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Animal Down in Clothing

The story behind 'live plucking' of birds for down-filled jackets. We look at the ethics of using animals for clothing, and what the alternatives are for outdoor wear.

Down is a prized commodity for the outdoor equipment industry and is used in insulated, padded and puffer jackets, and sleeping bags.

Every year, hundreds of tonnes of down are processed, from millions of ducks and geese, mainly in China. These geese and ducks can have their feathers plucked while alive, repeatedly for years, and the more you ‘live-pluck’ a bird, the more sought-after their down is for its higher ‘fill-power’ (warmth per volume). Down and feathers may also come from birds that have been cruelly force-fed for the controversial pâté, foie gras.

Many outdoor gear manufacturers state that the feathers they use come only from birds that were reared and killed for meat, and that were only plucked after slaughter. Indeed, most of the world's down is removed from ducks and geese after slaughter. However, there may be very little traceability within the supply lines of companies to guarantee that this is the case.

Since 2008, international animal welfare charity Four Paws has worked with some leading outdoor brands, and many of these companies have now started to make the supply chain of the down that they source both traceable and transparent.

Live plucked goose duck with feathers lying on floor

Outdoor companies now now leading the way

Although 90% of down used globally is in the bedding industry, momentum for change eventually came from outdoor companies, with Patagonia, The North Face, Mountain Equipment and Fjallraven each developing their own standards: the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard (TDS), the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), the Down Codex and the Down Promise respectively.

TDS and RDS have now been taken up by other companies too. Most of the companies in our outdoor clothing guide have adopted the RDS standard. This is the standard that campaign group Four Paws recommends you look for when buying animal down.

The RDS standard guarantees that down is not from live-plucked or force-fed animals, only from animals raised for their meat, and that each stage of the supply chain is audited by a third-party certification body.

Some companies are now also using recycled goose and duck down which mainly comes from feather pillows and duvets that can’t be resold.

Person 1 holding a sleeping bag says 'there's no information to say how the feathers are sourced'. Person 2 holding a padded jacket says 'nom they duck the issue'
Cartoon (C) Andy Vine for Ethical Consumer

What to look for when buying synthetic or animal down

We have looked at the Best Buy and recommended brands in the outdoor clothing guide to see what they have to offer.

Synthetic down

Ultimately, Four Paws would advise people to avoid buying goose or duck down and buy synthetic down instead.

Most brands make some products filled with synthetic down, some 100% recycled or with a recycled content.

But Páramo only uses synthetic down and it only uses 100% recycled polyester in all its products containing synthetic down i.e. its Torres insulated jackets and gilets.

Goose and duck down

If you are going to buy a goose or duck down product (or buy other products from the same companies), only buy from companies that use certified down.

  • Alpkit, 
  • Fjallraven, 
  • Patagonia, 
  • prAna,
  •  Rab, 
  • Vaude.

Recycled goose and duck down

Choose products from the above companies which also use recycled duck and goose down, if you are happy to buy animal-derived materials already in the system: 

  • Alpkit, 
  • Patagonia, 
  • Rab, 
  • Vaude.

The following products are 100% recycled duck and goose down, not just mixed in with virgin down:

Company 100% recycled duck and goose down
Alpkit 6 products: Filoment gilets and jackets
Patagonia It does use it in theory but we couldn’t find any products currently with it in listed on their website.
Rab 14 products: Deep Cover parka, Microlight and Valiance jackets and gilets
Vaude Annecy coat

The down pyramid: The hierarchy of what to buy

If you are thinking about buying a product with down, you could start at the top and work through the list until you find a product that matches your needs:

  1. 100% recycled synthetic down
  2. Synthetic down with some recycled content
  3. Synthetic down with no recycled content
  4. 100% recycled goose and duck down
  5. Goose and duck down with some recycled content
  6. Virgin goose and duck down 

 

How we rated the companies in the animal products category

On the score table in the outdoor clothing guide, to get full marks in the animal products category, a brand and its wider group needed to be free of animal-derived materials and have a policy committing to not using animal products in future.

None of the brands in this guide achieved this, but the closest was Páramo, which currently doesn’t use any animal-derived materials, but didn’t have an explicit policy saying this so it scored 80/100.

We award more marks for brands that have policies on this issue because it shows that they have committed to not using animal-derived materials at all.

Brands that sold animal products but were considered to have adequate animal welfare policies (such as certified down) could score up to 40 points. 

Brands that used animal products but did not have adequate welfare policies scored zero.

Animal down vs synthetic

Down’s warmth-to-weight ratio beats synthetics and it’s long lasting, renewable, biodegradable and uses a product that would otherwise be waste. Its greenhouse gas emissions are less than synthetic alternatives.

However, like leather, even certified down isn’t an inconsequential by-product of the meat industry, but an economically important co-product, so buying down directly contributes to goose and duck factory farms and abattoirs. For example, over half of the ducks and geese killed in the UK each year are kept inside with no access to water.

The latest synthetic fillings are comparable in warmth to down for most uses and they’re also generally cheaper too. Plus, synthetic fills are often more resistant to the wet, dry faster and are easier to care for. And many companies are using synthetic down with at least a proportion of it from recycled source.

Other animal issues with clothing

Down is not the only animal welfare and rights issue associated with clothing. Many people including vegans will also wish to avoid wool, leather, fur and silk for example. Our article on clothing and animal welfare and animal rights has more information on these materials, and recommendations for brands to look for which are vegan friendly.