You don’t wear fur, I presume. You pass on foie gras and ortolan. It’s unlikely you hunt for sport or know where your neighbourhood’s nearest dog fights are held. But you probably eat meat and wear leather. Silk too. You’ll use medicines tested on lab rats, but not cosmetics sprayed in the eyes of monkeys. You’ll swat mosquitoes, but feed bees.
The ethics around animal cruelty are murky, a miasma of tradition and emotion and morality. The fluffier the animal, the more unpalatable it is to kill it for food or fashion. The more practical the use to which we put an animal’s carcass, the more acceptable it seems. Chasing foxes with dogs then smearing the blood on a 12-year-old’s face? Not cool. Cattle marched into a shed then bolt-gunned through the head? Sure, so long as I don’t have to think about it.
Down sits in a strange place on that spectrum. There’s no denying its practicality; science has never come up with any substance that offers as much insulation for as little weight. The evolutionary value is obvious – if your insulation’s heavy, it’s harder to flap yourself off the ground. That’s also why we stuff it into winter coats. When you’re dragging all your worldly possessions across an ice sheet, a coat that traps heat but doesn’t weigh you down could save your life.
True down is the soft, fluffy feathers that sit nearest a bird’s skin, which are chock-full of heat-trapping, buoyancy-aiding air pockets. Birds are, understandably, very attached to this stuff. We won’t unpick the ethics of wearing animal products here, but suffice to say there’s only so cruelty-free down can ever be. If you want it, you have to take it, which at best means after a duck or goose has been killed and before it ends up in your chow mein.
Like leather, most down is a by-product of the food industry. But the best down comes from older birds, known as breeders, which are raised to produce the chicks that are then sent to slaughter. On welfare-minded farms, they can swim outside and their down is collected from nests, until they pass away naturally, at which point they’re plucked. But you can also ‘harvest’ the down while the bird’s still alive – in other words, tear the feathers from its breast and neck as it breaks its wings trying to get away. Then if you bung it back in its cage (once you’ve stitched up any torn flesh) the down magically grows back even fluffier. At which point, you can rip it out all over again. Repeat every three months for four years until the bird, in relief, pops its clogs.
If you own a down jacket that’s more than six years old, odds are there’s some live-plucked feathers inside. If you bought one last week, from a big-name fashion brand that touts its ethical credentials, well, there still may well be some live-plucked down inside. Around 80% of the world’s down is produced in China, mostly by independent farmers who have small flocks of ducks and geese that supply down to a central collector. Being small, they can offer their birds space to move about and access to ponds. Most don’t live-pluck. But some do, and scale means it’s tricky to winkle out the bad apples.
The world’s other big down producer is Hungary, where live-plucking isn’t illegal. The country is also the second biggest producer of foie gras, the delicacy made by force-feeding ducks and geese until their livers fatten up. Even if the down in your jacket wasn’t live-plucked, the creature it came from may have led a nasty, brutish and short life with a tube down its throat.
Even Patagonia, a brand that’s eco-credentials are about as unassailable as they come, isn’t innocent here. After a 2012 investigation by animal welfare group Four Paws, it discovered that it had next to no idea what was going on in its supply chain and that its products contained down from both live-plucked and force-fed geese. Its response was the Traceable Down Standard, which tracks birds from egg to abattoir to make sure that nothing untoward happens along the way. Its biggest competitor, The North Face, set up the Responsible Down Standard, which offers similar monitoring but also certificates the down that ends up in bedding.
Ethics are expensive, which is why coats from brands with a conscience cost more. Canada Goose, whose jackets have spawned a thousand knock-offs, sources most of its down from an Amish-like Christian sect, the Canadian Hutterites, who’ve bred free-range, field-raised geese for decades. It’s expensive, but a small price to pay for the ability to sleep at night. Those knockoffs, however, are definitely padded with something more unpalatable.
The other option is to jettison the real stuff entirely and plump for synthetic down instead. Though it can’t quite match the cosiness-per-gram of feathers, if you never intend to test your down jacket on a glacier, then that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Even in the teeth of the Beast of the East, synthetic down is plenty warm enough. That said, it’s not entirely problem-free; materials like PrimaLoft and Thinsulate are basically plastic, which the planet won’t thank you for.
