Can Down Be Ethical or Green?

Sunlight Falling On Bed At Home

Danielle Reid / EyeEm / Getty Images

Down remains, arguably, the most efficient insulator available (although Aerogel with its amazing 95% air content, is trying), with which to make cold-weather garments, sleeping bags and bedding, ). And according to the International Down and Feather Testing Laboratory (IDFL) "Down and feathers have the lowest carbon footprint of any other fill material, both natural and synthetic." But high quality down is the plumage of ducks and geese, normally plucked from their chest region, in some instances whilst they are alive. Not something that is appreciated by vegans or animal welfare proponents. But there are options for saying ethically warm.

Down Alternatives

One path is to avoid down-filled garments and sleeping bags altogether. There are plenty of synthetic, petroleum-derived, insulation alternatives like Polarguard, Thermore, PrimaLoft, etc. Some, like Primaloft, even have recycled content, if your ethics reflect concern around oil extraction. The use of finite fossil fuel petroleum aside, synthetic insulations just don't have the longevity of down, as their polyester fibers are heat sensitive and lose their bulking ability (a.k.a. loft) over time.

For household bedding you might consider the likes of organic wool, organic cotton, or hemp filled comforters/duvets/doonas, such as on offer from Rawganique.

Pre-Loved Down

Your next best alternative would be pre-loved down. Down products are generally more expensive than their synthetic cousins. In most cases, it takes high-quality materials and craftsmanship to contain better grades of down. (We aren't talking feather here, but those spidery, whispy down clusters that are free of quills). All this quality makes for a product that can, with care, last 20 to 30 years, or more. So plenty of second-hand options do come to market. Buying pre-loved down avoids any additional animal welfare issues. Down soaps are available that keep such products clean and perky for many decades.

Nest Harvested Down

However, if a new down product is a must, then consider the alternatives offered by outdoor sleeping bag brands like Tundra, Crux and Bask. These guys source down by working with suppliers who hand collect down from the nests of molting geese, or from the famed Eider, a sea duck. In the latter case the female Eiders pluck down from their own breast to line the nest to keep her offspring warm in the northern arctic circle. If collecting during the nesting season, the harvesters often replace the down with hay, so eggs remain cozy. The down from each Eider nest might yield up to 16 grams of down. A good three-season down sleeping bag might be filled with 500 grams of down. So with over 30 nests requiring a visit one can quickly see why ethically-sourced down is of such a high price.

Eider (Somateria molissima) Male and female in February, Norway, Europe

Gerard Soury / Getty Images

Avoid Live Plucked Down

If unable to manage the extra expense of the approach taken by the above companies, try to establish if the down was plucked after the goose or duck was killed for humane meat production. And ideally that the goose or duck had lived largely free range, rather cooped up in a cage. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals as asked by AlpKit, this is preferable to live plucking.

Major product suppliers like Sweden's IKEA, the UK's Marks and Spencer and America's Patagonia have publicly avowed not to include live-plucked down in their goods.

Other Sources on the Ethics of Down
Veterinary Practice News
Think Differently About Sheep
United Poultry Concerns
Chinese People's Daily
Plumeria Bay
Up for Down - Patagonia's Cleanest Line