When you’re shopping for a new down jacket, sleeping bag, comforter, or pillow, you may be wondering what down is, and how it is produced.
Is it possible to buy down products that are ethically sourced? And if so, how can you tell whether the down you are buying is ethical or not?
In this article, we'll examine the down supply chain and ask whether goose down can ever be considered an ethical material.
Down is a very light, fluffy cluster of filaments that grow at the base of a larger feather, on both geese and ducks.
It provides excellent warmth and insulation, yet is soft, incredibly light, and can be easily compressed. It is also extremely durable and can last far longer than synthetic fabrics.
These properties make down an ideal insulator. It is used in the creation of a variety of down products including mattress toppers, pillows, comforters, sleeping bags, and duvets.
The problem is the way in which the geese and ducks are treated in the down production process.
Goose down and duck down is a luxury filling used in making winter coats, pillows, comforters, sleeping bags, and other items which need to be kept warm. It does not absorb water, so it keeps its insulating properties even when wet.
Originally, down was actually hand collected from the nests of the Eider species of duck (hence the original name eiderdown).
This is clearly 100% cruelty-free. But this process only allows the collection of loose down that has already fallen off the duck, and the quantities involved are nowhere near enough to satisfy global demand.
Unfortunately, until very recently the entire down industry operated using a supply chain that can involve some unimaginable animal cruelty.
Down is now collected as a by-product of the food industry. Ducks and geese bred for their meat can also have their down removed (either before or after they are killed) but in many cases, this is not done in a humane manner.
It's a story that sadly we hear time and time again. There are some truly awful companies and individuals out there who have no hesitation in putting profits ahead of animal welfare.
Down feathers are naturally covered in a layer of downy, tiny barbs that keep them afloat and insulated. When birds are killed as part of the food industry, their down can be removed afterward. But some goose farms remove feathers and down when the birds are still alive.
When live-plucking is done, it is actually the topcoats of these feather barbs that are ripped out by hand. Regular plucking damages the bird's skin and causes them to grow more feathers in compensation.
This constant plucking also causes a group of blood vessels to grow from the bird's skin into the base of its feathers. This special network of blood-filled tubes is called a "rete mirabile" and it helps keep the bird warm by diverting blood flow close to the body surface.
If this regular plucking process goes on too long, the bird will grow these networks all over its body to compensate for the constant damage. This can affect their ability to fly and swim to escape predators.
Live-plucking is considered excessively cruel by animal welfare groups, and even by many people who still wear a down sleeping bag, coat, or pillows stuffed with regular (dead) down.
In addition to live-plucking, some birds are also force-fed. This is supposed to enlarge the birds' livers so they can be used to make foie gras.
The force-feeding process involves a tube being forcibly inserted into the throat of male ducks and geese, and fat and grains are then pumped into their stomachs. This can happen several times each day.
Please take a few minutes to watch this video. I hope it will help you decide to join the boycott of foie gras in the future.
Ethical down refers to the down that has passed all animal welfare standards and has been produced from animals that have been protected from live-plucking and force-feeding.
The best way to spot ethically-sourced down products is to check whether they have a globally recognized certification issued.
There are three certifications to look out for.
The blue logo on RDS (responsible down standard) products ensures the best ethical supply of products. To earn the RDS certification, a down product must meet strict quality standards throughout its entire supply chain.
One of its key criteria is to protect animal welfare at all times.
Find out more about RDS certification here.
The Global Traceable Down Standard is a supply chain certification program that ensures the humane treatment of geese and ducks used for down production.
Products that carry the GTDS label are certified to have come from animals that were not live-plucked or force-fed.
Find out more about GTDS certification here.
One of the most well-known down industry certification programs is Downmark. This certification is issued by the Down Association of Canada, and it ensures that products are of the highest quality, genuine, and humanely sourced.
Find out more about Downmark certification here.
This depends on your personal point of view.
When you buy ethical down that features any of the certifications above, you are getting confirmation that it has been ethically sourced according to the standards specified.
But whether these go as far as your own ethics is an individual choice. The following common questions will help you to make a decision.
The original eiderdown, collected by hand, is clearly 100% cruelty-free. But most down is not sourced this way.
Ethical down means that the geese and ducks have been treated as well as they can be, and have been given the five freedoms of animal welfare (as specified here by the animal humane society).
However, the birds are still part of the down supply chain, meaning they have been reared specifically for their meat and down, and have then been killed and processed for that purpose.
Some would say that this is cruel, others would disagree. If you are against the principle of keeping live birds for this purpose then you would need to consider one of the down alternatives instead.
If you buy down products that are not ethically sourced then there is every chance the geese were victims of live-plucking. This is particularly prevalent in Chinese supply chains where animal welfare standards are often lower.
If you choose certified ethical goose down then you get the reassurance that the geese were not live-plucked.
Yes. Even ethically produced down involves the killing of ducks and geese.
The difference is that with ethical down, the animals are not plucked when they are still alive, which is an incredibly painful experience for them.
The only type of down that does not involve the killing of ducks and geese is eiderdown when it is collected manually. However, this process is very labor-intensive, meaning products made with eiderdown are usually very expensive.
From an environmental perspective, yes any type of down is a sustainable fabric.
Down is a natural material, meaning it is renewable and also fully biodegradable. It can also be recycled.
If we consider ethical down that is produced as a by-product of the food industry, it is also a material that would otherwise go to waste. It costs very little additional energy to extract.
Furthermore, down is extremely durable and can potentially last a lifetime if cared for properly.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of even ethically sourced down, then you may wish to consider one of the down alternatives.
Down can be collected from textile waste, extracted, washed (without chemicals), and re-used.
Recycled down has the same fill power and fill weight as any other type of down since it is essentially made from the same base material.
It is not possible to guarantee that recycled down was originally sourced from farms with any ethical down certification. However, the fact that the down would otherwise be going to waste might help to mitigate this in many people's eyes.
Many people swear by alpaca wool as a down alternative. They can give just as much comfort and insulation as down, and they also provide excellent thermal regulation to keep your temperature stable.
This makes alpaca wool ideal for comforters and sleeping bags. Check out our review of the best eco-friendly wool comforters to find out more.
However, like down, you need to make sure that the wool comes from an ethical and certified supplier.
Companies such as Thermolite are working on synthetic alternatives to down. These look to replicate the feel and comfort of down, without using any animal products.
Synthetic fibers cannot yet provide the same fill power as genuine down. Also, many manufacturers use at least part polyester.
The chemicals and energy involved in the production of synthetic fibers, and the fact that most do not biodegrade or compost, make them much worse in terms of their environmental impact.
For this reason, I do not recommend synthetic insulation.
So, what is the final word on down? Is it ethical?
The answer to this question depends on your personal beliefs and opinions. I appreciate that many people believe that even ethically sourced down involves some form of animal cruelty, although it is far better than the alternative.
If you are against this principle, then you might be considering using one of the many synthetic fillers available on the market today.
If so - stop and think first. These synthetic alternatives have a much worse environmental impact than down and are not nearly as durable or comfortable.
Therefore, either alpaca wool or recycled down is probably the best overall option.