A natural, recyclable and biodegradable material with incredible thermal and compression values, down is almost too good to be true – were it not for animal welfare issues.
What is down and where exactly does it come from?
Down is the fine, insulating layer of feathers found underneath the coarser exterior feathers of waterfowl – primarily domestic ducks and geese – and is normally sourced as a byproduct from the meat industry. China is by far the largest producer, providing approximately three quarters of global down supply.
What are its sustainability benefits?
Down has become pervasive within the outdoor industry in cold-weather applications, and not without good reason: down’s insulation, weight and compaction characteristics make for a material that alternatives have yet to match. It is all-natural, renewable, easily recyclable and completely biodegradable and, if cared for properly, down can maintain high thermal value over a very long lifespan. Depending on where the down is sourced, some life cycle analyses have found that it can have a significantly lower environmental impact than polyester filling material.
What are down’s impacts on the environment and animal welfare?
As with all animal husbandry, there are primary impacts on water and the natural environment that must be addressed – such as the clearance of land which can lead to reduced biodiversity and the energy and water resources required for meat production. The environmental impacts of down fill material come mainly from energy use at the feather processing facilities, and the use of detergents to clean the materials.
But sustainability impacts aside, animal welfare is the topic that repeatedly raises most concern. Many of these animal welfare issues stem from the fact that much of down comes from the food industry as a by-product. While to some degree this can add to its overall sustainability scorecard, the food industry has its own practices with geese and ducks that many find hard to stomach. Foremost among these is the practice of “forced feeding,” whereby a funnel is inserted down the geese’s throat to help stuff down food and thereby enlarge its liver for foie gras. Another particularly cruel practice in the down industry has been “live plucking,” whereby the down will be plucked from a living goose or duck, so that it can then be regrown and plucked several times over per animal.
What can be done to mitigate these animal welfare issues?
The majority of down found on the market today is not coming from sources that practice humane animal treatment, and many conscientious consumers will therefore choose synthetic alternatives. But the fact that down involves animals in captivity and their eventual slaughter notwithstanding, geese and ducks intended for the down industry needn’t suffer the cruelties mentioned above while alive. Here, independent third-party standards that enable traceability and best-practices are crucial in ensuring the animals live the best possible lives.
THE RESPONSIBLE DOWN STANDARD (RDS)
The RDS is an independent global standard that was developed by Textile Exchange with the input of animal welfare groups and industry actors. Down is only RDS certified if its entire supply chain passes a third-party audit that ensures a holistic respect for animal welfare has been maintained from hatching to slaughter – including no live-plucking or forced feeding.
THE GLOBAL TRACEABLE DOWN STANDARD (GTDS)
The GTDS essentially shares the same animal welfare standards as the RDS above, but has far fewer participating brands on account of its slightly stricter approach to down’s “Parent Farm.” Here, the GTDS requires certification of farms that produce the eggs, whether down is produced here or not. As of 2020, this is also mandatory for RDS.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell