Sourcing Ethical Down for Outdoor Gear

November 4, 2015
Sourcing Ethical Down
ShutterstockOutdoor gear companies are seeking sources of ethical down as alternatives to harvesting from live birds.

AMC Outdoors, November/December 2015

Was the down in your jacket or sleeping bag stripped from a live animal? Maybe. Maybe not. Until recently, it was impossible to know. That’s changing, however, as a small but growing number of outdoor companies institutes standards designed to ensure none of their down comes from live-plucked birds.

Goose and duck down is primarily a byproduct of the Chinese and Eastern European food industry. Most is harvested from young birds when they are slaughtered for food. These birds yield down of average fill power, a measure of how much puff, and warmth, a given ounce of down provides.

High-end down—the variety coveted by weight-conscious hikers, with a fill power of 750 or more—typically comes from larger, older birds on so-called parent farms that produce eggs for breeding. And it’s on these farms that birds are often live-plucked.

“There’s a big temptation to live-pluck the big parent geese because the more they’re plucked, the higher the quality and value of the down,” says Nina Jamal, a campaigner with the international animal welfare organization Four Paws. “Consequently, the majority of high-fill-power down is coming from live-plucked animals, which can be plucked several times a year, or up to 16 times over their lifetimes. It’s one of the most cruel practices that farm animals have to endure, and one that causes extreme pain and suffering.”

And yet live-plucking is perfectly legal, which leaves it up to companies, and their customers, to decide whether it’s an acceptable practice or not. Patagonia, for one, has decided it is not.

In 2013 the company announced its 100-percent-traceable down standard, which certifies that none of its down comes from live-plucked birds or from geese that have been force-fed (a common practice in foie gras production). The company monitors its entire supply chain, from farms to slaughterhouses, to ensure compliance.

Patagonia’s first-in-the-industry policy may prove to be a catalyst for the outdoor retail market. The North Face (TNF) has collaborated with Textile Exchange, a nonprofit focused on improving sustainability in the textile industry, to develop the Responsible Down Standard. This similar, though slightly less stringent, certification does not require that all parent farms be audited. TNF has pledged that 100 percent of its down products will be traceable by 2017, with some products available this year.

Both standards have been specifically designed for broad use across the outdoor industry. Other companies are free to adopt either certification program, although it remains to be seen whether and how quickly this will occur. So far, only a handful of other gear makers, including Outdoor Research and Feathered Friends, currently offer some RDS-certified products, though several others are slated to follow in 2016. Going forward, consumers can monitor the trend by keeping an eye out for traceable down labels on products.

“A lot of companies are moving in this direction and that’s really exciting,” says Adam Fetcher, communications director for Patagonia. “We’ve set the bar high for the industry and we hope that others take the challenge and meet it.”

LEARN MORE

To learn more about down products and the down industry, search for “down” at equipped.outdoors.org.

 

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.