adventure journal downs dirty secret

In 2010, Patagonia was targeted by animal rights groups for sourcing unethical down from farms in Hungary, with critics charging that the farms were engaged with live plucking. The company had been told by its suppliers that the Hungarian geese were being treated ethically, and Patagonia’s own follow-up found that suppliers were telling the truth. Live plucking is in fact illogical, since it often kills the animals prematurely when the farms’ main goal is to raise geese for meat. (Feathers are an ancillary benefit of raising geese for food and the cost of down, according to both The North Face and Patagonia, would rise exponentially if geese were only being raised for feathers.)

But that wasn’t the whole story as it turns out. Patagonia’s audit discovered that suppliers were force-feeding geese. This is done both for foie gras (force feeding creates bloated livers that help produce what some deem a delicacy) and to increase bird size over a shorter time period, as chicken farms in the U.S. do. Decidedly not ethical.

Rather than end its relationship with Hungarian suppliers immediately, Patagonia chose a systematic approach to changing its practices. Likewise, The North Face, also a huge buyer of down, has come under pressure to change its sourcing practices and is in the process of retooling its supply chain, too. The challenge is anything but simple: Both brands say that switching to other suppliers could create other headaches. What, for example, if the new suppliers were being unethical in an entirely new way?


Although the Coleman Company, working with PETA, recently announced that it’s ending its use of down, the natural insulation isn’t going away. The North Face, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Westcomb all say that the demand for down is increasing, not decreasing. And The North Face and Patagonia say that while synthetic insulation technology is improving, down products last far longer than synthetics because neither loft or insulating values degrade as quickly. Down is still warmer for its weight than synthetics, and water-resistant down has only narrowed the performance gap between the two. Finally, synthetic insulation is nearly always petroleum based, which raises further ethical concerns.

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Patagonia’s internal investigations revealed the farms were force feeding geese, but also disturbing, it learned that it had no way to confirm the source of its supply. The North Face encountered similar concerns, and both brands investigated emulating the best practices of other industries. The North Face looked at the certifying process of fair-trade and collective-farmed coffee, while Patagonia looked at conflict minerals in the electronics industry and its own difficult but eventually successful tide-turning on ecologically farmed organic cotton.

Still, a solution to verifying that down is ethically harvested isn’t easy to find. Down is a commodity that’s very hard to “fingerprint.” For instance in Asia, where a lot of The North Face’s down is sourced, the geese are raised on thousands of family farms. Collectors go farm to farm and stock up the saved feathers. The North Face’s audit found that these farmers have zero interest in either force feeding or live plucking (they can’t afford either the former or the latter), but there’s no easy way to ensure ethical slaughtering.

In Europe, Patagonia has a different challenge: Changing the culture at larger farms so that they can be 100 percent certain that animals aren’t force fed or forced to live in crowded circumstances.

Both companies are working toward solutions.

The North Face teamed with Control Union, an accredited third-party certification body, and with Textile Exchange, which works toward a more sustainable clothing industry, and the company has created what it calls the Responsible Down Standard. In part, through its suppliers Allied Down and DownLite, The North Face has undertaken a massive education program with farmers, hatcheries, and garment manufacturers and created an enforcement mechanism with random audits (with incentives for best practices and disinsentives for violating the rules of the RDS).

Meanwhile, Patagonia has switched to Polish suppliers. This already is an improvement, since Polish goose-meat suppliers primarily sell to Germany, which has very high standards for the ethical treatment of animals for meat production. But Patagonia has gone several steps further to confirm that the animals are raised according to their standards, and ethically slaughtered.

When can buyers be certain the down in their puffy or sleeping bag came from a supply chain that’s free of animal cruelty?

Patagonia predicts by the middle of this year. It already has some cruelty-free down items in its line. The North Face is a year behind, and says RDS clothing will be for sale in the fall of 2015, but that the RDS standards are available now for any brand to emulate since The North Face gave ownership of RDS to the Textile Exchange. And both brands are committed to cleaning up sourcing completely, even if it’s taking longer than either would prefer.

What might have the biggest impact is the ripple effect of both brands’ efforts throughout the outdoor industry – and beyond.

The fall 13 Ultralight Down Hoody was part of the first wave of Patagonia's traceable down products.

The fall 13 Ultralight Down Hoody was part of the first wave of Patagonia’s traceable down products.

Arc’teryx couldn’t afford the supply-chain overhaul that The North Face underwent, but because the brand uses the same suppliers as TNF, Arc’teryx expects that they, too, will have access to cruelty-free down, hopefully by 2015 also. Westcomb, in Vancouver, says it’s already ahead of the game. The company sources down raised by the Hutterites in Canada’s prairies, and the religious group (similar to Mennonites) has a long tradition of field raising and ethically slaughtering geese. But until now this was a relatively “quiet” story; the likes of The North Face will increase awareness and Westcomb expects to see more customers seeking out its cruelty-free down as words spread over this sea change in the industry.

A yet bigger deal, according to The North Face, is that fashion labels, hotel chains, and big catalog brands that supply housewares are feeling pressure to get out of the “dirty down” business and are consulting with The North Face for help.

That’s huge. Because The North Face may be a big name in the outdoor culture, but it’s tiny compared to the collective down use by Land’s End, Macy’s, Nike, Adidas, the Gap, and more big consumer brands. If the hard internal struggles of both Patagonia and The North Face lead to mega-labels touting cruelty-free down, this could be a massive win.

PETA and its new partner Coleman would be happy if there’s no down in the market, but here’s one consideration to those pondering a down boycott: Even if the demand for down drops through the floor, demand for goose meat won’t. And without the purchasing clout of the Patagonia and North Faces (and maybe Macy’s, et. al.), suppliers will have little financial incentive to clean up their acts. The continuing appeal of down might be just the thing to force ethical treatment throughout the down industry – an inconvenient truth PETA and other animal rights groups would prefer not to acknowledge.

Photos by Shutterstock, Patagonia

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