What We’ve Learned About Our Down
This story was first published in April 2011.
We’re proud of the down clothing we make. The quality (fill-power or insulation value) of the down is excellent and appropriate to end use, as are the shell fabrics. The designs are beautiful; down clothing of all kinds has become an important part of our business. Their popularity helps pay the bills (and 1% of their sales contributes a significant hunk of change to environmental causes).
We also know the limits to our pride: that everything we do as a business results in some kind of environmental harm or waste. But one issue involved in down production has troubled us particularly for a while and, after deeper investigation, continues to do so.
Down clothes are tricky to make in two ways: special care has to be taken to safeguard workers who fill and sew the garments. Anyone who has worked with down knows that it is lighter even than feathers and resistant to gravity. Down rooms have to be sealed off from other areas and workers have to wear masks to keep from inhaling the fiber.
The second area of concern is treatment of the geese. We visit the sewing factory work floor fairly often and have additional help from the Fair Labor Association, which independently audits working conditions for us. It is harder to monitor conditions on farms. We contract directly with sewing factories, but you have to go deep into the supply chain from sewing factory to down vendor to processor before you finally get to a farm. And a single goose can spend its life on four different farms. This complexity is also true of other products involving animals, including shoes and wool underwear and sweaters.
A few years ago, in the course of our initial work on the Footprint Chronicles we learned that some of the down used in our clothing came from geese whose feathers are removed when ready for molting. Many animal-rights organizations decry the practice of live-plucking, in which feathers are removed before they are ready to molt. The European Food Safety Authority issued a recent scientific opinion to confirm that gathering, as opposed to plucking, feathers does not harm geese when done by proper means.
In 2009, before this ruling was issued, and absent guidelines to ensure the use of gathered rather than plucked down, we decided to avoid risk of inadvertent harm by sourcing our down only from slaughterhouses, where down and feathers are removed after the geese have been killed for food. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the economic value of a goose is as food and only 5 to 10 percent down. Goose down is a by-product of geese raised as food, either for meat or liver (foie gras).
So, for the fall 2009 season and beyond we required our supplier, Allied Feather & Down, to certify that all down shipped for use in Patagonia products be removed from geese killed for food, and that the shipments not contain any live-plucked material.
In December 2010 the animal-rights organization Four Paws accused Patagonia of using live-plucked down; we refuted this. During the controversy, though, we struck up a conversation with Four Paws. We were told that they believed that – on the basis of photographs that appear on the Footprint Chronicles – we were using down from gray geese and that, conventionally, gray geese in Hungary are raised for foie gras, which involves force feeding to fatten the liver, a controversial practice banned in most European countries and some U.S. states (including, as of 2012, California). This practice however is not banned in France (where foie gras is a national delicacy) or in Hungary, the country from which we source our down.
We had been told previously that geese force fed for foie gras produce an oily, second- quality down that would not be supplied to us. This turns out to be incorrect; the quality of down is not affected. And we were, and are, being supplied down from force-fed geese raised for their liver as well as their meat.
We decided to further investigate: we dispatched our director of social and environmental responsibility; our director of materials development; and our strategic environmental materials developer to Hungary with two principals from Allied Feather & Down. We wanted to get the facts firsthand. We visited two down and feather processing facilities, two slaughterhouses and two parent goose farms. Our suppliers were transparent with us on the trip but we should note that we did not visit all stages of the supply chain.
What we did learn does not sit well with us. Four Paws was correct: We are using down from geese harvested for foie gras as well as meat (with down as a by-product).
We didn’t see any evidence of live-plucked down in the parts of the supply chain we visited, and we verified that the slaughterhouses we visited contract with and audit the farms from which they purchase geese to ensure that they do not live-pluck the birds. Despite this, we consider our current tracing program inadequate; the documents we inspected at each stage appeared to be legitimate but must be linked together with more clarity to pass a formal “chain-of-custody” audit by an independent third party. We need to ensure that no live-plucking is done at any point in the supply chain, including on farms where geese are raised before arriving at the slaughterhouse.
Where do we go from here? We will improve our tracing practices and certifications for avoiding live-plucked down. We are not comfortable using down from force-fed geese, though we have no short-term alternative. We are looking now in Hungary for down from geese raised exclusively for their meat and not for their liver (again, the down is a by-product). We can also look beyond Hungary’s borders in search of down produced by better means. We will deepen our knowledge of the down supply chain and continue conversations with NGOs that have something to teach us.
We’ll keep our customers posted on what we learn.
In the meantime, if you’re a vegan whose avoidance of animal products extends to shoe leather, you may also want to avoid down clothing. And if you think foie gras should not be produced or sold you may also want to avoid its by-product. We offer a number of synthetically insulated garments. Synthetic insulation, while not as efficient as down, works better than down in wet conditions.
Editor’s note: Starting in the Fall 2014 season, Patagonia will only use 100% Traceable Down sourced from birds that have been neither force-fed for foie gras production nor plucked for their feathers and down during their lifetime. Read more at Patagonia.com.