Down is an animal-derived material often used in the textile industry for its thermal insulation and padding. But is it as natural and sustainable as many people would think?
Down is a layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers on ducks, geese, and swans. Feathers grow directly out of many animal skins and grow back after being removed if the animal is still alive.
Down feathers have been used for insulation for centuries. Down arguably remains one of the most efficient insulators available to make cold-weather garments, sleeping bags, and bedding.
However, down isn't ethical, cruelty-free, or vegan. Marketing down as sustainable or responsible is only a marketing tactic that doesn't solve the root of the problem.
Let's look in detail at what down is, how it's produced, its properties, downsides, environmental impacts, and sustainable alternatives.
What are down feathers?
Down is a high-performance product often made from waste, collected from ducks or geese bred and raised for meat, mostly in Canada, eastern Europe, and China.
Down feathers make super warm outerwear in comparison to synthetic alternatives. Down is light, comfortable, and retains heat like no other material used in the textile industry.
Duck and goose down fill everything from jackets to gloves, mittens, and more. Many fashion brands and retailers, especially in the outdoor segment use feathers from birds to make warm clothing.
However, there are many unethical and inhumane ways to get down feathers from animals. Ducks and geese are often treated cruelly to produce down fill and comforter used in many industries.
If you decide to buy products that contain down, demand responsibly sourced down at the minimum. Ask about the sourcing, the health, and well-being, both physical and emotional, of the animals.
Goose and duck down applications
Goose and duck down are known for their high thermal insulation properties. They make warm outerwear, coats, jackets, pants, gloves, mittens, and more.
You can also find down feathers in bedding as a lightweight insulation material. Down is often used in sleeping bags, comforters, pillows, and other bedding.
The down and feathers of animals are processed into many products that you use daily, or sleep with every night.
The outdoor apparel industry uses only a fraction of the world’s down. Most down produced globally goes into upholstery, beddings, and home furnishings.
How are down feathers produced?
Animals are plucked to gather feathers or down when they are still alive or after they have been killed.
Feathers do grow back and to maximize profits, down is often obtained by live-plucking without anesthetic, which is inhumane and unethical. This brutal process leaves birds bleeding with gaping open wounds.
A single goose produces 60 grams of down. One farm admitting to producing 15 tons of down every year would process 250,000 live-pluckings, according to PETA.
China is the biggest exporter of down and feathers, with more than 80% of all global production.
About 2.7 billion ducks and 653 million geese were raised for consumption each year globally between 2009 and 2013, according to the International Down and Feather Bureau (IDFB).
Once collected from live or dead animals, farmers ship down feathers to manufacturers who use them to create apparel, beddings, and other applications.
Down feathers properties, advantages, and disadvantages
Duck and goose down is very soft, comfortable, lightweight, packable, breathable, and durable. It's a common material for everyday clothing, as well as sportswear and outerwear.
Down feathers are very pleasant to the touch and water-absorbent as well.
However, down feathers can cause allergic reactions. They often become contaminated with molds, fungi, mildew, dust mites, and other insects.
The thermal properties of down are virtually eliminated when wet. Down forms clumps, if exposed to dampness or moisture. It also absorbs and retains odors.
Here are some of the best advantages of duck and goose down:
- Good durability
- High comfort and softness
- A luxurious look and hand feel
The main downsides of using down feathers are:
- Cause allergic reactions
- Lose thermal insulation when wet
- Absorb and retain odors
- Easily contaminated
- Negative environmental impact
- Unethical and cruel
Down feathers certifications
Many consumers don't want animals to suffer and look for certifications such as the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) or the Traceable Down Standard (TDS). These standards certify high-quality down with the lowest impact on birds.
They verify that down comes from sources that respect animal conditions and the Five Freedoms, the gold standard in animal welfare:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) aims to ensure that down and feathers come from animals that have not been subjected to any unnecessary harm.
It influences the down and feather industry to incentivize practices that respect the humane treatment of ducks and geese.
Developed by the Textile Exchange, RDS wants to drive demand for strong animal welfare practices and provide a tool for companies to make accurate claims.
The Responsible Down Standard verifies materials along the supply chain and ensures a strong chain of custody. It forbids the live-plucking and molt-harvesting of birds, as well as force-feeding.
The Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS) ensures that down in apparel, household, and commercial products comes from a responsible source that respects animal welfare and can be fully and transparently traced.
TDS is one of the strictest animal welfare standards in the down industry and launched in 2015 by NSF International, a US non-profit organization that monitors standards internationally.
The Traceable Down Standard is the result of a collaboration between the outdoor brand Patagonia, animal welfare organizations, NGOs, and other stakeholders in the industry.
TDS forbids the live-plucking and force-feeding of birds. It reaches back further in the supply chain to avoid animal suffering. The NSF collaborates with the Textile Exchange to harmonize their standards.
How to care for down products
Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably and ensure that they last longer. Give special attention to products made of down, as they are delicate.
Extend the life of your clothes and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them and avoiding common mistakes. You can limit pressure on natural resources, reduces waste, pollution, and emissions.
Before washing down clothing or bedding, read the care instructions that can be found on the care tag. This way, you can easily determine if the product is washable.
Down products are usually easy to wash. They can be washed in the washing machine on the cool wash setting.
To save water, energy, and preserve the quality of your garment, it's best to wash goods that contain down in cold temperatures. It saves energy and prevents materials from melting.
