A down farm in Eastern Europe.
Courtesy: The North Face
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
October 21, 2014

When it comes to material that is both warm and lightweight, nothing beats down. Yet, the soft white stuff that fills puffy jackets, comforters and sleeping bags does not descend from the heavens despite being its cloud-like feel—and in fact has a dark side. Down is a byproduct of the waterfowl meat industry, which means your snuggly winter jacket may come from a goose that had a feeding tube forced down its neck to fatten its liver for foie gras or might have been plucked while still alive, rather than after it was slaughtered for its meat.

In 2010, the Vienna-based animal welfare advocacy group Four Paws initiated a campaign to call out major outdoor clothing brands, including The North Face and Patagonia, for their use of goose and duck down from farms that force feed the animals. It also called out the practice of live plucking, which farmers do to derive more value from the animals, but it causes them tremendous pain and stress, Four Paws says.

Over the past few years, The North Face (VFC) and Patagonia have each developed their own sourcing standards designed to root out producers who force-feed or live-pluck the waterfowl from which they source down. Hoping to multiply its impact, The North Face last year handed its certification framework, called the Responsible Down Standard, over to Textile Exchange, a standards body that previously ushered a standard for organic cotton. Tuesday the Textile Exchange announced that fashion retailer H&M; outdoor brands Eddie Bauer, Marmot, Mammut, Helly Hansen, and Outdoor Research; as well as bedding brands Downlinens, and Down & Feather Co. have all adopted the Responsible Down Standard (RDS).

Adam Mott, who oversees environmental sustainability efforts at The North Face (a subsidiary of VF Corporation), admits the relatively small role that even The North Face – likely the largest single user of down in the outdoor industry – plays in the down supply chain. “Even if the outdoor industry walks away from down, we are 1% of all the down being used,” he says, noting that the bedding industry is the behemoth user. Of course, The North Face is not going to jettison down as long as it continues to offer superior performance to synthetic insulators, nor are any of its competitors.

And while they consume a small quantity of global supply of down, apparel brands have tremendous leverage when it comes to influencing the industry and consumer choice, says Nina Jamal, who leads farm animal welfare campaigns at Four Paws. That’s why the group campaigned against them rather than bedding companies. She also says the involvement of two key down suppliers—Allied Feather & Down and Downlite—in the development and implementation of the RDS also gives the standard real muscle.

Anne Gillespie, director of integrity at Textile Exchange, says proving a chain of custody from the hatchery all the way to the garment factory is the biggest hurdle to certifying the origin of any single puff of down. “The down, which either comes from China or Eastern Europe, might come from large farms processing more than 20,000 geese or it might come from a small household farms. Slaughter might happen on farm or village or at an industrial site,” she says.

The standard is designed such that it can be applied to any part of the supply chain and any size of supplier, but all players must be audited and certified in compliance through a third party. Inspection service Control Union will conduct this vetting initially, but the standard is also being opened to other third-party certifiers.

Under the RDS, certified down must not be derived through live plucking or from an animal that was force fed, and these conditions must be met at the time of the audit. The standard also includes a list of other general welfare considerations that suppliers have 60 days to meet.

Patagonia has already initiated its own Traceable Down Standard across its supply chain. Jamal says Patagonia has set the bar higher in terms of refusing down from farms that might also process waterfowl for other customers who do not prohibit force feeding or live-plucking. The RDS is more lenient in that regard, but Jamal says Four Paws will continue to push for higher standards. She also notes that the overall impact of the RDS could be greater than that of Patagonia’s approach, since multiple, large consumers of down are starting to adopt it.

The North Face aims to have 30% of the down it sources RDS certified by next year, with 100% certified across its products by 2017. Mott says The North Face is paying a small premium for certified down but is hopeful that cost won’t be passed along to consumers.

Gillespie acknowledges that the down industry only accounts for about 15% of the value of the bird and isn’t quite sure if this tail will ever be able to wag the dog, in terms of promoting ethical practices. Yet, a number of U.S. states and European countries have outlawed the sale of foie gras, so there is some consumer sentiment there that the down standard is seeking to amplify. “The whole point of the standard is to give trust in labels and give consumers power that will lead to changes in industry practices,” she says. “Over time I think we will get a bigger voice and maybe it will affect how the animals are raised. In the best case scenario the standard and demand from down buyers will force a farm that isn’t following best practices [in terms of ethical treatment] to shift over.”

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