The Lowdown on Down

November 6, 2013

Patagonia Announces Move to 100% Traceable Down

Patagonia Inc., the outdoor apparel company, is proud to announce the company's move to 100% Traceable Down across its entire collection of down-insulated products, starting in the Fall 2014 season. Patagonia Traceable Down is sourced from birds that have been neither force-fed for foie gras production nor plucked for their feathers and down during their lifetime. Six years in the making, Patagonia's Traceable Down standard provides a robust assurance of sound animal welfare…please see the full press release here

Patagonia Traceable Down Is Verified Non-Live-Plucked, Non-Force-Fed

As of spring 2013 we use Patagonia Traceable Down in our Ultralight Down products. It comes from white geese that were neither force fed for foie gras production nor plucked of their feathers and down while they were still alive. Patagonia Traceable Down also provides robust assurance of sound animal welfare. We intend to add Traceable Down styles each season.

The lengths we go to verify Patagonia Traceable Down go far beyond written guarantees, supplier self-certifications or partial audits. We authenticate chain of custody of our white goose down using our newly developed, holistic traceability audit that includes physical inspection of the supply chain from farm to garment factory, interviews with workers and all of the paperwork in between. The audit is performed by an independent, third-party, traceability expert.

We are still using gray goose down in many of our down products while we work to shift our supply chain to the exclusive use of Patagonia Traceable Down. The gray goose down we use is not live-plucked, but it is force-fed to produce foie gras.

Continue reading to learn a little about the production of down and down products. You’ll also see a history of our efforts to examine our down supply chain, our discoveries and challenges, and the actions we’re taking to adopt the best possible long-term practices.

Patagonia Down

We use goose down in insulated garments because of its excellent performance. Down has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic insulation, and it is more compressible. The higher the grade of down, the more efficient the insulation. We also offer garments with synthetic insulation – in different weights, grades and styles – to meet our customers’ varied needs.

Down clothes are tricky to make in two ways. First, special care has to be taken to safeguard workers who fill and sew the garments. Down rooms have to be sealed off from other areas and workers have to wear masks to keep from inhaling the fiber. We have worked with our factories to ensure healthy conditions for people who work with down and even developed a special down health-and-safety audit checklist.

More difficult to control is the treatment of geese. Live-plucking, in which feathers are removed from live geese before they molt, is said to be akin to having one’s hair pulled out. Force-feeding geese to fatten their livers in the production of foie gras is another controversial practice.

Timeline of Our Efforts

We re-introduce down garments into the Patagonia line, but do not examine where our goose down comes from or how it’s produced.

During an environmental impact assessment of the materials we use, we look at down. We find the global poultry industry (not limited to geese) has a record of inhumane treatment of birds, which are raised for their meat. This includes such things as caging, de-beaking, force-feeding and on the environmental side, polluting air and water. We ask our down supplier a lot of questions to which they provide detailed answers. But wanting to confirm what they tell us, we send our strategic environmental materials developer to Hungary to visit a goose farm. He asks about living conditions for the geese, what kinds of chemicals the farm uses, and how the geese are slaughtered for their meat. Our down supplier assures us our down does not come from geese that are force-fed, which we later find out is untrue. We learn that some of our down is taken from geese after they’ve been killed for their meat, and some is taken from live geese during their molting period. We consult an agricultural professor who says that removing down and feathers from live birds when they’re molting is not painful to the geese. Armed with this information, we attempt to explain the impacts of making a Patagonia Down Sweater on our Footprint Chronicles website.

Aware of the fact that geese do suffer when their down is live-plucked, we require our supplier to certify that all down for Patagonia products comes from slaughterhouses and not contain any live-plucked down. We’re told that force-fed geese produce an oily, second-quality down that is not being supplied to us, so force-feeding is less of a concern.

In December, Four Paws (a German animal-rights group) accuses us of using live-plucked down; a charge we refute. During the controversy, however, we learn from a Four Paws investigation that gray geese from Hungary, where we get our down, are routinely force-fed to produce foie gras. Force-feeding is now banned in many European countries but is still legal in France and Hungary.

Wanting to get the facts firsthand, we send our director of social and environmental responsibility, our director of materials development, and our strategic environmental materials developer to Hungary to investigate. They make two trips, one in February and one in August, accompanied by principals from our down supplier. The group visits representative links from the entire white and gray goose down supply chains – from parent farms (where the eggs come from) to breeding farms, slaughterhouses to down processors.

