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Down Standards Encourage Ethical Supply Chains

What do outerwear, sleeping bags, duvets and foie gras all have in common? They are reliant on the raising and slaughtering of ducks and geese for their raw materials. As a result, brands and retailers of these products have become targets of NGOs like PETA and other animal welfare groups with concerns over the practice of live plucking waterfowl for down and feathers, and force-feeding geese. As a result of these issues The North Face and Patagonia have both developed down standards to trace raw materials with the goal of ensuring that waterfowl are treated humanely.

Down and feathers are the world’s most highly effective insulators. They provide incredible warmth and are very lightweight and resilient, which is why they are used. Chad Altbaier, VP sales & business development at DOWNLITE, said, “There are companies that specifically source live plucked down for the highest performance of 950-1000 fill power which comes from the oldest birds. Since only 0.5% to 1% of down is live plucked most companies “expect” that their down is from animals already slaughtered for their meat.”

According to Cara Chacon, director of social & environmental responsibility at Patgonia, said, “Switching from grey to white alone minimizes the issues of force feeding, however, it does not solve traceability issues.” The color of the meat is related to the color of the feathers, dark meat = grey feathers and white meat = white feathers. It is easier to confirm that your down is derived from non-force fed birds than non-live plucked birds.

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Down and feathers are a byproduct from ducks and geese grown for meat, 85 to 90 percent of their value verses 5 to 10 percent for the down. As the demand for duck and goose meat has waned due to issues like avian flu and reduced consumption, so has the availability of down and feathers, which has impacted costs.  Over the past two years, down prices for 800-fill power have gone from approximately $44/lb to $90/lb. At the same time, animal welfare groups have begun to target brands and retailers using down as collaborators in the abuse of waterfowl.

Let’s take a look at the 2 standards:

  • Responsible Down Standard (RDS)
    • Originally developed by TNF in collaboration with Control Union and Textile Exchange (TE).
    • Textile Exchange was gifted the standard by TNF to encourage collective use of the standard at large scale in January 2014.
    • Key points include:
      • Open to use by any company
      • Available in five languages
      • Control Union is the only certifier currently able to certify to the standard
      • Addresses issues of live plucking and force-feeding
      • Backed up by TE’s Content Claim Standard
      • Includes collector-based suppliers
      • Outlines standards for animal rearing and handling
      • Applies to both blended and 100 percent certified products
  • Traceable Down Standard
    • Developed by Patagonia and third party traceability experts in 2013
    • Key points include:
      • Addresses issues of live plucking and force feeding
      • Does not include collector based down
      • Backed up by TE’s Content Claim Standard
      • Includes traceability, segregation and animal welfare
      • Deals with handling down in processing to ensure segregating live plucked and force fed from more responsibly sourced material throughout the entire process from farm to final product

Both standards provide the industry with guidelines for improving supply chain transparency. RDS has standards in place for how the animals are raised.  Additionally, it allows for the use of collector-based systems, meaning the collection of down from small family farms.  This difference helps to open up a larger supply base and alleviate some pricing pressure.  Needless to say implementing both standards will have some associated costs.

The campaigns of the animal welfare groups have brought to light treatment and supply chain problems that many brands and retailers did not fully understand.  The standards provide a method for complete transparency.  Is the industry ready?


karlaKarla Magruder is a Textile Consultant and Founder of Fabrikology International. She has over 25 years of global experience in the commercialization, development and launch of new materials and technical textile technologies.