#MaterialMondays is a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind. If you liked this post, be sure to share!
Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.
When winter comes around (which it has where I live just this past month), suddenly, every other person on the street is wearing a large, puffy jacket. These days, it’s more likely to see people sporting down rather than wool coats in the wintertime. If you live in Canada like I do, then every other person is also likely wearing that infamous red logo that symbolizes Canada Goose. Down jackets have been everywhere—seen being worn out of necessity in the Arctic North, and also in neon, street-style fashion by Kendall Jenner. But what is it about these puffy jackets that make them so great and what is the uglier side of it all that we don’t see? In this post, we’re breaking down these feather-like materials, often sandwiched in between technical fabric, that don’t seem to be going out of style anytime soon.
What is Down?
There is a common misconception that down is made from feathers. In fact, down is made from goose or duck plumage. Plumage describes the undercoating or mid-layer underneath the feathers, which keeps the birds insulated and warm. Down comes in the form of small but lofty clusters that have evolved to trap heat. Similarly to wool, these clusters are also capable of breathability and moisture wicking, transferring moisture away from the body. But unlike wool, down is incredibly light—literally as light as a feather—and it is compressible, which means it is easy to pack and carry around. That means it is often the more space efficient choice for trekking to colder destinations.
When it comes to down, here’s what else you need to know: garments insulated with down can vary in price and that’s measured by its effectiveness, or “fill power.” “Fill power” refers to how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill. Typically, the range sits at about 450 to 900, where 900 is both exceptionally the warmest and lightest—and usually the priciest. Goose down is considered more premium than duck down, as goose down is loftier and has a finer construction, which it’s better at insulating. Duck down, being less fine, is often less expensive. The warmest and lightest down is usually the most expensive and is sourced from mature geese.
Down also has its synthetic versions. In the case of down, its synthetic version was not necessarily designed to lower costs. Synthetic down was created in an effort to enhance the qualities of down. Natural down itself does not fair well in overly wet or humid conditions, but synthetic down is more resilient against it. Synthetic down is usually made from polyester and can be just as warm as natural down, with the upside that it is not as expensive. From a sustainability standpoint, though, synthetic down is considered a microplastic and is threatening to the environment and oceanic ecosystems (see our #TipTuesday about microplastics)
THE ISSUE OF DOWN
The major concern regarding down is animal welfare. Down, being the layer of plumage underneath the primary feathers of geese and ducks, are the closest layer to the skin and do not fall out by themselves. According to PETA, while much of down and other feathers are removed during slaughter, this is not the case for birds that are raised for meat and/or raised in flocks. Instead, these birds experience plucking while alive (called live-plucking), which causes immense pain and stress due to the violence of the process. Pluckers, who try to complete plucking as fast as possible, are usually not attentive to the animal. Their down is plucked aggressively, and sometimes the ripping can cause their skin to tear. Birds are held down by their neck or wings forcibly, and the terrible process begins for them at as early as 10 weeks old. Sadly, they will repeatedly live through the pain in six-week intervals before finally being slaughtered.
Live-plucking is not the only issue of concern. The whole idea of “harvesting” down has become more of a concern in recent years in the discussion of ethics and animal welfare. Another method of collecting down, called “gathering,” is often dubbed to be kinder but is just as questionable. With ‘gathering,’ down and feathers that are considered ‘ripe,’ or ready to fall out are removed by using a brush to comb through the animal. Though this process sounds nicer, there is little transparency as to how it works. In most operations, feathers that are “gathered” are actually all removed at once, which means they were likely ‘accidentally’ live-plucked.
The best way for down to be collected is in a way that does not cause the animal any unnecessary harm. After slaughter removal of down and feathers, in this case, is the best option. As the duck and/or geese will be used for meat, the down and feathers will have to be removed anyway. Thankfully, there is a Responsible Down Standard in place that certifies companies who source their down responsibly. The standard prohibits live-plucking and force-feeding and audits supply chains to ensure non-harmful practices. If you see that blue RDS logo on a down jacket, it means it has been certified with these standards.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
It turns out, the expensive $900 dollar down jackets don’t just wear away after a season. Generally, down jackets are durably made—especially if they are from a reputable brand and can last a long time with the right care. So what can you do to lessen your impact on the environment in regards to down? Invest in a quality piece you can wear for years. Buy second hand as much as possible. Read up on the companies sourcing the down, and get educated. After that, tell a friend—because more people need to know about it.