Mmmmm…down. Nature’s pillowy, marshmallowy insulator. We use it in jackets, pillows, comforters, and sleeping bags, and BOY is it good at keeping us warm and cozy. But have you ever thought about from where, and at what cost it comes?
Like most commercial operations involving animals, the down industry, which produces 270,000 metric tons of down annually, is riddled with horror stories of cruelty and abuse. We know, we know…why does something so comfy have to come at such a high cost? Why can’t we get anything right at the intersection of big business and animal by-products?
In this blog, we’ll dig into the duplicitous nature of down, and what to look out for to ensure you’re choosing cruelty-free.
HERE'S THE LOWDOWN
All of the comfy cozy products that we associate with down are stuffed with either down, feathers, or a combination of both.
Lesson one: Down and feathers are not the same thing. Feathers are taken from the back and wings of waterfowl, and have quills. This may ring a bell if you’ve ever been poked by a quill popping out of a jacket or bedding. Products that are stuffed with feathers will flatten out over time as the quills line up, and they aren’t as soft or warm as full-down products.
Down refers to the soft layer of clusters taken from the chest area of a goose, swan, or duck. These clusters are round and fluffy like a dandelion or cotton ball. Down is soft, light, and airy, insulates better than feathers, and doesn’t flatten out as quickly since it doesn’t have quills.
All of these attributes make down more valuable than feathers, but many manufacturers will use a mixture of the two so that they can advertise the use of down while cutting costs.
As long as the commercial meat industry is in existence, in a perfect world, down and feathers would always be a byproduct. If waterfowl are being slaughtered for their meat anyway, we might as well use their down and feathers, right? Plus, these materials are biodegradable and recyclable, making them environmentally preferable to popular petroleum-based alternatives like polyfill.
The unfortunate reality, though, is that waterfowl are often repeatedly plucked while they’re alive. This is often done by lifting the birds from their necks or wings, restraining their legs, and ripping their feathers right out of their skin. If this sounds painful, that’s because it is; apparently, live plucking feels like having one’s hair pulled out. And when live plucking leads to wounds, workers often stitch up the animals with a needle and thread and no painkillers. Pretty unbelievable, right?
And birds that are live plucked usually have to endure this practice repeatedly throughout their too-short lives. Geese that are raised for down can be live plucked for the first time at 10 weeks of age, and then repeatedly every six to eight weeks thereafter for a year or two.
After that, the geese are often force-fed grain through a tube for foie gras production until their livers swell to about 10 times the normal size, when they are then slaughtered at age two or three (despite their normal lifespan of about 20 years). This practice is outlawed in the U.S., but it still takes place in Hungary, Poland, and China, the world’s largest down producers. In fact, it is estimated that 50-80% of the down on the market is live-plucked.
Ok, that’s enough of that.
The easiest way to ensure you’re not supporting the live-plucking of waterfowl is to avoid buying down altogether (more on that later). If you’re committed to buying down (after all, even Patagonia touts its unrivaled insulating properties), make sure you only buy down products that are certified. The most stringent and trustworthy certifications are:
This certification ensures that no down comes from live-plucked or force-fed birds, and that animals have access to the Five Freedoms of animal welfare, including freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; freedom from fear and distress. Facilities must be audited on the criteria every three years to maintain the certification. GTDS is the strictest standard, and covers apparel, household items, and commercial products.
This certification also ensures that no down comes from live-plucked or force-fed birds, and that animals have access to the Five Freedoms of animal welfare mentioned above. Audits are conducted annually to ensure that facilities are following the criteria. RDS is the most popular down certification program, with about 150 brands on board.
Better yet, buy recycled down. Because down retains its structure over time, it can be collected, cleaned, and used all over again in new products with no degradation of quality. Companies like Patagonia, Banana Republic, Everlane, Uniqlo, and Brooklinen are incorporating recycled down into their products, which we love.
If you’re open to down alternatives, you’re in luck because there are tons of options. Natural latex is one of our favorite down alternatives for mattresses and pillows — check out this blog post to learn why. Avocado makes an awesome natural latex pillow that’s on our wishlist.
Eucalyptus fiber is a great plant-based down alternative. Buffy makes a eucalyptus duvet insert that gets great reviews.
FLWRDWN is a bio-based down alternative fiber that we’re really excited about. Created by the R&D team at PANGAIA, it is a biodegradable material made from wildflowers. Unfortunately, it’s super expensive at the moment, but we love reading about innovations in this field.
RECYCLED SYNTHETIC FIBER
Just like with recycled down, the best synthetic down alternative you can get is a recycled one. Buffy and Brooklinen make duvet inserts made of recycled water bottles, and Patagonia incorporates recycled polyester into their puffy jackets.
VIRGIN SYNTHETIC FIBER
Virgin synthetic down alternatives (like polyester and microfiber) are our least favorite options because they are derived from crude oil, so they require a lot of energy to produce and they are not biodegradable. Unfortunately, virgin synthetic down alternatives are usually the easiest and cheapest to find. Keep an eye out for recycled or bio-based options if you’re able to.