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Despite Animal-Welfare Concerns, Down’s Popularity Still Up

Ecoalf is calling foul on fowl.

As part of its commitment to “people, animals and planet, the Madrid-based brand is swapping out the goose down in its puffer jackets, coats and vests with a synthetic alternative. Its goal? To become “100 percent feather-free” by 2020, according to Javier Goyeneche, its founder and president. To that end, Ecoalf has been tinkering with a handful of insulation alternatives, each with a different loft, hand and performance.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) quickly hailed the move, awarding Ecoalf’s down-free pieces, which currently make up 75 percent of its outerwear range, with its PETA-Approved Vegan seal of approval. Its praise in a press release issued last month was equally full-throated.

“Today’s shoppers are rejecting cruelty to animals, and that includes ripping out birds’ feathers and leaving the animals bloody so that the feathers can be stuffed into coats,” Anne Brainard, director of the animal-rights organization, said in a statement. “PETA-Approved Vegan designs like Ecoalf’s stylish jackets are putting compassion into fashion, and kind-hearted consumers will take notice.”

Down has long been in the sights of the animal-rights group, which has purchased billboards, mobilized protests and enlisted celebrities like Alicia Silverstone to highlight the graphic and violent pluckings millions of birds reportedly endure for their feathers every year.

“No matter where it comes from, down is a product of cruelty to birds,” Silverstone said in one video. “We like to imagine that birds are walking around and their feathers are falling off and we just collect them in little baskets and be so lovely. That ain’t happening.”

It was a PETA investigation, in fact, that led a raft of high-street brands, including Asos, Boohoo, Topshop and Topman, Miss Selfridge, Primark, Oasis and Whistles, to denounce down en masse in 2016.

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Footage obtained by activists showed workers on Chinese farms linked to suppliers to Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End pinning down struggling geese, ripping fistfuls of feathers from their bodies and leaving behind raw and gaping wounds. Per PETA, the exposé not only served as an indictment of the down industry, but it also revealed the shortcomings of so-called ethical certifications such as the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), which assures the humane treatment of the geese and ducks whose plumage we use.

“There’s simply no guarantee that the feathers inside any jacket or pillow weren’t ripped out of a screaming goose’s skin,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said at the time.

But Textile Exchange, the sustainability nonprofit that manages the RDS, has never been able to corroborate PETA’s findings, according to Ashley Gill, senior manager of industry integrity at the organization. Of the many misconceptions that surround down, she said, live-plucking ranks at the top.

“In most cases, this material is collected from the birds after they are slaughtered for their meat, meaning down can be considered a byproduct of the meat industry,” Gill told Sourcing Journal. “While there is not good data to support how prevalent live-plucking actually is, we do know that it is not a commonplace occurrence.”

That’s not to say that live-plucking or force-feeding for the production of foie gras doesn’t happen, of course. But the RDS, which covers more than 500 million birds across the globe, strictly prohibits any practice that causes “unnecessary harm.” Without it and standards like it to track raw down material through every stage of the supply chain, Gill said, the industry would have zero oversight whatsoever, which would bode ill for the birds.

“Should the market demand for responsibly sourced down cease to exist because brands simply ban it from their product lines, there would be no incentive for meat producers and down suppliers to apply the RDS,” she said. “Which means that ducks and geese being raised for their meat will no longer be covered by a global standard that demands responsible animal-welfare practices.”

Still, even RDS stalwarts like Timberland are rethinking their use of down. Beginning this fall, the outdoor-wear maker will begin phasing out down in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa as part of its commitment to responsible sourcing, according to Colleen Vien, its sustainability director. Where it once blended PrimaLoft with RDS-certified down, Timberland will adopt only PrimaLoft or other alternatives for those markets. Down will only be employed in a “tight collection” in Asia, where customer perception about down’s superior performance relative to other types of insulation “remains a challenge.”

“We are working to phase out in Asia, where we have a very small assortment, but first we need to educate our business partners that many down alternatives actually perform better, in addition to being more ethical,” Vien said. “With their understanding and support, we will be on our way to being down-free on a global basis.”

