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Ethical Down Sourcing - Part 1

By Nick | 27, Feb, 2008

An overview on initial research on down sourcing.

With this being Fairtrade Fortnight, it seemed a good time to publish some of my own ethical sourcing thoughts.

Jim kicked off the debate about the sourcing of down in his down recycling post, but there has been another edge to this issue that I have been doing a little research into. When we founded the company back in 2004 we were all pretty comfortable that, although we wouldn’t be hanging any huge environmental or socially responsible flags on the brand, we would still try our best to benchmark ourselves against companies like Patagonia®, Howies® and Innocent.

Down has been our first real test.

Live plucking.

About 18 months ago we started to get a lot of emails on this subject, so we started asking our own questions and sometimes we didn't want to hear the answers. The four of us even sat down and contemplated removing all down products from the range. To be honest this would have been pretty difficult for us to do, so we decided that it would be my job to find out what all the hype was about.

Firstly I wanted to know what the options were and was there even such a thing as ethical down?

Live plucking is the process where feathers are removed from the bird whilst it is still alive. I couldn’t find any reliable figures on the extent of the practice, but some sources seem to suggest that it could be as high as 50%. What was interesting was that, despite the plethora of information/propaganda on the subject, much of it was based on one particular study.

M.J. Gentle, L.N. Hunter, Physiological and behavioral responses associated with feather removal in Gallus var domesticus. Research in Veterinary Science, Vol. 50 (1990), pp. 95-101.

Even more intresting was that this study was on Gallus var domesticus (chickens) and not on geese. So is the practice of live plucking geese actually harmful? This is essentially what I needed to find out. One comprehensive bit of information on general geese-rearing techniques, seemed to think differently:  

It had the following passage:

Feathers can also be harvested by plucking the geese while they are alive. Although this practice is sometimes criticized because of its apparent cruelty, this is not the case since almost all birds have a natural cycle of growth, maturation, and moulting.

This was a turn-up for the books - if this were true then it would seem to quell the practice of live plucking as being somehow morally wrong. I couldn't just leave it there: I still needed to find out what the other options were.

Slaughter then plucked.

This is where poultry is first killed and then de-feathered. The carcass is then almost certainly used for food production. It is probably the case that the bird has been reared primarily for food production. There would be still concerns: no point us all buying our organic eggs from the farm shop if our tog 15 duvet was full of down from cruelly kept birds. The RSPCA have defined five freedoms which are a good framework for us to work to here: freedom from fear, from pain, from injury, from discomfort and hunger and freedom to behave in as natural a manner as possible. So long as the birds were reared correctly and slaughtered as humanely as possible, then this could be an acceptable source of down.

Ethical Down – hand harvesting of Eider down. Bask and Tundra are producing sleeping bags and clothing from so-called ethical down from the Eider duck. The Eider duck is a protected species, so we can't just drive the Alpvan up to Savalbard and help ourselves. The process is protected and with somewhere like Svalbard there is one licensed supplier. This means that Eider down is very, very expensive, and it is produced in a limited number of isolated locations in the Arctic. If the down is over-collected it could decimate the species like it did in the early part of this century.

This wasn’t as clear-cut as I thought it was going to be. There are still going to be more questions to ask.

More next week...

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