Also referred to as “responsible” or “green” down, ethical down refers to plumage plucked from ducks and geese without causing undue harm. Ethical down bedding, outerwear, and other products may be certified by organizations like the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) or Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS), both globally recognized programs for manufacturers developed in cooperation with animal welfare groups and the down industry. Both these standards are voluntary, which means suppliers and brands can choose to certify their down, even if they have no legal obligation.
If you are in the market for a down product but are concerned about animal welfare, it’s important to understand what does — and does not — constitute ethical down. Learn more about ethical and unethical down production in the guide below.
What is Down and How Can it be Unethical?
Often found in outerwear, as well as comforters, pillows, and mattress toppers, down is the soft under plumage that serves as insulation beneath the outer feathers of ducks and geese. Generally, down comes from the underbelly of these animals. Because they are light, fluffy, quill-free, and insulating, they deliver warmth and coziness to a variety of products.
By contrast, feathers are found on the outer layer of ducks and geese. Because of their stiff nature, feathers may be more supportive, but also more uncomfortable because of their sharp quills.
Before the public attention was drawn to the responsible production of down, it was not uncommon for birds to be treated with considerable cruelty. Only five years ago, it was uncovered that Patagonia was filling jackets using suppliers who plucked down from birds that were still alive and force-fed so their livers could be used as foie gras. After the Patagonia incident, many other brands underwent investigation and uncovered that their own down also came from similarly unethical sources.
According to PETA, plucking live birds causes “considerable pain and distress”. When birds are plucked, their skin may be torn open and their wounds sewn without painkillers. Birds may be plucked multiple times throughout their lifetime before their slaughter or death.
In response to the public backlash of the cruel standard for down production, many brands have adopted the Responsible Down Standard and other certifications, including the Canadian Down & Feather Company, Coyuchi, Downlight Bedding, North Face, H&M, Patagonia and IKEA. A number of bedding suppliers boast an RDS certification, including Keeco, Multi Glory Home Textiles, and PrimaLoft.
Today, although preventing cruelty has become a major focus for many brands, cruelty is still occuring. China, the world’s leading supplier of down and feathers, still produces live-plucked down wholesale according to investigations by PETA.
Producing Ethical Down
By comparison, ethically sourced down comes from birds that have been raised and treated with decency. To be considered ethical down, live plucking and force-feeding is prohibited. With many certifications, birds must also be afforded the Five Freedoms regarding animal welfare: freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease and fear, in addition to freedom to express normal animal behaviors.
There are various institutions that offer certifications and guidelines of what constitutes ethical down. We’ve explored some of the most common organizations below.
Responsible Down Standard. On a mission to protect the welfare of geese and ducks, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is an independent, voluntary, globally recognized certification that acknowledges and rewards companies for ethical practices. To qualify for a RDS certification, farmers, brands, and suppliers must respect the Five Freedoms of the geese and ducks that supply their down. To ensure ethical practices, every stage in the supply chain is audited by a third-body professional.
Global Traceable Down Standard. Overseen by NSF International, the Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS) monitors the down supply chain to ensure animals are being treated with decency. From farm to factory, purveyors are surveyed to verify that there has been no live-plucking or force-feeding during any stage of the process. The Global TDS also offers education and outreach to each level of the supply chain. Suppliers can receive an NSF Global TDS standard once their entire supply chain has been audited and any issues have been addressed.
American Down and Feather Council. A branch of the Home Fashion Products Association, the American Down and Feather Council (ADFC) also offers certifications for down products. However, a ADFC certification doesn’t necessarily indicate ethically treated down. Instead, the certification denotes accurate information; to earn the ADFC stamp of approval, a company must list extensive information about where the down was sourced from.
Downmark. Downmark is a globally recognized certification issued by the Down Association of Canada. To qualify for a certification, a company must meet strict quality, label, and packaging standards. The Downmark certification ensures that products are genuine and humanely sourced.
Beyond national and international certification, many companies have begun introducing their own certifications. For example, Patagonia now enforces the Patagonia Traceable Down standard, which follows down production from farm to factory to verify birds are safeguarded by stringent animal welfare standards. REI, in turn, requires that all suppliers abide by internationally recognized best practices, including adhering to humanely sourced down. The company lists RDS and Global TDS certifications as voluntary but “preferred attributes” from purveyors.
As an eco-conscious consumer, keep an eye out for ethically sourced down products with recognized certifications like the RDS or Global TDS. Not is down bedding and outwear cruelty-free, they likely come from companies who are dedicated to quality and ethical practices — even if it means paying a little more. Alternatively, you can shop for down alternatives, which are designed to mimic the look and feel of down while completely avoiding animal products.