How companies can source down more sustainably

In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.

Down comes from the fluffiest layer of feathers on duck and geese and is the most effective natural insulator in the textiles industry. Unlike most feathers that are long and stiff, down feathers are rounder, fuzzier and form clumps that can be used to fill pillows, sleeping bags and puffer jackets.

Because down feathers are both biodegradable and recyclable, few environmental risks are associated with their use. Instead, the key sustainability concerns related to down are around animal welfare. Down is often described as a byproduct of waterfowl raised for meat. Ideally, feathers would be plucked from birds only after slaughter; however, animal rights groups have drawn attention to the practice of suppliers live-plucking to get more than one harvest of down from a single bird. There are also concerns that down feathers can come from birds that have been force-fed for foie gras.

Because down is an animal byproduct, the material may not be acceptable for vegan consumers even if animal welfare protections are in place. Most non-animal substitutes for down are synthetic and come with their own negative impacts, leading to a potential trade-off between animal welfare and environmental harm when it comes to this material.

Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Several years ago, Textile Exchange, in collaboration with The North Face, pioneered the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), which requires farmers, brands and supply chain members to respect the “Five Freedoms” of the animals that provide their down and uses audits to certify every step of the supply chain. Over 1,200 sites have been certified to the standard, which translates to certified protections in place for the health and well-being of over 500 million birds.

Textile Exchange also considers the following variations of down as preferred options:

  • Traceable Down Standard, which involves a chain of custody component that verifies traceability systems are in place throughout the supply chain

  • Downpass, which traces down to its producer and monitors quality with independent testing

  • Organic standards such as Organic Content Standard or Global Organic Textile Standard

  • Recycled down certified to the Global Recycled Standard, Recycled Content Standard or SCS Recycled Content Standard


How can companies level up their down sourcing strategy?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy.

Top performers in the preferred down category have some key activities in common. These should serve as inspiration for any companies looking to push their preferred down programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.

1. Work with your suppliers

Down and feather suppliers have an important role to play when connecting the farm to the textile value chain, as they are the principal procurer of the raw material. A strong risk management strategy would involve companies knowing all of their suppliers and farm locations, and ensuring that all parts of the business are trained and motivated to implement animal welfare policies and chain of custody criteria within the RDS.

Material change in action: To gain more transparency into its down supply chain, The North Face pioneered the creation of RDS in partnership with Textile Exchange and Control Union. The brand worked closely with existing down suppliers and shared its goals for RDS-certified product volume to ensure that its suppliers would have an appropriate supply of RDS-certified down available. It also trained and supported the certification processes of its cut-and-sew factories.

“Our suppliers understood the importance of the standard and were really cooperative partners in the learning process,” said Carol Shu, senior sustainability manager at The North Face. “Their willingness to learn the requirements of certification and ensure that we had the right traceability documentation and data for our own certification was critical.”

2. Identify regional risks

Supply chain risks will vary by region. It’s therefore useful for companies to map out their supply chains and identify high-risk areas, and then engage with animal welfare organizations (such as Four Paw) to deeply understand issues and opportunities for improvement in potentially high-risk situations.

While live-plucking and force-feeding are the more shocking welfare issues, more subtler welfare concerns such as lack of access to open water should not be overlooked. Waterfowl are aquatic animals and need access to water for exercise, for expressing natural behaviors such as preening (which removes dust and parasites from their feathers) and for cleaning their eyes and nostrils.

3. Commit to certification and continuous improvement

Because the industry and the public has become increasingly aware of practices such as live-plucking and force-feeding, brands have been moving quickly to switch out conventional down for preferred options.

Leading companies are additionally making long-term commitments with certified down suppliers and working towards continuous improvement with them. Even when a company is already using preferred down variations, there might be room to do better — for example, by moving to a diverse portfolio of certified virgin and recycled down.

Material change in action: A subsidiary of Columbia Sportswear Company, prAna, was an early adopter of recycled down. After struggling to trace its recycled down to a known source, the brand invested in traceability solutions for its suppliers.

Not only did prAna encourage all of its partners to streamline auditing and certification processes, but it also encouraged the use of the RDS to ensure greater credibility. “Using a product that is third-party certified and following an industry-proven standard strengthened the prAna brand and product integrity, as prAna’s small size did not support development of its own standard,” explained Rachel K. Lincoln, director of sustainability at prAna.