Ruffled Feathers: Why Ethical Down Matters
On a snowy slope or at the end of a long day on the trail, there’s no cozier feeling than snuggling into a jacket or sleeping bag filled with down. Warm, lightweight, and packable, down has stood the test of time for centuries; its use in quilts and mattresses dates back to the 1400s. But with the development of inexpensive synthetic down alternatives in the last few decades, does down still deserve its place in your outdoor gear?
First, a quick definition: Down and feathers are not the same things. Both are harvested from ducks and geese and are used as insulating filler in cushions and comforters. However, feathers are both more abundant—they make up the outer covering of the bird and are regularly shed—and too stiff and slick for many applications. Down, the inner layer of fluffy feathers that lines the bird’s breast and belly, is soft, highly insulating, and bounces back to its original shape after being crushed. It’s also breathable, wicking moisture away from the body to evaporate.
These qualities of down, though, come with a correspondingly high price tag.
Synthetic Versus Down
Synthetic alternatives are mostly made of polyester filaments arranged in clusters to mimic down’s insulating properties. Including familiar brand names such as Thinsulate and PrimaLoft, these products offer warmth and loft at a budget-friendly price. But, as new research continues to demonstrate, these products carry a high price tag of their own.
Whenever synthetic fibers are washed, they shed tiny microfiber particles. Thinner than a strand of silk and invisible to the naked eye, these microfibers flow down our drains, out through streams, and into the water supply. At under a millimeter in length, they’re too small to be trapped by filtration systems, and so they enter rivers, lakes, and oceans by the billions. It’s estimated that over its lifetime, a single fleece jacket can shed 250,000 plastic fibers. With the ubiquity of microplastics in the oceans, they are being found wherever researchers look for them, including in fish, shellfish, and even sea salt. Their potential health effects in humans are now being studied, but are still unknown and deeply concerning.
Down, on the other hand, is fundamentally a more environmentally friendly product. Rather than consuming fossil fuels and toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process, it’s a natural byproduct of the food industry. But animal lovers may still have some concern about the source of the fluffy filling: A 2016 expose by PETA revealed that much of the world’s down is “live-plucked,” or ripped out of a birds’ skin while it’s still alive. Additionally, there is a wide range of potentially harmful chemicals used to clean, process, and waterproof down.
In response to consumers’ environmental and health concerns, a coalition of down manufacturers has adopted stringent policies to make sure that down is produced, manufactured, and marketed with respect for animal welfare, the natural environment, and consumers’ health. In 2014, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) launched in partnership with Textile Exchange, a nonprofit devoted to helping the textile industry adopt more sustainable standards.
RDS-certified down is supervised throughout the supply chain to make sure the birds are not force-fed or live-plucked, and that they are raised humanely from hatching to slaughter (that means free access to the outdoors, food, water, and open living space). ALLIED Feather & Down, the world’s largest supplier of down to the outdoor industry, spearheaded the creation of these guidelines and their widespread adoption by other manufacturers.
Additionally, ALLIED and other responsible down suppliers are taking steps to minimize the environmental impact of down production. They clean feathers and down with biodegradable detergents and recycle the water used in the process. Another bonus to this lower-temperature, slower-drying process: It preserves more of down’s natural oils, making it more durable and resilient. And, in down treated for water resistance, these suppliers use PFC-free finishes. That’s great news as these organofluorine chemicals have been linked to health problems, including reduced response to vaccines and increased risk of cancer.
So where can you find ethical down products? Start by looking for an RDS certification label on the products you buy, or check out a comprehensive list of RDS-certified apparel and gear manufacturers. It includes both big names like Columbia and The North Face and smaller boutique companies like Indygena and Norrøna. Supplier ALLIED Feather & Down takes transparency one step further with the Track My Down tool, allowing consumers to learn exactly where the down in their jacket or sleeping bag comes from.
Whether you’re looking for a light vest to layer under a waterproof shell or a sleeping bag hardcore enough to withstand an alpine night, there’s an ethical down-filled option that will give you the warm fuzzies both inside and out.
Protect Your Investment: Taking Care of Natural Down
Down’s lightweight and super-insulating properties are tough to beat. But neglect or improper care can flatten those feathers and ruin your investment. Keep down products as light and fluffy as the day you bought them with these tips:
- Keep it dry. Down loses its insulating power when wet and dries very slowly. Inspect seams to make sure they’re snug, and apply waterproofing products regularly to keep water out. Turn sleeping bags inside out and allow them to air-dry daily (or at least at the end of a multi-day trip).
- Never dry-clean. The solvents used in the process strip away down’s natural oils and allow it to compact. Dry-cleaning sleeping bags or down-filled garments will void many manufacturers’ warranties.
- Wash it right. Wash down-filled products with a gentle, purpose-built detergent like Nikwax Down Wash Direct ($10.95). It restores down’s breathability and enhances water-repellent finishes.
- Tumble-dry. For down products, use medium heat, stopping the dryer every 15-20 minutes to remove the garment or bag and manually break up any clumps in the down. Make sure all items are completely dry before storing.