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Animal Down in Clothing

The story behind 'live plucking' of birds for down-filled jackets. Ethical Consumer speaks to international animal welfare charity, Four Paws, about the problem of down in outdoor jackets. 

Down is a prized commodity for the outdoor equipment industry. Every year, hundreds of tonnes of it are processed, from millions of ducks and geese. 

But you may be shocked to hear that these geese and ducks can have their feathers plucked while alive, repeatedly for years, and that the more you ‘live-pluck’ a bird, the more sought-after is their down for its higher ‘fill-power’. Down and feathers may also come from birds that have been cruelly force-fed for the controversial paté, 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. However, there is often very little traceability within the supply lines of these companies.

Since 2008, 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. 

Outdoor companies 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 and Mountain Equipment each developing their own standards – the Traceable Down Standard (TDS), the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), and the Down Codex respectively.

TDS and RDS have now been taken up by other companies too, and Four Paws’ International Farm Animal Campaigner Nina Jamal says discussions across the industry sent “an encouraging signal that there is agreement these cruelties should not be tolerated”.

Discover which outdoor clothing companies have a policy for down in our ethical shopping guide to waterproof jackets

How reliable are these standards?

Before these standards were developed, no auditing was done at farm level, so this is a great step forward. The difference between the standards is the depth of audits around parent farms. Parent farms are where birds are raised to produce eggs. This is where the highest risk for live-plucking occurs, as animals live there up to four years.

Recently, an on-site audit of parent farms has become key to the RDS standard. Each stage in the supply chain is audited by a professional, third party certification body.

The TDS and the Down Codex are strict standards and guarantee that down is not from live-plucked or force-fed animals. Parent farm audits are compulsory for all larger farms. 

What to buy

Ultimately, Four Paws would advise people to avoid buying down, but for people who do (or buy other products from same companies), you can look at how they compare on their down policies. Of the brands in the insulated jackets guide who use down, Patagonia, Sprayway and Mountain Equipment are the top scorers according to Four Paws.

On the insulated jackets score table, all companies using down lose half a mark under Animal Rights. If they have not adopted a standard that includes auditing higher-risk parent farms, they lose a full mark.

Which filling keeps you warmer?

There’s no doubting that down’s winning warmth to weight ratio beats synthetics which is bad news for the goose. The good news though is that the latest synthetic fillings are comparable to medium-quality down and, crucially, they’re also generally cheaper too.

But perhaps the main reason why you should buy synthetic rather than down is because of the British climate.

“Synthetic fills are often a more suitable option than down because they’re more resistant to the wet and are easier to care for,” says Jon Doran, reviews editor at Outdoors Magic

Down may keep you toasty in the dry cold of the Arctic or the Alps, but it’s rubbish in the rain.

This means that in Britain’s damp and muggy winter down is likely to end up in a sodden mess whilst synthetic will you keep you warm whatever the weather – which of course is also better news for the goose.


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