It’s easy to draw a line between the rise of synthetic substitutes and the burgeoning interest in veganism. A quarter of Americans aged 25 to 34 years old now identify as vegans or vegetarians, according to the Economist. Though the movement is by and large diet-driven, vegans are increasingly dressing the part, too.

“Vegans are looking to incorporate this lifestyle into their wardrobes and are shopping for alternatives to leathers, wool and skins,” Charlotte Yau, a content marketer at retail-analytics firm Edited, wrote in a blog post in February. Recent technological advances that make faux practically indistinguishable from real are also hastening this trend.

For brands eschewing feathers, options abound beyond the typical plastic. Manufacturers like PrimaLoft and Polartec offer off-the-shelf polyester fibers that are recycled, recyclable, biodegradable or some combination of all three. There’s DuPont Sorona, which is partly plant-based, and 37.5, (formerly known as Cocona), which blends recycled polyester with active carbon derived from coconut shells.

Some companies have chosen a more bespoke tack, as in the case of Save the Duck, a Italian company that engineered its Plumtech technology as a warmer, more breathable, more waterproof and more hygienic alternative to down. California’s Marmot developed its Thermal R insulation to meet the thermal performance of 700-fill power down while reducing the effects of perspiration, condensation and humidity. Fortress, which hails from Utah, invented a polymer foam called Aeris that promises to keep its wearer warm even when wet. And Pangaia, a nascent “global collective,” stuffs its puffer jackets with an ersatz down made with wildflowers.

Synthetic insulation can offer additional benefits over down because it can maintain a high level of performance even when wet, said Mike Joyce, president and CEO of PrimaLoft, which originally developed its polyester-based stuffing for the U.S. Army in the 1980s.

“Goose and duck down lose much of their warming capabilities when exposed to moisture, whether from external conditions like rain and snow, or internal factors like sweat,” Joyce said. PrimaLoft products, on the other hand, maintain up to 98 percent of their thermal efficiency when wet. Plus, with its down-mimicking ThermoPlume technology, brands can achieve the “loft, look and feel of a puffy down jacket” without compromise.

But feather-free down isn’t always a perfect replacement for the regular stuff—not without some trial and error, anyway. Goyeneche of Ecoalf, for instance, says the company had to make many adjustments before it could match the quality and performance of natural down. It hasn’t always been successful. “For some kinds of jackets, we are not currently able to get the same volume we can create with real down,” he said.

Duck and goose down’s appeal isn’t going away anytime soon, either. Forecasters at Transparency Market Research expect down’s market share to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 7 percent to reach $8.2 million by 2025. For a certain segment of the population, a down product means a premium product.

Indeed, the average consumer isn’t exactly stewing over bird welfare. Though demand for down has fallen 14 percent compared with last year, it’s still performing nearly twice as well as alternative fibers, according to Sarah Barnes, a digital strategist at New York intelligence firm Trendalytics, who pulled the numbers at Sourcing Journal’s request.

“That was interesting even for me because I’m all for sustainable and ethical sourcing,” Barnes said. “But it looks like, unfortunately, that consumers may not necessarily care about the origin of their down as much as industry insiders think.”

Certainly the overwhelming popularity of Canada Goose—as much a luxury commodity as it is a defense against the loss of body heat—hasn’t helped. Neither has the viral spread of the feather-filled parka known by fans simply as the “Amazon jacket.” Consumers, as a rule, want to be prepared for the worst, even if they’re scaling sidewalks, not mountains.

But even aspiring Arctic pathfinders who insist on down or bust have options that rate higher on the morality scale, such as Patagonia’s “silent down,” which comprises a 650-fill power blend of goose and duck down from pillows, duvets and other castoff items that can’t be resold. Nau, which employs 700-fill recycled down in select items of outerwear, says the material offers the same warmth-to-weight ratio as its virgin counterpart but “at a fraction of the environmental cost.” And Mountain Equipment, whose Earthrise range of jackets contains 650-fill reclaimed down, plans to create a fully closed-loop system that recycles down clothing and equipment and turns “waste into warmth.”

Could reclaimed feathers help cold-weather purists and animal activists arrive at a détente?

“It’s just a little bit more of a humane approach,” Barnes said.