What Is Ethical Down?

An important question asked by conscious consumers and animal-lovers alike. Learn why you should look for ethical down.

By Nicole Gleichmann

The luscious feel of down bedding, pillows, jackets, and vests is unparalleled by other materials, although many alternative-down options do their best. But there is one problem with down bedding and outerwear products: it has to be sourced from birds.

Ducks and geese are raised around the world for their plush down feathers. Sadly, as with most animals raised for profit today, these innocent animals are often subjected to unthinkable treatment in the name of cutting costs.

Fortunately, customers are demanding better. We don’t want to sacrifice the happiness of animals to benefit ourselves. Thanks to these demands, there are many companies that only use ethically-sourced down. But, it’s not a given; you must look for the right seal or find a high-quality company to protect the health and happiness of the animals whom we share our planet with.

Goose

The Difference Between Down and Feathers

All down are feathers, but not all feathers are down. Down feathers are specifically the soft, plush feathers that lie closest to the skin. It’s this layer that provides exceptional warmth for these birds during winter, and as such, it’s this layer that is used to create the warmest, squishiest products.

Feathers, on the other hand, are a bit larger and pokier. Feathers yield products that aren’t as warm, comfortable, or long-lasting as those made with down feathers.

Related: Down vs Feather Pillows

The Unethical Production of Down

Only a handful of years ago, a trusted outdoor company made headlines by selling outdoor gear made from unethically sourced down. Patagonia down suppliers were putting birds through unnecessary harm by plucking their feathers while they were alive, all while force-feeding them to produce foie gras.

Animal lovers and animal welfare groups alike, such as PETA, reacted with shock and betrayal. The outcry was met by multiple companies, such as Patagonia and the North Face, putting in the effort required to ensure that their down was humanely sourced.

But with China producing 80% of the world’s down, countless geese and ducks are still raised in unthinkable conditions, being live-plucked or force-fed. To find products that come from happy birds, you must do your due diligence.

Ethical Down: What It Is and How to Find It

Ethical down products are created using down that’s procured with animal welfare in mind. The primary requirement for ethical down is that the down cannot be sourced from live-plucked birds.

Yet, this simple requirement doesn’t say anything about the birds’ quality of life. Some down comes from birds that are also being raised for meat, and many of these birds are force-fed or otherwise mistreated.

For anyone wanting to source ethical down, you should look for one of four certifications: Global Traceable Down Standard (GTDS) certification by NSF International, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), Downpass, or Downmark.

GTDS and RDS are the two most common certifications for ethical down. To qualify for these certifications, down must be produced:

  • From birds given the five freedoms: freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom from discomfort; freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behavior.
  • Without live-plucking or force-feeding

The standards of GTDS certifications are more stringent than those for RDS certifications because they apply further back in the supply chain. GTDS requires that the above requirements are met starting in parent farms, where the eggs for the down-producing birds are sourced. RDS only requires from hatchling to final product.

Downpass is a German ethical-down certification that specializes in bedding, some of which is sold in the United States. Downmark is a Canadian ethical-down certification.

You can now find retailers that are committed to only using ethically-sourced down. Patagonia and REI are two of the leaders, carrying a variety of companies that prioritize humane sourcing.

Hand-Harvested Molted Down

Some companies go far above the standards required by either the RDS or GTD by hand-harvesting molted feathers from geese and ducks that aren’t raised to be used for food. These companies will typically have one or more ethical-down certifications while also sharing their commitment to animal welfare with their customers. One of our favorites is Tundra, a company that creates high-end sleeping bags.

Ethical Down Costs More

Be cautious if you find down jackets, bedding, or outerwear that claims to use ethically-sourced down but comes in at budget costs. Unfortunately, there are knock-offs that try to pass their unethically-sourced down as ethical to make more sales.

Just as with organic produce or free-trade goods, ethically-sourced down is going to be more expensive because it costs more to manufacture.

If you spend the time and money to purchase a high-quality, humanely-sourced down product, you’re likely to enjoy many years of warmth and comfort. 

Down-Alternatives

As much as we love the cozy feel of a down comforter or the plush surface of a down pillow, the only way to be certain that no animals were harmed in the making of your bedding is to use down alternatives. These include polyester, microfiber, and cotton. This way, you get soft comfy bedding and none of the guilt.

These are often easier to launder and much more affordable. Our favorite alternative down pillow is the Original Casper Pillow and our favorite alternative down comforter is the Buffy Comforter.


Conclusion

Eco-conscious consumers create the demand for companies and farms to live up to a higher standard. By using your money to support companies that are doing the best for their customers and the planet at large, you can help to create a better world for the animals that we depend upon for food, bedding, and more. When you think about the lives that you improve, it’s a small cost to pay.


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