Natural down, plucked from ducks and geese and stuffed into jackets, duvets and sleeping bags for warmth, has 18 times less of an impact on climate change than its polyester-fill counterpart, a new life-cycle assessment (LCA) has found.
Conducted by Long Trail Sustainability, a Vermont-based consultancy firm, on behalf of the International Down and Feather Bureau (IDFB), the LCA pitted the materials against each other in five environmental areas: human health, ecosystems, resources, cumulative demand and climate change.
The verdict? Down’s footprint, on a per-ton basis, is 85 percent to 97 percent smaller than polyester’s across all categories.
Long Trail Sustainability’s study, which it says adheres to ISO 14040 and 14044 guidelines, looked at the down supply chain from the raising of the birds to processing of the down material, including the use of energy, water and detergent. On the polyester end, the company assessed the processing of petroleum-based materials—such as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short—and the application of heat and electricity.
The LCA appeared to examine only virgin polyester, not its recycled version, which manufacturers like PrimaLoft and Polartec offer as an environmentally friendlier alternative.
“Because down is a natural resource, we knew that it had a positive environmental impact which led us to commission this study in order to verify the sustainability of down versus synthetic alternatives, such as polyester,” Stephen Palmer, president of the IDFB, a global trade group, said in a statement. “The consumer movement towards natural and sustainable products is precisely in line with the value proposition of down products.”
Down, he noted, is not only a naturally renewable, biodegradable byproduct but it’s also ethically sourced.
It’s the latter claim, however, that animal-rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) take issue with. Employees on goose farms, they say, pull “fistfuls of feathers” from millions of live birds every year, causing considerable pain and distress and leaving bloody wounds behind. Those same birds might be force-fed for the production of foie gras, a fatty liver product that is banned from being sold in California and subject to a new ban in New York City that won’t take effect until 2022.
The issue is a highly contentious one. While certification such as the Responsible Down Standard promise to safeguard the humane treatment of ducks and geese, its critics claim they offer no guarantee.
“There’s no such thing as ‘responsible” down,” Tracy Reiman, vice president of PETA, told Sourcing Journal. “This is an industry in which cruelty and systematic suffering are pervasive. When animals are viewed as nothing more than commodities, cruelty will always be a part of the production process.”
One possible compromise is recycled or reclaimed down, which is plundered from old pillows and bedding, then washed and sanitized for reuse by the likes of Patagonia, Nau and Mountain Equipment. This month, Everlane feted its ReDown collection of outerwear, which comprises 100 percent recycled polyester shells (derived from post-consumer plastic bottles) and “totally recycled” down insulation.
“Down is undoubtedly the warmest, softest and lightest option when it comes to outerwear, but oftentimes it is produced using force-feeding and live-plucking processes, which is why we initially waited to develop with down,” Kimberley Smith, general manager of apparel at Everlane, told Sourcing Journal. “[Ultimately,] we were able to find an option that is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled down duvets and pillows.”