The Questionable Ethics Of Down Production

© Mountain Equipment
In this article, Sarah Stirling interviews British brand Mountain Equipment about issues with down sourcing such as force feeding, live plucking, and how they emerged as outdoor industry experts on this controversial topic.

The Down Audit  © Mountain Equipment
German animal welfare organisations began seriously kicking off about down production several years ago. Outdoor manufacturers must have been gearing up for the storm to spread across Europe and the USA. Last year, Times and Telegraph journalists delved into where the down used in outdoor products really comes from, and the can of worms finally opened in the animal-loving UK. See these articles:

Unsavoury descriptions of geese force fed for foie gras unsurprisingly caught public attention. So did accusations that some brands lied about down sourcing, and live plucking is another controversial issue I'll look at in this article. Sensationalism aside though, the press helped draw attention to a bigger outdoor industry-wide issue, and also helped push gear companies out of complacency and into action.

You might assume the natural elements in your outdoor wardrobe - down, leather, wool - are ethically and humanely produced. The manufacturer may claim they are; but are they absolutely sure, or are they just going on what they've been told by suppliers? Has anyone actually checked living conditions of birds and animals on farms in Hungary, China, or wherever the materials were sourced? Are there official standards or certifications, and if so how are they enforced?

At the request of animal rights activists, Steve Richardson, director of material development for US brand Patagonia visited geese farms in Hungary and said: “There was no doubt when we got there that these geese were used to make foie gras,” reported the Telegraph.

"Down supply usually involves networks of many, many, tiny family farms, agents and wholesalers. It's a total minefield..."

What's so bad about foie gras anyway?

Several times a day large amounts of boiled corn mash are forced down the geese's throats with a pressurised air hose so their livers swell up. Marcus Mueller of the charity Four Paws described conditions on foie gras farms as “hell for animals”.

Not everyone cares about animal welfare of course. But a lot of people do. Foie gras is banned from most UK supermarkets following campaigns. Celebrity butcher Jack O'Shea was escorted from Selfridges for secretly continuing to sell the 'delicacy of despair' under the code name 'French fillet'.

Why were a number of outdoor gear companies unaware that some of their down came from foie gras farms? Well, probably because down supply usually involves networks of many, many, tiny family farms, agents and wholesalers. It's a total minefield. Until recently, the outdoor industry seemed understandably unwilling to step into it, but there are now various 'working groups' in the outdoor trade on both sides of the Atlantic working on understanding issues with down supply and coming up with certification schemes.

A few weeks into the aftermath of the Times and Telegraph articles, Mountain Equipment calmly launched a new website called 'Down Codex'. It emerged they'd spent the past three years coming up with and implementing a strategy to monitor and improve the conditions on slaughter houses and farms in their down supply chain.

Type a code found on their products into this Down Codex website and you can find out what type of farm the down in it came from. It's not a new idea of course - Icebreaker launched their more hi-tech Baacode website in 2008 - but it was an insightful move. Back in 2009, when Mountain Equipment began looking into down ethics, “There was nothing other than a general murmuring about it unless you delved into a few reports by animal welfare charities,” ME told me.

Mountain Equipment appeared to have emerged as experts in the field, so I decided to have a chat with Richard Talbot, ME's product manager, and find out more about this controversial issue.

As pointed out in the forum thread attached to this article, Alpkit were also looking into ethical down sourcing back in 2008/9, and posted some interesting thoughts in the Lab Notes section of their website: Ethical Down Sourcing Part 1, Ethical Down Sourcing Part 2 and Ethical Down Sourcing Part 3.

Down Codex

Richard Talbot  © Richard Talbot Collection
Richard Talbot

The Down Codex Interview

Interview with Richard Talbot, Product Manager of Mountain Equipment

What made Mountain Equipment begin looking at down in more detail?

RT: The idea came from our German distributors. NGOs (non-government organisations) were already campaigning vehemently against the use of down in Germany back in 2009. The most vocal was - and remains - Four Paws, one of Europe's biggest animal welfare charities. In the UK it has only been in the past year or so that real media exposure has been given to the topic, and similarly there was little obvious concern in the US until California introduced foie gras restrictions.

So did these animal welfare campaigners help when you began looking into conditions on goose farms?

RT: Four Paws don't want to provide any constructive input into down supply, they just want to prevent any use of any down. Down still has no viable replacement so that simply isn't an option for an outdoor brand like us.

"Down still has no viable replacement, so not using it simply isn't an option for an outdoor brand like Mountain Equipment."

What's the difference between live plucking and live harvesting?

Live harvesting is removing down during the natural moulting cycle, roughly every 45 days. Provided you 'harvest' within a certain time period and in the correct manner, it shouldn't distress a bird. Under strict controls it's permissible under EU legislation. The problem is that on a commercial scale the process is very ambiguous. If I'm grooming my dog I know I'm not hurting her. She'll usually try to nip me if I do. If someone else is doing it, or the animal can't respond, how can I know if its painful?

