Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” duvet inserts, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
What’s better than crawling into bed and curling up under a cozy duvet on a chilly night? But have you ever thought about what’s keeping you warm? Should these materials be keeping us cozy, or keeping us up at night?
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Duvet inserts are the puffy, quilt-like blankets that go inside duvet covers. Like the cherry on top of a comfy mattress, sheet set, and pillow. Most bedding companies offer duvet inserts that are either “down” (made of down and feathers from waterfowl) or “down alternative” (made of synthetic fibers, traditionally made from crude oil). There are now a handful of sub-categories beyond that and each has its pros and cons on the comfort front and on the sustainability front.
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A FEW TAKEAWAYS:
Three cheers for recycled down! When choosing a duvet insert, we prefer recycled down, recycled synthetics, eucalyptus fiber, and OEKO-TEX or GOTS certified cotton. Read on for why. The short of it? We avoid virgin down and feathers because the industry is wrought with animal abuse. If virgin down is a must-have in your household, look for products that are certified by Global Traceable Down Standard or Responsible Down Standard to ensure you’re not accidentally supporting abusive live-plucking practices.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Down and Feathers
The majority 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 typically aren’t as soft or warm as full-down products. Down, on the other hand, 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. These attributes make down more coveted than feathers, but many manufacturers will use a mixture of the two so that they can advertise the use of down while also cutting costs.
In theory, as long as the commercial poultry industry is in existence, down and feathers could be a byproduct that (again, theoretically) limits the amount of waste to landfill during processing. Plus, these materials are recyclable and can be composted at home. The unfortunate reality is that in conventional down production, waterfowl are often plucked while they’re alive. This practice is outlawed in the U.S., but it still takes place in Hungary, Poland, and China, the world’s largest down producers. The commercial down industry produces 270,000 metric tons of down annually, and it is estimated that 50-80% of the down on the market is live-plucked. That’s a lot of unnecessary suffering. This is all to say that if you choose to buy down products, be super careful to check for certifications by Global Traceable Down Standard or Responsible Down Standard (more on those below).
Polymer-based (Synthetic) Materials
Ever heard of microplastics? Now is a good time to familiarize yourself with the tiny, pesky pieces of plastic, which have been found on the top of Mount Everest, in the depths of the Mariana Trench, and are impacting you, me, and the environment in ways we never saw coming. Unfortunately, polymer-based materials (like polyester) shed microplastics when laundered. When those microplastics go down the drain with the rest of the soapy water, they accumulate in our waterways and end up in our bodies, where they can harm our cells. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic pollution in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. Unfortunately, synthetic duvet inserts are the most common and affordable options. In fact, at least 53% of the duvets we’ve rated contain synthetic materials.
Because down retains its structure over time better than feathers, it can be collected, cleaned, and used all over again in new products. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find; none of the duvet inserts we’ve rated on Amazon contain the stuff.
If you’re in the market for a synthetic down alternative, there are some that are made of recycled material. A very recent study in the Textile Research Journal found that using recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester cut water requirements in production by two-thirds, and a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment found that using recycled polyester could lead to a 59% reduction in energy use. While water and energy are two important pieces of the environmental puzzle, we should still consider the reality of microplastics.
If you’re looking at a duvet insert with an organic cotton shell, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most rigorous certification in the industry, ensuring compliance with strict social and environmental standards across the entire supply chain. For conventional cotton, the OEKO-TEX certification ensures that the product does not contain chemicals detrimental to human health. Getting a duvet insert made with cotton instead of the polyester one could also cut the energy footprint of the item by about 25%, but it would come at the cost of using about 9x more water. There are trade-offs here, but we generally prefer cotton products to polymer-based ones.
Another “natural”, plant-based fiber, eucalyptus wood pulp uses about 10 times less water than cotton and doesn’t necessarily require new planting each season since it is cut instead of uprooted. Eucalyptus is becoming an increasingly popular down alternative, though it’s still not super easy to find. Only a few of the duvets we’ve rated contain eucalyptus fiber.
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 in the market, 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.
The OEKO-TEX certification guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This certification tells us that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the duvets AND the people who sleep under them.
GOTS is like a more rigorous version of OEKO-TEX and requires that at least 70% of materials in the product are organic. It’s the cream of the crop when it comes to textile standards. If a product has a GOTS certification, it complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along the entire supply chain. It would be a major upgrade if every textile out there had this certification.
End of life
Your duvet insert, which should be washed about twice per year, will eventually reach its end. When that time comes, it’s important to know what to do with it.
Unfortunately, synthetic duvet inserts are not usually recyclable. Animal shelters in your area may be able to use them for bedding, but otherwise, throw them in the trash bin.
Down and feather fill:
If you have access to backyard composting and you are absolutely sure that the duvet insert is filled with 100% down and feathers, you can compost the fill and dispose of the shell in the trash bin. Down inserts are not usually accepted in curbside recycling, though you can check with your local animal shelters to see if they will accept them for use as bedding.