The only truly no-harm down might be the kind collected from the Icelandic eider duck’s nests, by farmers who keep the birds protected from predators. It’s a time- and labour-intensive process and the down mostly ends up in duvets, although Vladimir Putin once commissioned an eiderdown coat that ran him almost £10,000. Which is perhaps the only semi-ethical thing he’s ever done.
The North Face
The Expert View
“When down is responsibly sourced and backed up by third-party certifications, such as the Responsible Down Standard, you can rest assured that your down comes from birds that are humanely treated. And as a biodegradable and renewable natural resource, down is a far more environmentally friendly choice than synthetics. Look for RDS hang-tags to know that what you are buying is responsibly sourced.”
Daniel Uretsky, president of Allied Feather and Down, which supplies down to brands including the North Face and was instrumental in setting up the Responsible Down Standard
“Most down used as jacket filler comes from ducks and geese kept on factory farms where they’re commonly live-plucked. At the abattoir some birds aren’t adequately stunned before their throats are cut, so they’re still conscious when they’re thrown into the scalding-hot water of the defeathering tank. The only way to guarantee that no birds suffered for your jacket is to choose vegan fillers such as PrimaLoft, Thinsulate, Plumtech (used by Save the Duck), and Thermoball (available from The North Face), all of which are high-performing, cruelty-free insulators.”
Yvonne Taylor, director of vegan corporate projects at animal welfare group PETA
“If we could guarantee that all down was an otherwise wasted by-product from small, happy farms where ducks and geese wandered freely in meadows and were killed humanely, then it would be much easier to answer yes. But is it better to source down from lots of small farms, where living conditions are likely to be better but it’s impossible to audit the conditions on all of them, or better to source it from big farms where you can guarantee that none of the birds are live-plucked or fattened for foie gras, but the living conditions aren’t as natural? There have been huge leaps in creating synthetic down in recent years, and I think that this trend is going to continue and that ultimately down will be replaced by something man-made.”
Sarah Stirling, outdoors writer who recently delved into down for Summit magazine
“When consumers choose to use down products, they should always ask first how the down was sourced and how the brand or shop can prove that the down did not come from cruel sourcing. If they can’t prove that the down is cruelty free (that farm audits take place or that they use a strict audit standard), we would advise consumers who care about animal welfare to avoid down products.”
Brian da Cal, country director for animal welfare group Four Paws UK
The Best Down Jackets
You’ve heard the arguments and the temperatures outside are not getting any warmer. If you decide to insulate yourself with a down jacket, one piece of advice we’re happy to give is this: get something that’s built to last. In most cases that means buying from a specialist outdoors brand because their products are designed to be worn and tested in the wild – which means they’ll last many a winter commuting in the city. And certainly longer than the average high-street option. This is our edit.
The North Face
A world-renowned outdoors brand that has recently found favour with streetwear aficionados, the North Face produces some of the most reliable technical gear on the planet. It uses down in its jackets, sleeping bags and footwear and created the Responsible Down Standard to ensure greater control and visibility on down’s supply chain. It also produces vegan-friendly alternatives.
Few apparel brands place environmental and ecological concerns at the heart of their business like Patagonia does. It created the Traceable Down Standard to protect animal welfare and guarantee consumer assurance levels with robust farm audits made across its supply chain. On the style front, its jackets mix the bold colours and technical prowess needed to woo everyone from actual mountaineers to city-dwelling wannabes.
One of the most influential outerwear brands of recent years, its heavy-duty parka jackets spawned a lot of imitators, but with the real thing comes with certain reassurances. The brand has created its own down standards which ask its suppliers to certify that their feathers come as a by-product of the poultry industry, not from live-plucked or force-fed birds.
Like some of the other brands on this list, Moncler has tightened its protocols on the supply of down in recent years in response to investigations and consumer demand. Third party checks and supplier assurances are now standard. The Italian luxury brand also has meticulous quality control procedures that guarantee you won’t be cold if you’re decked out in one of its jackets. As well as muted mountain gear, Moncler also produces loud prints and colours, including a collaboration with designer Craig Green.
Perhaps the most extensive range of down jackets available at high street prices, Uniqlo’s stripped-back aesthetic and easy wearability is evident in its collection. There’s a larger supply chain at work here, and cheaper prices, but with that inevitably comes a slightly watered down approach to traceability. The fast fashion brand’s parent company doesn’t have its own down standard but says it “does not knowingly use down or feathers used in our products that originate from force-fed ducks and geese or birds exposed to live plucking.”