You can place down and feathers in the washing machine but with a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Don't use any chlorine-based or strong detergent and use a gentle cycle to avoid high spin speeds. Make sure the washing speed doesn't exceed 600 revolutions per minute.
To avoid dye bleeding, make sure to soak the material for the least amount of time.
The more sustainable way of drying your clothing and bedding is to hang them to dry.
Do not dry down feathers in a tumble drier. They have very low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures.
Place them on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves the quality of your garments and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.
You can also lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
Iron your clothes only when it's necessary. If you decide to iron down products, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent any damage.
Iron the fabric through a damp cloth if possible. Down feathers can easily melt and too much ironing will eventually damage the garment.
Down doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, and nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from clothes made of modal textiles.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve the fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Are down feathers sustainable?
Certification standards such as the RDS or Global TDS are a step in the right direction to ensure the ethical treatment of animals.
However, some certified suppliers are still sourcing live-plucked down. And the mass-farming and killing of animals for fashion are still unnecessary, cruel, and damaging to the environment.
Cruelty-free down is a marketing tactic that doesn't solve the root of the problem. It only allows a better conscience for buyers and higher profit margins for sellers.
Ethically sourced down is a lot more expensive to produce. Parent birds live longer because they are kept for breeding rather than for meat production.
There is plenty of time between hatching and slaughter to make live-plucking of the parent birds profitable. A bird can be live-plucked several times a year up to the time it’s slaughtered.
In practice, the same farm can raise birds under ethical standards while also raising live-plucked birds. And many manufacturers have no clue whether down feathers are coming from ethically or unethically treated birds.
The fact is that a significant portion of the world's supply of down feathers are still plucked from live birds, even if the precise percentage is uncertain.
The live-plucking of birds is illegal in Canada, the United States, and Europe. But it still occurs regularly in Poland, Hungary, and China. And China is the world's largest producer of down feathers.
Duck and geese bred and raised for their meat often lived in inhumane conditions, in crowded environments, deprived of liberty, subjected to painful treatments, and brutally slaughtered.
It's a common misconception to think that down feathers are simply a by-product of the meat industry. Many people believe that they prevent more waste by buying and using down clothing and bedding.
A lot of feathers come from animals being slaughtered for their meat. But the down industry is very lucrative on its own. Feathers make a significant income for farmers.
Animal farming is also damaging to the environment, ecosystems, and human health.
The raising and farming of animals generate tons of harmful chemicals that pollute rivers, water sources, and soils as they are often released untreated into the nearby environment.
Animal farming requires feed, land, and water. It's a major source of water toxicity. Pesticides and insecticides are also used on animals to keep them free of parasites.
The land has to be cleared and trees cut down to make room for animal farming. It leads to soil salinity and the destruction of biodiversity.
Simply refuse to wear items made from these materials to reduce their impact on the environment and animal suffering. Make the compassionate choice to pledge vegan and cruelty-free alternatives instead.
Sustainable alternatives to down feathers
There are plenty of ethical and sustainable alternatives to down feathers. Unfortunately, most of them are synthetic, petroleum-derived, insulation alternatives like Polarguard, Thermore, PrimaLoft, and more.
One solution is to look for materials that contain recycled content. Primaloft uses some recycled components to produce sustainable synthetic insulation products.
Many companies now use recycled synthetic fill because it performs well even when wet. It's a more responsible and eco-friendly material that also diverts plastic waste from landfills.
Natural, organic materials
For applications like beddings, duvets, comforters, and home furnishings, you can choose natural and organic materials like organic cotton, linen, and hemp. They are also soft, durable, and sustainable.
Lyocell regenerated fiber
Lyocell is another option and a better alternative to petroleum-based fabrics. It's an environmentally friendly cellulosic fiber produced sustainably from wood pulp.
Your next best alternative is upcycled or pre-loved down. Ethically sourced down is more expensive than synthetic materials, so recycling and upcycling make sense to prevent additional waste and animal welfare issues.
High-quality materials, fabrics, and garments can last decades if you take care of them properly. Look for brands than source upcycled materials for their new collections. Or buy one of the many second-hand options you can find on the market.
Sustainable clothing brands to buy from
For their new collections, many ethical fashion labels now use recycled synthetic fill, upcycled down, lyocell, and other best environmentally friendly alternatives to down feathers.
They design, manufacture, and market high-quality clothing made of green materials via sustainable methods that also protect animal welfare.
Here are some of the best sustainable fashion brands that produce eco-friendly clothing to stay warm ethically:
- prAna, an outdoor brand that creates clothing for positive change, to inspire new generations to thrive and stay active.
- Patagonia, an industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.
- Everlane, a transparent brand offering modern and beautiful essentials, at the best factories, without traditional markups.
- Reformation, a fashion label making sustainable women's clothing and accessories.
- The North Face, a clothing label, making activewear and outdoor sports gear that exceeds your expectations.
- Finisterre, an outdoor brand, built to inspire a love of the sea and anchored in exceptional products.
- Tentree, a clothing brand that designs eco-friendly apparel for a healthy, sustainable world. Made with recycled materials and organic fabrics.
- ARKET, an apparel company that makes beautiful, lasting, and responsible fashion for women, men, and children.
- Outerknown, a sustainable clothing brand, creating fashionable apparel from organic and recycled materials.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.