Down. Can We Wear It Kindly?

down cruelty

Fur is not modern according to Gucci and Chanel has banned exotic leather, with numerous cities, shops and designers also implementing full or partial bans. I agree. Keeping a wild animal in a cage, then electrocuting it by its genitals, or putting a rod down its spine, doesn’t seem modern for me either. Knowledge about this can be powerful because we are becoming more aware of the hidden costs of our textiles and we are proving we want kinder, more sustainable choices.

 What about down? I spoke recently to Four Paws on the Podcast about their four pillars in their Wear It Kind campaign and down is one of them. Often down, the feathers from the underbelly of a goose or duck, is totally over-looked. It is hard to ignore that fur comes from an animal who was killed yet I think there is still the myth that feathers just fall off a bird with no harm done.

And why would we know otherwise… it isn’t shown on any of the advertisements, and the only question really raised around having feathers in our pillows or jackets is around if they cause us allergies or not? Never have I heard a shop assistant asking if we are OK supporting the live plucking of ducks and geese for our pillow, or keeping them in sheds with no access to water to swim in, yet I have had them ask if the down will cause me hay fever.  

Yes, occasionally feathers do fall off birds. My son had one drop straight into his hand at the park, from the most magnificent black cockatoo, with yellow highlights. We have it hanging in his room and it really is incredible. Geese and ducks do malt however, that is not how the down got into your winter jacket the majority of the time. Feathers are also not shaved off, like the wool is from a sheep. There are two ways they are collected; either stripped off once they have been killed or they are plucked out, handfuls at a time. It is the equivalent of someone ripping the hair off your head. In chunks. Without your permission while you are fully conscious, legs bound.

The largest producer of down is China, accounting for 80% of global production and like much of the textile industry in China still, it is very hard to trace for transparency in methods of production. But time and time again, investigations show down often still collected here by live plucking. 

Live plucking is incredibly cruel, please, go watch a video of it and you will feel sick to your stomach. I don’t ask you to do this because I want you to feel sick, but for you to really grasp what words sometimes cannot portray. This ripping of the feathers out in chunks often can happen up to five times to a geese or duck before they are eventually slaughtered. It is for this reason that it is still a popular manner in which it is collected because they get to profit from numerous collections from the animal rather than just the one after slaughter. 

When we turn animals into commodities, unfortunately their welfare becomes less important than their profitability. 

When it comes to down, the goose and ducks are not only used for their feathers, we use them to also create, what in my mind is one of the most disgusting food products on the planet. Foie Gras. Fatty liver. 

And no, they don’t just get a fat liver like humans could by being glutenous. We force feed them by stuffing a pipe down their throat a few times a day, gagging them with food until they are sick. I went to a French restaurant for dinner the other night and asked if they still serve it? The waiter replied they do as a speciality. I asked him if he knew how they make it, not judging him but just curious to find out. He answered, “ignorance is bliss.”

I let it go but I strongly disagree. Eating a sick liver from an animal that was tortured through force feeding, is anything but blissful. Sleeping on down feathers that have come from an animal who has been through treatment is also not going to give anyone sweet dreams. And they are connected. With 80% of down coming from China, which is now producing more not less foie gras, there is reason for concern – all because of the model of making the most profit out of the animal. French group Euralis, which produces nearly a quarter of the foie gras consumed in France, are also going to be a main producer in China. In 2012, their Chinese farm and most animals within it were destroyed in a snowstorm. Their new facility expected to raise one million geese by 2020. This is big business and the focus is profitability.

Yet the focus in fashion is slowly starting to include ethics. There was an outcry in 2017 when an investigation showed the down coming from ducks and geese being live plucked for Canada Goose. Since there has been a push for more transparency and traceability, with a few major labels, including H&M, The North Face, Levi’s, Lululemon who use down now committed to only sourcing the feathers that comply with the Responsible Down Standards. The Responsible Down Standards attempts to prohibit force-feeding and the removal of feathers from live birds and claims to audit each stage in a retailer’s supply chain to ensure that down and feathers come as a by-product from healthy animals. 

This is wonderful news. No animal should be force fed and no animal should have their feathers or skin removed while conscious. Yet when I dug deeper to understand what ‘healthy’ meant, and what fulfil instincts means by their standards, I found the answer was not at all clear.

As for a healthy duck or a goose, they are aquatic animals and need water to swim in, clean themselves and thrive. Their bodies by nature are designed to spend a percentage of time in the water. Not having access to it, not only is stressful as it is a natural desire but it is also damaging to their physical nature and they often suffer lameness, dislocation and broken bones. Factory farms often do not give the ducks and geese access to water, nor access to outdoors. The ones that do, are most often filthy bodies of concrete water and then only very few have standards that you would put on the end product. There is also the issue legally when you provide open water, this also attracts wild birds and so is often banned during outbreaks of bird flu.

We forget animals are not things. Geese are monogamous for life. They have a strong instinct to return to their area of birth to mate and nest and will even fly 3,000 miles to return to these sites. None of this happens in sheds with thousands of others. So, while it is a great improvement to have them not live-plucked or force fed, I still believe that down coming from animals on factory farms is not a kind solution.

Could we collect them from the dead birds that are raised on organic pastured farms? Sure. Although there are very few of these farms, and I am not sure it would meet market demand. What option do we have? I think at the VERY least, make sure you are buying down with the Responsible Down Standard, because it demonstrates a level of care, but even better, leave it out of your wardrobe. You don’t need it anymore with the advancement of technology, I ski in a jacket with no down, and last time we were on the mountains it was minus 26 degrees and I was toasty. 

*And when it comes to foie gras, there is no kind option. Amazon has banned it. California has banned it. Lets make that ban world wide because we can do better.