Our suppliers are forthcoming, but what we learn does not sit well with us. Four Paws is correct: We are unwittingly using down from force-fed geese raised for foie gras and meat. We don’t see any evidence of live-plucked down in the parts of the supply chain we visit. And we verify that the slaughterhouses we inspect take steps to ensure they do not buy live-plucked birds and that they contract with the goose farms to specify that there is no live-plucking. This is bolstered by occasional audits of those farms.

Existing chain of custody documentation provides good traceability of down from the farm level to the slaughterhouse thanks to Hungarian food industry laws. The chain of custody, however, is not as robust from slaughterhouse to down processors. We begin implementing a plan to improve document linkage and the labeling and separation of our down at all levels of the supply chain, including the garment factories, to ensure that we get no live-plucked material.

We also begin looking at other down supply chains where live-plucking and force-feeding of geese is illegal. Our materials team visits Poland to investigate potential new down sources, and we approve one source (that has limited capacity) for use in a range of styles.

We commission an independent chain of custody audit of our new white goose down supply chain in Poland, hiring a traceability expert who begins a three-month-long investigation joined by the International Down and Feather League. Our goal is to score down traceability management systems and assess animal welfare. The two are intrinsically linked and equally important to assuring product-content claims.

During the three-month period, auditors assess more than a dozen sites over seven field days, including a down garment factory in China, a down processor in the U.S., and various international down processors, slaughterhouses and farms - including a parent goose farm (where eggs are produced) and a hatchery. The auditors evaluate animal-welfare practices against the August 2012 version of the Patagonia down standard, as well as European Union and individual countries’ laws pertaining to animal welfare. To measure robustness of traceability of the supply chain, our expert looks at the hallmarks of good traceability: documentation trails, physical labeling and segregation of down, and management systems. She then verifies the system’s robustness through the tried-and-true supply chain auditing methodology of document review, observation and worker interviews.

We receive reports at each stage of the assessment in each country. They include assessment summaries, analysis of gaps in tracing systems, good practices and a final score for animal welfare and overall traceability management systems. We also receive a final summary report linking all site visits and one final quantitative score for traceability management systems and animal welfare/live-plucking/force-feeding.

To our knowledge, no other company has gone to such lengths to assure chain of custody.

January 2013
We receive results from the audit in January that show “no evidence of live-plucking or force-feeding practices” in our white goose down supply chain. Furthermore, the audit reveals “a robust traceability document chain, adequate labeling and segregation practices with room for improvement in a few areas.” We are now pursuing remediation of all report recommendations to further improve traceability and animal welfare in our down supply chains. We are also developing a screening process for our down suppliers based on our chain of custody audit and the assessment tools that came out of it.

Patagonia has a history of affecting change in supply chains, and we are hopeful to do it with down. In this spirit, as of spring 2013, our entire collection of Ultralight Down clothing uses white down from geese that have been verified by an independent, third-party traceability expert to be non-live-plucked, non-force-fed. It is our hope to expand this offering each season as we build up a Traceable Down supply chain based on our Down Supply Chain Animal Welfare Standard.

Going Forward
We are developing a screening process for our down suppliers based on our chain of custody audit and the assessment tools that came out of it. We are also looking into the possibility of using the Textile Exchange’s Content Claim Standard to move our traceability assessment from “verification” to “certification.” And we continue to deepen our knowledge of down supply chains in order to develop the best possible practices and ensure credible chain-of-custody documentation.

To improve down supply chains across the board, we are participating in the formation of an Outdoor Industry Association and Textile Exchange Down Task Force, part of the Materials Traceability Working Group. The goal is to foster collaboration among brands and suppliers to establish traceability standards and methodologies for down products and supply chains. Traceability will allow brands to verify claims about the down used in their products, including whether the geese that supply it have been live-plucked or force-fed.

In the meantime, the caveats we first raised to Patagonia customers in spring 2011, and updated in December 2011, still apply. Vegans whose avoidance of animal products extends to shoe leather may want to avoid down clothing. And those who believe foie gras should not be produced or sold may also want to avoid our gray down products. We continue to offer high-quality garments insulated with synthetic materials as alternatives. Thanks for your interest. We will continue to discuss this issue as things develop.