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Major Outdoor Brands Strive for Cruelty-Free Down

In the spirit of sustainability, Portland, Oregon-based outdoor clothing company Nau earlier this year announced it would incorporate down sourced from cast-off European comforters in every one of its 650 fill power jackets from Fall ’15 onward.

“Recycled down is a major breakthrough in sustainable insulation. We use a naturally occurring material that has had a useful life as a duvet,” said Mark Galbraith, the brand’s general manager, pointing out that the down is cleaned and sterilized before being repurposed into the high-performance outerwear. “This keeps a raw material in use for as long as possible, lowering the impact of making down jackets.”

As it already has with recycled polyester (more than 95 percent of the polyester used in the company’s collection is crafted from recycled materials), Nau views function and form as equal partners so it’s “creating only what is essential with as little waste as possible.” Retailing from $300-$495, the recycled-down range includes Nau’s Cocoon Down Trench, Allee Down Pullover, Copenhagen Down Trench and Blazing Down Jacket.

“Recycled down is such a big step in improving the sustainability of apparel insulation—and is so perfectly aligned with Nau’s values—that we feel our audience will be very excited for these pieces to launch in the fall,” noted Nick Lawrence, Nau’s marketing manager.

Meanwhile, all of the brand’s 800 fill power products will be certified under the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) moving forward, a third-party assessment that ensures their non-recycled down is sustainably sourced.

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Released a year ago and updated in March, RDS came into being after the Vienna-based animal rights organization, Four Paws, called out a host of major outdoor clothing names (The North Face and Patagonia, among others) in 2010 for using goose and duck down from farms that practiced force-feeding and live-plucking. Because there was no existing animal-welfare standard for waterfowl at that time, The North Face (which commands a 25.4% share of the outdoor apparel market, according to market research firm The NPD Group) was compelled to team up with Textile Exchange and Control Union Certifications in 2012 to design and implement one in primary sourcing regions in Europe, Asia and the U.S., with help from key suppliers Allied Feather & Down and Downlite, in an effort to encourage companies to source down humanely.

Since its launch last year, Adidas, Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen and Mammut, to name a few, have chosen to adopt the standard, which has so far certified the treatment and living conditions of more than 100 million birds being raised on more than 350 farms.

Daniel Uretsky, Allied Feather’s president, believes that responsibly sourced and processed down can be sustainably and ethnically produced. “Down is a byproduct of the food industry,” he said, “People are raising and killing the birds to be eaten and then the down is removed, processed and used. If the down was not used it would have to be disposed in landfills.”

Uretsky added, “By adopting industry-wide standards [such as RDS] every brand does not have to reinvent the wheel on their own, but rather rely on us to work with the third parties to follow the standards set for the industry.”

Some companies have already initiated their own standards. Swedish brand Fjallraven, for one, started developing strict routines and guidelines regarding down as early as 2009, conducting its own audits more than once a year, accompanied by an independent veterinarian, to ensure the transparency of its production from hatchling to the end-product. In fact, Four Paws recently awarded the company the top spot in its “Cruelty Free Down Challenge.”

Patagonia, meanwhile, introduced the Traceable Down Standard in 2013 (it has since been rolled out as a global standard by the certification body, NSF International) and announced that starting in Fall ’14, its entire collection of down-insulated products would be sourced from birds that had never been force-fed or live-plucked during their lifetime.

“The challenges [in our quest for ethically sourced and processed down] have actually been opportunities to educate deep into the supply chain,” Allied Feather’s Uretsky shared, noting that the greatest hurdle is the cost of all the audits needed. “But we view this as an investment in the future of our business and the entire industry to ensure that consumers can feel positive about the products they are buying.”

And in the crowded and lucrative market for cold-weather outerwear (the category raked in $2.2 billion in sales in the U.S. last year) a socially responsible agenda could set a brand apart from the pack and boost business.