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A Heavy Problem for the Feather Industry

Your winter puffer coat likely has a bloody backstory in its fluffy lining, but major companies are coming around to humanely-sourced down.

Illustration by Christopher Peak

Winter is coming. The possible return of our newest seasonal rock star, the polar vortex, means another season of sporadic bursts of frigid air and snow for much of the United States. It also means a return of the winter down jacket?, ?which here in New England is a commodity ?just behind heating oil. It’s a clothing item most people take for granted because it gives us an impressive amount of warmth at a relatively reasonable price. But the cost is far greater for the birds whose feathers provide winter coats with their puffiness and cozy comforters with their fluffiness.

Down is ideal for jackets, whereas feathers are more suited for pillows and other types of bedding. Down is soft, fine, and plush, and is found closer to a bird’s skin. Down traps air, preventing it from reaching the bird’s body, which helps keep the bird (and you) insulated. Feathers are just that; the whole feather, including its prickly stem, barb, and barbules. Because of these characteristics, feathers are less likely to be used in jackets, where a barb or stem could easily poke through a seam. But the stem acts as a spring when tightly packed, making feathers well suited for items that need to bounce back after use, like a mattress or cushion. Regardless of whether the product is made from down or feathers, the sourcing of both is the same.

Photo courtesy Four Paws

The down feather industry means billions of dollars a year for suppliers. China provides 80 percent of the world’s supply for down feathers, with the other 20 percent coming from Hungary, Poland, and North America. The large percentage of down feathers coming from China, a country that as of 2012 had not one animal cruelty law, raised alarms among animal advocates. Even more troublesome is the process of live plucking, which, as of early 2009, accounted for at least half (possibly as much as 80 percent) of the global down supply. Live plucking, in which down is harvested while the bird is still alive, is painful to watch and even worse to hear. Feathers are ripped from the bird’s body, often leaving it with open wounds that are then sewn up to prevent infection. Once the birds are plucked, the feathers grow back in about a month, a bird can typically withstand three or four live pluckings a year. The average goose yields enough down to fill a standard pillow. Depending on the size, a winter coat takes three to four geese. Down taken from birds that are live-plucked is supposedly more desirable and therefore more profitable for suppliers.

When Patagonia re-introduced down garments into its product line in 2002, it did so without tracking the source of its down feathers. It wasn’t until five years later that the company learned of the inhumane methods its suppliers were using to gather down?—?treatment such as caging, live-plucking, de-beaking, and force-feeding. Patagonia demanded answers from its suppliers and were told what they wanted to hear, that the birds weren’t force-fed or live-plucked. Both statements turned out to be false.

Historically, feathers were sourced from wildfowl such as ducks and seagulls. But these days, the majority of down that’s used for consumer goods comes from domesticated geese, which also produce the infamous delicacy foie gras. Thus many manufactures obtain their down from the same farms that produce foie, which has been denounced for decades by animal welfare groups due to the foie production practice known as force-feeding. Most European countries (excluding France and Hungary) have banned force-feeding. India has banned the delicacy from being imported. California banned the production and consumption of foie gras in 2012.

A gavage

In force-feeding, a device called a gavage is put down a live bird’s throat to rapidly funnel food into them. Supporters of foie gras maintain that these migratory birds would stuff themselves in nature to prepare for long journeys, and don’t suffer as the feeding tube is inserted. The result is foie gras—a liver that is six to 10 times the normal size. The high-end buttery byproduct is so fatty, it can weep at room temperature.

In December 2010, the German animal welfare group Four Paws accused Patagonia of using down from birds that were both force-fed and live-plucked. Patagonia denied the accusations but investigated the group’s claims, and in 2011 found that though their suppliers in Hungary did not appear to be live plucking birds, they were using geese that were force-fed. Seeking more information on down sourcing, Patagonia followed the process over a six-month period, beginning with the parenting farms where the eggs are laid, to the hatcheries where the birds are raised, to the slaughterhouses, and finally through the down processors.

Over the next two years, the apparel maker began to implement a system-wide zero-tolerance policy, audited by a third party, assuring that all future down came only from suppliers who met strict guidelines, including that all birds be humanely raised and slaughtered (Patagonia now claims that all their down comes from birds that are already being raised for food), without any force-feeding or live plucking. In 2013, the company received its first audit report and the findings were what they had hoped for?: That from egg to slaughterhouse, no bird was found to have been force-fed or live-plucked, and that all were raised in a humane environment. Today, the company proudly touts its “100-percent Traceable Down” products.

Other apparel and bedding companies are following suit. Two of the industry’s leading suppliers of down, Allied Feather & Down and Downlite, have teamed up with outdoor apparel giant The North Face, sustainability group the Textile Exchange and several animal welfare groups to create the Responsible Down Standard—?a third-party certification standard that “can be applied to any waterfowl-based supply chain to help ensure humane treatment of animals from gosling to end product.” The North Face has pledged that by 2017, all the down it uses will be RDS certified. Other major players like H&M, Eddie Bauer, and Helly Hansen, have also signed on to use RDS-sourced down.

Today, Patagonia claims that 100 percent of the down in their products is now traceable and humanely sourced. Adam Fetcher, Patagonia’s director of global public relations and communications, wrote in an email that the company is currently the only one that requires mandatory audits of its parent farms.

As with any animal product?—?meat, fur, down, or even zoos?—?consumers are now making their choices consciously, with access to more production information than ever before. Sales of cage-free eggs are growing rapidly. Organic food is now a $35 billion a year industry, increasing 11 percent from just last year. Grocery chain Whole Foods uses strict animal welfare standards for its meat products. The more awareness consumers have, the more change they can produce. Add to that the staple of cold New England winters, the down jacket.

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