Live plucking, forcible down removal, is illegal in Europe. That said, live plucking often becomes mired in the ambiguous process of live harvesting. There's a real issue of effective enforcement. For all these reasons Mountain Equipment don't allow either live plucking or harvesting in supply chains.

According to down industry figures, less than 1% to 2% of down is live harvested, and it's believed that 99% of that 1% goes to countries like Japan where there's a high demand for live plucked or live harvested down. Those figures are hotly contested by animal welfare organisations who believe it's much higher.

What percentage of shoppers do you think are really concerned about wildfowl welfare issues with down?

RT: I imagine it's similar to the food industry. I'm sure if you asked people, 100% would say animal welfare is an issue for them. When it comes to how many would actually pay a premium for ethically sourced products though, I think numbers would begin to dwindle. How many people pay £10 for a free range chicken when a non-free range one is half the price? I think things are changing though. Consumers are beginning to expect outdoor companies to make ethically sourced products.

It seems you were the first brand to really look into conditions on goose farms. How did you know where to start?

RT: We came up with some rules and expectations and asked an independent third party, the IDFL (International Down and Feather Testing Laboratory), to visit wholesalers, slaughterhouses and farms in our supply chain and make audit reports for us. They have spent many years working with down suppliers testing different qualities of down, and are active on the ground in areas of the world where down is sourced, so can access farms and slaughter houses etc in a way that we'd struggle to do, and understand how supply chains work in different parts of the world. The rules covered some of the now well-known issues such as live plucking, live harvesting and force-feeding but crucially also covered other aspects of animal welfare such as food-stuffs, living conditions and slaughtering methods.

What do the IDFL do when they visit a slaughter house or farm for you?

RT: They review the living conditions, chemicals and treatments used, and how they store and mix down. Then we classify a risk factor between 1 and 5. 3 or above is a high risk. Anything below that they consider a lower risk... but not necessarily without room for improvement. You won't get to zero... not yet. They can't visit every single farm, these are not large scale agricultural facilities but many, many very small family farms, so we look at a broad selection and get an overview. We're working towards ensuring all our down supply meets or is working towards certain standards.

How did you decide and define 'acceptable' living conditions for birds on the farms visited?

"We aren't experts in animal welfare, nor are the IDFL, so our first port of call was the RSCPA. We used the welfare standards which form their 'Freedom Food' initiative as a basis."

Geese are a higher risk from poor standards of animal welfare than ducks, partly because of foie gras manufacturing but also research suggests that geese are more often live plucked, particularly in countries such as Hungary.

Is goose down better than duck?

It depends what you mean by 'better'. Performance-wise, goose down is often considered superior because it offers larger cluster sizes and so on. As with all raw materials though, you can get good, bad or indifferent. The best duck down easily surpasses the poorest goose down for performance. The highest quality level of down you can buy on the market is Eider Down ... it has legendary quality and people forget that it's duck down. OK, it's a different kind of duck but it does prove duck down isn't necessarily low quality.

Does using duck down mean you can't get a high fill power? No - in all the work ME have done in conjunction with the IDFL in Zurich they've consistently seen exceptionally high fill powers from duck down. Well in excess of 700, which most suppliers would regard as in the high quality range. The research has proved that ducks live the longest and healthiest lives, as they aren't bred rapidly for meat production but bred in the main for egg production. That explains partly why you can achieve such high performance standards with duck down.

How do farms and slaughter houses react when you send in the heavies to check out their down production?

RT: Overcoming mistrust and developing a relationship with people all along the supply chain has been a big challenge. When you start trying to find information from the horse's mouth, people in supply chains get worried they'll be removed. The mistrust has come more from people wanting to protect their livelihoods than it has from wanting to hide poor standards. We're not trying to take people out of the chain but understand what goes on in them.

Your Down Codex project also allows consumers to check out the quality of your down, doesn't it?

RT: Yes, even if a consumer has no interest in whether the down in a jacket or sleeping bag was live plucked, whether the bird lived in good conditions etc, most consumers want to know if the fill power is as good as claimed. The 'trace your down' function on our Down Codex website allows you to see all the information about the actual fill power and content etc of that down as well the audit reports relating to the animal welfare. So it also clears up some of the mysteries of down as a material.

So it's a bit like Icebreaker's Baa code?

RT: It's similar, but because down supply currently involves many, many small farms, numerous agents and wholesalers, we can't currently trace the individual farm that the material came from like you can with Icebreaker's Baa code. Is it possible to totally guarantee that a batch of down has come from one particular farm that we have inspected as part of our Down Codex project? Not currently, but we're working hard on that.

To draw a realistic comparison, imagine wool fleeces coming from several hundred small farms, being sold on to third parties and then all those fleeces being blended into a finished yarn. How would you trace that? We can visit individual farms that contribute to our supply, we can identify specific geographical regions where those farms are located and based upon on-site visits provide an overview of the type of farms involved. For example, some of our duck down comes from specific provinces in China, and based upon our visits we are able to give an indication as to the types of farms and setups that are involved in those regions. That's the same whether it is our supply chains in China or Eastern Europe.

