Ask an Expert: What's the Deal With Down Production?

The lowdown on where feathers in your gear actually come from.
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The lowdown on where feathers in your gear actually come from.
goose down vs. duck down

photo: kev_shine / Flickr

When it comes to staying warm, it’s tough to beat the lightweight, compressible coziness of down. Though you may regularly ask yourself where your down sleeping bag or jacket is going next, a better question might be: where did it come from?

Like many of our textiles, an estimated 70 to 90% of the world’s down and feathers originate in China, with the remainder coming primarily from Eastern Europe, according to the (OIA) down fact sheet. Eggs begin in a hatchery, where they incubate. Once they hatch, they go to a raising farm for about four months, which is about the requisite time for their meat to become tender. Birds then spend about four years in a parent farm laying eggs.

Once removed, feathers are washed, and down is sorted from the feathers. The difference? Feathers are the bird’s water protective, quill-bearing outer layer. Down is the fuzzy stuff at the bottom of the feather, the part most responsible for keeping the wearer warm. (It is also responsible for the adorable fluffiness of ducklings and chicks.) Lastly, down gets sterilized at the processing plant and brought to garment factories, where it is sewn into products.

That's the simple version, at least. In reality, it’s tough to talk about the down industry without addressing its demons. Most of the outdoor industry’s down comes from grey geese, a byproduct of the poultry meat industry. Down makes up only an estimated 5% of a goose’s economic value, while the meat and liver account for 85 to 90%. The inhumane process of force feeding birds to create the fatty liver delicacy foie gras remains prevalent across wide swaths of the meat industry, as does “live plucking,” where feathers are harvested while the bird is still alive so that the feathers can grow back and be harvested again. Such ghoulish practices cast a pall over the entire feather trade.

With an estimated 900 million geese raised yearly in China alone, tracing the origin of textile materials to ensure sustainable practices can be a slippery task. But as the industry moves closer towards ethical production and sustainability, many brands are making a leap to track and reveal their supply chains in order to avoid inhumane processes like force-feeding and live-plucking. In 2013, Patagonia, introduced its Traceable Down Standard, a third-party audit system that prohibits force feeding and live plucking and ensures humane living conditions.

Similarly, The North Face will have 30% of its products compliant with the Responsible Down Standard for its Fall 2015 line, with 100% compliance by 2017. The North Face gifted the RDS to the Textile Exchange, a multi-stakeholder group for textile sustainability, and the practices have now been adopted by brands such as Adidas, Marmot, Black Diamond, Helly Hansen, Outdoor Research, and Mammut.