today. These birds, often the Pekin breed in China, may also be live-plucked and force-fed to produce foie gras.
Most ducks only live for roughly 10 weeks before they’re slaughtered; during the last two weeks is when some farmers force-feed them to engorge their livers to create foie gras. Birds that can sustain this treatment have evolved over millenia to fatten up quickly, a trait that likely allowed their predecessors to build up fuel stores to sustain them during migration.
The huge demand for duck meat means there is a lot of down byproduct available, which in turns makes this fantastic insulator more affordable than its competitors.
In the past decade, as the down industry has come under closer scrutiny, several standards have been created for ethically sourced down. Certifying bodies now evaluate all parts of the supply chain: parent farms, hatcheries, raising farms, slaughterhouses, processing facilities, and manufacturers. Each standard has its own label, and Allied Feather and Down also developed Track My Down, which allows consumers to search the company’s database using a lot number on a product tag. Here are the standards, from most strict to least.
Global Traceable Down Standard
Certification requirements: No GTDS-certified down can come from live-plucked or force-fed birds, and all animals must have access to the Five Freedoms of animal welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; and freedom from fear and distress. Third-party certification groups visit each facility in the supply chain to investigate the conditions.
Requirements for maintaining certification: Certifying groups audit each facility along the supply chain every three years to ensure that it’s following the certifying criteria and that certified down is not mixed with non-certified down.
Shortcomings: Few brands are certified to the GTDS, presumably because it has been the strictest standard.
Extra stuff: This standard, developed by Patagonia and then transferred in 2015 to NSF International, a product testing, inspection, and certification organization, applies to apparrel, household, and commercial products. (Find certified brands here.)
Responsible Down Standard
Certification requirements: No RDS-certified down can come from live-plucked or force-fed birds, and farms must also comply with the five freedoms. Third-party certification groups visit each facility in the supply chain to investigate the conditions. As of this year, that includes parent farms.
Requirements for maintaining certification: Each facility is audited every year to ensure that it’s following the certifying criteria and that certified down is not mixed with non-certified down.
Shortcomings: Parent farms, where birds may be live-plucked, was an optional, not a mandatory, part of the certification until last year.
Extra stuff: This is the most popular certification, with 150 committed brands and retailers. (Its popularity is likely due, in part, to the fact that parent farms previously did not have to be certified). The certification was first launched by: The North Face; Textile Exchange, a nonprofit focused on sustainability within the textile industry; and Union Control Certifications, a group that inspects and certifies supply chains, with help from Allied Feather and Down. Down standards also led Textile Exchange to develop standards for wool, mohair, and alpaca. (Find certified brands here.)
Certification requirements: The group requires that no Downpass certified down come from live-plucked or force-fed birds. Farms also have to abide by a list of animal welfare requirements, which are reviewed by independent auditors.
Requirements for maintaining certification: Mystery shoppers around the world help to verify that down used in products with a Downpass label is what it says it is. These shoppers send the feathers to a quality control institute that analyszes the feathers to ensure that the label accurately states the feather type and makeup of material. The final report is confirmed with a notary. Certification lasts two years.
Shortcomings: Downpass was originally created by the bedding industry in the 1970s under a different name, but the standard did not have animal welfare requirements. In 2011, the group began working with certification groups to evaluate farms and exclude those that live-plucked from certification. Certifying parent farms is optional, though the next update, which could be released as early as 2022, will likely make doing so a requirement.
Extra stuff: The number of companies certified to the Downpass standard has grown significantly in the past decade, increasing to 99 from 9.
International Down Standard
Certification requirements: The International Down and Feather Laboratory (IDFL), which certifies suppliers for GTDS and RDS, also has its own down standard, which requires traceability and no live-plucking or force-feeding.
Requirements for maintaining certification: Facilities are audited every 12 months.
Shortcomings: Brands don’t need to go all the way back to the parent farm to obtain certification, and the standard does not require independent testing once the feathers are in a product.
Extra stuff: IDFL also tests down for composition, performance, and cleanliness.
For consumers who would rather avoid buying down altogether, there’s a plethora of synthetic options that attempt to mimic down or provide insulation in situations or circumstances when down might not.
Critics of synthetics say that the materials aren’t as environmentally friendly as down because they don’t last as long, are often made from polyester, and can shed microfibers when washed. They usually don’t breathe as well, either. In 2019, the International Down and Feather Bureau commissioned a lifecycle analysis of down compared to polyester fill and reported that the environmental impact of down compared to polyester fill is up to 97 percent lower.
But synthetic substitutes do have their upsides: They can perform when wet or compressed, for instance. And thanks to technological advances, several synthetic fillers rival down in terms of warmth and breathability. They’re often cheaper, too.
A number of companies, including Rab and Columbia, have their own proprietary synthetic downs. Some boast breathability, some stretchiness. Other brands employ NASA-developed aerogel; Great Auk Outfitters uses it in its down-less parkas.
Here are a few of the top performers and innovators.
Developed by the U.S. Army more than three decades ago as an alternative to down, PrimaLoft, with its light weight and high compressibility, is one of the best-performing down alternatives. A range of brands, including L.L. Bean and Athleta, use the product (and its kin, like PrimaLoft P.U.R.E., and PrimaLoft Active). The downsides are that it has only a third of down’s insulating ability, and it is made from polyester and will not break down naturally. Earlier this year, the company released PrimaLoft Bio, a biodegradable synthetic down alternative made from 100 percent recycled material.
3M developed Thinsulate in the 1970s. It’s another popular down alternative, used by Spyder, Carhartt, and other companies, that keeps insulating when wet. The company also created an insulating material made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.
Polartec first made its synthetic insulating material for the U.S. Special Forces and invented modern synthetic fleece in 1981. The company’s various down alternatives are breathable, allowing the material to maintain its insulating power during drastic temperature shifts. Brands from Arc’teryx to Marmot use Polartec insulation.
Innovations in Down
Despite down alternatives, there’s still high demand for the real thing. Some brands are now creating or using existing down and synthetic hybrids that perform better in damp conditions and often reduce the cost of a jacket or sleeping bag. Some brands also use down and wool hybrids, which they say stay drier than down alone and conduct less heat, making them preferable in warmer climates.
One way that brands are dealing with the ethical issues related to down is by using a growing amount of recycled feathers. Five-year-old company Re:Down, for instance, treats recycled down from bedding and has partnered with NaturTex, a company that makes comforters and cushions. And Patagonia has committed to using 80 percent recycled down in its products.
For Lo, the experience of making his own down coat made him want to show others how hard, and rewarding, it can be, so he created a guide for others to make their own coats. He’s also running a contest on social media. The first person to collect enough down feathers to make a coat wins the ultimate prize for any serious bird nerd willing to brave frigid conditions: a free trip to the Arctic.
|Home (pillows, bedding, furniture, etc.)||Outdoor (sleeping bags, blankets, etc.)||Apparel (jackets and other clothing)|
* Most companies certified by Downpass are international.