Dueling down standards show there’s more than one way to pluck a goose

Can the outdoor industry settle on single ethical down standard, or will multiple designations confuse the consumer?
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Outdoor brands wanting to ensure that the down clusters in their coats and sleeping bags come from ethical sources have plenty of options to pursue certification. There’s the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), which launched in January 2014 and was created by Textile Exchange, The North Face and Control Union. There’s Patagonia’s Traceable Down Standard, which has been publicly shared. And there are individual policies created by companies like Fjallraven.

Four Paws, the animal rights group that first drew outdoor companies’ attention to animal cruelty in the down supply chain, ranks Fjallraven at the top of the list for being among the first companies to fully inspect its supply chain, avoid using cages when transporting waterfowl, and doing the self-audits more than once a year in the company of a veterinarian. Patagonia takes second, and The North Face and other companies using the Responsible Down Standard are farther down the line, in part because they can't ensure the use of 100-percent cruelty-free down across their entire lines or in multiple-source down blends.

Yet, the Responsible Down Standard is the certification more brands are signing on to, and the sense is that it’s the more scalable of the models. Patagonia and Fjallraven can make precise demands and claims because they use a single source for down. Down suppliers that work with multiple brands face a different scenario.

“The honest answer is we’re not going to go for three different standards because we just can’t afford it,” said Andrew Payne, principle at Downtek. “These audits are not cheap.” Downtek is half done with the audits necessary for Responsible Down Standard certification, and estimates it’ll have finished the process by April. As the demand for RDS increases, brands hope to spread the costs of auditing, and bring prices down.

Meanwhile, what have the audits been finding? There have been a few instances where farmers needed to correct a behavior, and there haven’t been many reports of the brutal practices these down standards were built to address — live plucking and force feeding — though there are particular markets where it will be tough to change those behaviors. In Japan, companies once required certification that down had been live plucked, and as long as the French continue to eat fois gras, there will be geese somewhere who are being force-fed.

Allied Feather & Down, a mainstream supplier, provides RDS-certified down to 10 outdoor brands and is in talks with more to join the program.

“The industry as a whole has really embraced the standardization of these issues, and in terms of certification it’s going very well,” said Daniel Uretsky, president of Allied Feather & Down. He estimates that the price difference is about $2 per kilo.

As of fall 2014, all Patagonia products contain only 100-percent traceable down. Its standard is distinguished by refusing to blend certified down with uncertified down, and by starting at the parent farm that precedes the hatchery, an important distinction because live plucking can take place at those parent farms, too.

“We really firmly believe that our Traceable Down Standard is the highest bar that other companies can aspire to,” said Adam Fetcher, with Patagonia. “I believe that the outdoor industry has the chance to show some real leadership in setting the bar high, and we shouldn’t choose a lesser path simply because it’s more achievable in the short term.”

Patagonia’s down standard, which it created with NSF International, is designed to be a transparent road map for anyone else who wants to get on board.

“It’s definitely a good standard ,and it’s not necessarily a matter of one versus another, I think both do very good things,” Uretsky said. “I think it’s just important to understand that we really are trying not to view this as any kind of competition but really trying to focus on the goals behind it, which is that animal welfare is the most important thing here.”

Blending down from variable sources allows companies to get started adopting the standard even if they can’t carry it across 100-percent of their supply chain, he said.

“One of the biggest concerns is balancing our desire to be aspirational with supply chain realities,” said Beth Jensen, director of corporate responsibility for the Outdoor Industry Association. “Really the bigger issue is the tracing, the paperwork involved. Much of the down that’s out there now could be certified, it just takes so much paperwork.”

The move to more responsible down is a party to which everyone has been invited — or already come by to sign the guest book. Downlite, which has prioritized responsible sourcing throughout the more than 100 years it’s been in business, helped with the development of the standards for both Patagonia and for the Responsible Down Standard. Primaloft has three down blends, each of which can be responsibly sourced; Black Diamond’s recently launched apparel line is now 100 percent RDS down, which comes from Primaloft. The brand’s size made that an option, said Jeff Nash, vice president of engineering services with Black Diamond.

“There’s always risk in the supply chain, and you mitigate that risk with trust in your suppliers, auditing them, visiting their facilities, but there’s nothing better than third-party validation around critical issues,” Nash said.

Patagonia is focusing on getting the word out to consumers, and has created a short film to educate consumers. And at Winter Market, Allied debuts a program to label each item that uses down with a number that allows consumers to see the history of the down in their garments.

--Elizabeth Miller

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