”No outdoor brand can currently give a 100% cast iron guarantee that their down is ethically sourced. There are too many small farms and slaughter houses in the supply chain.”

Some Down Facts

  • Over 80% of the waterfowl (down market) is taken up by ducks, not geese.
  • Most of a birds commercial value is in its meat, just 20% of its value comes from down.
  • One goose typically provides around 100g of down.
  • Down from five geese is needed to make your average sleeping bag.

So you can't 100% guarantee your down is ethically sourced?

RT: No, The Down Codex Project is all about risk management. No brand can currently give a 100% cast iron guarantee. There are too many small farms and slaughter houses in the supply chain. We can show our customers that our auditing procedures have gone farther than almost anyone else's to date though. Another supposed barrier to ethically sourcing down, which comes up consistently in industry meetings about down and animal welfare, is the issue of supply capacity. There are not enough suppliers using ethical standards to supply everyone. If the whole of China decided they'd buy down bedding on the same scale as Japan, for example, it's said there'd be no down left anyway.

That seems a little defeatist. What's your view?

RT: I think that's very short sighted. We have to be realistic about this ... there are massive challenges but it is possible. Twenty years ago people said organic food production wouldn't be possible on a commercial scale. That's been proved wrong, albeit at a cost. It's a real challenge to source down in an ethical way as there are so many factors involved and, as with the food industry, there are huge pressures in terms of satisfying global demand.

"We aren't experts in animal welfare, nor are the IDFL, so our first port of call was the RSCPA. We used the welfare standards which form their 'Freedom Food' initiative as a basis."

What is the outdoor industry doing about all these issues with down supply?

RT: Until relatively recently not a lot, but that has changed. Some brands have signed up to down industry traceability schemes that involve little work. There are now various 'working groups' in the outdoor trade on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe a 'Down Task Force' is working on understanding issues with down supply. The group currently has 67 members comprising retailers, down suppliers, test houses and industry associations, and is working towards an industry-wide certification scheme. The American OIA are working in tandem on a similar project, and it's been interesting to be involved with both of those groups, seeing the differences in opinion and understanding of the issues involved.

Where down really comes from?  © Mountain Equipment
Where down really comes from?
© Mountain Equipment

What does this new European outdoor industry-wide down certification scheme entail?

RT: The plan is to ensure down isn't sourced from birds who are raised for foie gras or live-plucked. There will be guidance as to best practice, and it'll be something brands can work towards, they won't have to have their supply chain meeting all the criteria straight away. There are also plans to produce product certification to communicate these standards to consumers. There are widely differing opinions on how far the standard should go though, and how robust in terms of giving guarantees. We don't see why the scheme focuses on the issue of force feeding and foie gras, and doesn't address other issues such as general living conditions as well.

How many gear companies are working towards more ethical standards in their down supply chain?

RT: Only a fraction of outdoor companies so far. Europe has the lead over America I think. The likes of Four Paws and the media exposure in Europe has encouraged things to move on at a faster pace. Germany is at the top of the pyramid, the UK is a bit behind that, then I'd put America behind that. Most brands operate around the world these days so there are definitely some people playing catch up.

For more information Down Codex

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make UKClimbing the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKClimbing then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC porter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

10 Jan, 2013
This article is very good and informative and quite honest. Good to see. The only thing that is totally wrong is stating that down is molted every 45 days. Ducks and Geese molt once perhaps twice a year and the molt is to replace tatty and broken and worn out outer feathers. Down is only ever removed by the bird itself during the end of the nesting period when the eggs are incubated. You may find the odd bit of fluff when a duck or goose is molting but they never ever molt their down. Having kept ducks and geese all my life I can assure you this is correct. Eider down is from the Eider duck, some breeds of which are endangered. Historically it is harvested by humans from wild Eider duck nests that have been used and left as such there is no interaction with the animal whatsoever. This is why it is expensive as it is hard to come by and hard to harvest. To my knowledge Eider ducks are not farmed. Thanks for this article, great to see the outdoor industry getting on board and being honest about a questionable product.
10 Jan, 2013
Excellent article, and well-timed. Brands like ME are way ahead of the game with their down. Fjallraven, who source from one supplier and have their 'own' farms and slaughter houses, have perhaps the ultimate solution, but that is not workable for really big brands. Yes, to my knowledge eider ducks are not farmed. Not sure why.
10 Jan, 2013
Because they are a wild species and not domesticated. They have very specialist requirements as they are sea ducks. Some are also endangered and in general they are protected under various worldwide legislation. They will never be farmed unless there is a worldwide law change. Eider down is so good as they have the thickest down due to the fact they have to survive in arctic conditions.
10 Jan, 2013
Thanks. Yeah, I know a fair bit about the down itself but little about the actual ducks. I had a feeling there was a law in place but was not sure.
10 Jan, 2013
Can we use polar bear fur too then? And have penguin slippers?
More Comments

Product News at UKC presents climbing, walking and mountaineering equipment posts that will be of interest to our readers. Please feel free to comment about the post and products on the associated thread.
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest