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What is Ethical Down? Can Goose Down ever be Ethical?

Posted on November 12 2019

Reponsible Down, Ethical Down... it's too hard to trace.

Kristina Currie

Bon Tot Founder - Mum, Vegan and asker of questions!

Why it's Time to Ditch the Down ..

A few weeks ago I put up a series on IG stories about why Bon Tot will not be carrying any down products at all, in any category. I mainly did this to express myself as the buyer and business owner, to let people know where I personally stand on an issue and how it affects me as a business owner. I feel my business is an extension of who I am as a person, and what matters to me is of course going to affect how I run things at Bon Tot. Sometimes this makes it harder, but I think, more importantly, it makes it more authentic.

Down was an issue that came up to me as an individual years ago as I became more aware of the suffering of animals when they, or a product of theirs, is being reared and sold for profit. It's unfortunate, but it's also reality. As hard as it was, I saw an undercover video of an Angora Rabbit having it's fur 'live plucked' ie ripped out by a human's hands. It was horrific and I will never forget it. But, I also learned from it. I began campaigning against Angora in high street stores (yes, I'm that person who writes to big business and to my MP, I sign online petitions and then I walk through stores and check to see if they indeed pull all the product they say they have, that violate human or animal rights. PS - because of the leaked video and the outrage that came in response, H&M pulled all Angora products, so these things are worth it).

What is Down and How Can it be Unethical?

Often found in clothing as well as pillows, and mattress toppers, down is the soft plumage that serves as insulation beneath the outer feathers of ducks and geese. Generally, down comes from the underbelly of these animals. Because these feathers are fluffy and light and free from the quills found on larger feathers, they are great for insulation and provide warmth and cosiness to a variety of products.

Around 80% of the world's down comes from the Far East, and unfortunately the most common method of obtaining down is through 'live plucking'.

What is live plucking?

Live Plucking is the process of forcefully restraining ducks and geese and ripping their feathers out. The animals are then left to recover before the process is repeated.

Geese normally develop their first full coat of down and feathers at about 8 weeks of age and will molt each year. The geese are reportedly live-plucked at 10 weeks old and up to six times a year before slaughter. Some geese and ducks are force-fed for another year to produce pate de foie gras. I won't included photos of this in this blog post, but they are easy to find if you do want to see exactly how barbaric this process is.

A Swedish documentary series, “Kalla Fakta” informed viewers that from 50 to 80 percent of the world’s down market comes from live-plucked birds. This was backed up by independent research by IKEA, who subsequently pulled a huge range of proposed down filled products from their plans.

When did I find out?

I casually stopped buying down a few years ago - As in, I hadn't really been faced with it and had managed to avoid it. But last January, at the shows in Paris and Florence where we were buying for AW2019, I saw a winter coat and snowsuit brand I really liked the look of - minimal! affordable! - but when I asked what was inside and they said 'ethical down' I tilted my head and asked what that meant. The answer was that the geese were already dead when the feathers were 'gathered' ie plucked from the carcass as a by-product of the meat industry. No mention of the life and use of the geese, and most importantly no guarantee they weren't live plucked before this. I found this to be wholly unsatisfying and said so. I moved on.

Now, here we are in the actual Autumn / Winter season and I see it already - "Ethical" or "Responsible Down" being advertised. Because down is so common, something we all grew up with and never probably questioned, it's easy to just take this at face value. Lucky for me I've always liked asking questions (finally it's becoming useful!); digging around for the truth has lead me to a lot of revelations. Some stop you in your tracks and you turn on a dime. Some make you go 'huh, I didn't know that' and some swirl around in your head for a few years even, before they manifest into action.

What do other 'ethical' companies say?

Patagonia, who I adore and respect and hold in the highest regard, halted their sourcing of down five years ago when they were tipped that their down from Hungary was being live plucked. They then discovered their geese were also force fed. They realised there were actual no standards at all for either practice. So they set up their own system where their own staff formed a team and worked with an external auditor NSF International to form the highest standards in the world for down. (As a note, the only reason Patagonia became aware of the problem was due to PETA exposing it. Patagonia responded by saying 'even though they are attacking us, we are learning and reacting to what they are teaching us' which I find a remarkable response to criticism. On the other hand, Canada Goose, who has one of the worst animal welfare records in the industry and has been exposed numerous times, refuses to change.)

Patagonia is one of the most successful brands in the world, with huge buying power, make all of their own decisions and have incredibly high standards and a lot of money. And not even they could trace their chain of supply to ensure it was ethical. They are world leaders in demanding change and when it's not good enough they create a brand new system for the world to then follow. The scary thing though, is that they say it is still incredibly difficult to prove unethical production isn't happening. Imagine trying to change a system that has always operated one's going to take a long time for the hundreds of thousands of people involved in the supply chain for down to change and comply.

Sadly, it takes one google of 'goose down' to see a live plucking video. I think it shocks people because they assume things can't be this bad. But, knowledge is power. Things are always extremely dark when it comes to animals and profit. So, jumping on the slogan train of 'ethical down' is problematic, as you can see.

If Patagonia had to reinvent the wheel to ensure their down was ok, although they still advise in a statement that in general if you are vegan or opposed to fois gras then you should not buy down products. Fois gras production is banned in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Austria, Czeck Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Turkey and the U.K.) Patagonia's down is extremely expensive due to the process and it's highly unlikely the other brands touting 'ethical down' are able to prove it. But by all means, ask them to!

They might point to the Responsible Down Standards, but again we find problems here, that refer back to the fact that 80% of down comes from China, where animal welfare standards are not what they are in the UK. Investigators, including PETA, have visited farms and found that tracking of animals is not avaiable and on occasion, live plucking has taken place but not disclosed.

Recently, initiatives to use recycled down have began to appear, but these are in their infancy, and we're not sure what the impact might be on supporting vs stopping the trade in the first place.. Re-Down is one such initiative.

So what are the alternatives to down?

The great news is that there is no reason to buy down to stay warm. High-tech  materials to replace down are increasing every year, with many big name companies trademarking their own technology (Patagonia released Plumafill last year, for North Face it's ThermoBall, to name a couple. Thinsulate and PrimaLoft Gold are big names as well (PrimaLoft having the ultimate win over down - it's waterproof. And let's get the idea that synthetic is somehow bad or worse than down out of the way - it isn't. It's both better for the environment and for animals. Synthetic materials are now so advanced they are creating an entirely new industry which means job creation and a resource for recycling huge amounts of plastic and nylon waste. And for those concerned about microbeads - the highest quality synthetic technology produce such a negligent amount of microbeads (if any) that it isn't really a concern. But by all means use a guppy bag if you are washing and concerned. .

On to the down free options for you and the kids!

Mini Rodini really walk the walk here. I was very pleased to discover they massively back up what they say with action and technology. Their coats are known for being very long lasting, hard wearing, incredibly warm pieces, that also look cool. They hold their value, which means there is a strong second hand market for them. It is very common to find great condition second hand pieces for sale on Instagram, in Facebook groups as well as Ebay.

Mini Rodini: recycled fabrics, GOTS, no down, pioneers in using recycled plastic

Gosoaky make classic looking puffers that are indistinguishable from down puffers. They are filled with DuPont Sorona filling which is biodegradable and does not lose shape when washing. The filling solely contains sustainable fibres found in nature. We are well versed in Gosoaky - Bon Tot was their first ever UK stockist and we carried their rain for many seasons (and will do again soon!). Our daughter uses her for skiing and stays oh so toasty!

Gosoaky: sustainable filling, biodegradable, water repellent, vegan

Faire Child are here to bring an alternative to the idea that your jacket needs to be puffy or thick to create warmth. They use rPET technology for their jackets and trousers, which uses recycled plastic bottles to create a waterproof, breathable, year round jacket. Bon Tot is a current stockist of Faire Child..

Faire Child: rPet, climate neutral, reduces dependence on petroleum

Faire Child Kids Cold Weather Rain Jacket

I'm including ECOALF because they responded to pressure from PETA and have committed to replacing all feathers/down with down free alternatives by 2020. They are already innovators in using recycled nylon, hugely reducing carbon emissions and supply chain waste, and they use 40% PimaLoft fill (the other 60% has been 'eco down', which is what they are removing). Plus, they've just released a kid's line this year, so by next year look for amazing puffers and body warmers for the whole family (note: they have down free available now in Adult Jackets).

Ecoalf: light carbon footprint, innovative synthetic nylon technology, commitment to removing down in 2020

Patagonia has a lot of options for you. If you want the best technology for down free, they've got it. They've just released the Micro Puff jacket which is ultralightweight, water resistant and offers down like warmth with PlumaFill. The jackets are also Fair Trade Certified sewn. Or there is a ski jacket for kids filled with Thermogreen, a 100% polyester (92% of it recycled) ultra warm and durable material.

Patagonia: innovators, pioneers of PlumaFill, committed to fairly sourced items, have a lifetime guarantee (I have in fact used this guarantee and it's amazing - they will replace any Patagonia item that had worn out and they also offer a free repair service).

In store, we made our own very careful choice when choosing jackets from our new brand - Jelly Mallow. Their jackets are down free, using recycled polyester and solaball. It was CC's choice this year! See below

Bon Tot Ethical Kidswear

Not listed as they aren't based in the UK yet, but Everlane is an excellent source for adult down free puffers (I splurged on 2 last year and have been delighted with them). Here's one, keeping me warm and down free this halloween! (CC incidentally wearing a vintage Patagonia fleece in the same shot!)

Thank for reading, and as always, if you have any questions or comments we'd love to hear them.... you can note them below or drop us an email. And make sure you're following us on Instagram to keep up to date with everything that we think is stylish, cool and consciously sourced.

Thanks.... Kristina x


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