The low down on down: Outdoor brands tackle challenges throughout complex supply chain

Outdoor brands are discovering they can't take geese farmers at their word anymore to avoid animal cruelty. Find out what extra steps they are taking.
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Despite the best efforts of synthetics, there are still few ways to beat goose down for its warmth, lightness and packability. But for outdoor companies committed to environmental responsibility, down has presented some challenging hurdles.

One of the key animal welfare objections in the down supply chain is live plucking, the process of pulling feathers and down from animals while still alive. But, the move toward a supply chain that uses feathers and down from geese slaughtered for meat can bump up against other issues, including the practice of force-feeding the geese to fatten their livers for the delicacy foie gras.

 A goose being force-fed for foie gras.

A goose being force-fed for foie gras.

At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014, big names like The North Face and Patagonia announced new landmarks in their efforts to drive suppliers away from practices that raise concern for animal welfare. A large part of that mission is to focus on tracing the complex global chain through which goose down is harvested, processed and turned into down jackets and sleeping bags. In other words: keeping a watchful eye on every step of the process.

“Down is one of the best materials out there for insulation, there’s no comparison, so if we are going to provide that to our customers we have to make sure there’s no unnecessary harm,” said Wendy Savage, social and environmental responsibility manager for Patagonia. “Traceability has helped us to do that.”

Traceable down
Patagonia announced it is moving to 100 percent traceable down for the fall 2014 season.

The company’s Traceable Down standard, which focuses on animal welfare, has been six years in the making, beginning with a 2007 environmental impact assessment of its materials that found that geese were being force-fed. They asked a supplier to certify that its down was coming from geese that hadn’t been force fed and the supplier did, but in 2010, an animal rights group said the practice was continuing among gray geese from Hungary, where Patagonia sources its down.

“We didn’t believe we had those issues especially because our supplier had provided us with documentation saying ‘No, we don’t have animal welfare issues in our supply chain,’” Savage said. “We thought, maybe we need to go deeper and trace our supply chain.”

So they did. Through independent audits, Patagonia found that the down did come from geese that had been force-fed. It was time to move beyond written guarantees.

The company’s new Traceable Down standard focuses on an authenticated chain of custody with audits performed by an independent, third-party traceability expert that includes a physical inspection of the supply chain from parent farms for the eggs to the garment factory.

Patagonia implemented Traceable Down for its 2013 ultralight down products, which show no evidence of live-plucking or force-feeding practices of the white goose down thanks to a “robust traceability document chain.” The shift won’t be complete for all its products until Fall 2014, leaving a slight risk of using questionable down in the meantime, but officials said the process is a transitional one.

“I don’t think anyone is going to get out of the down business,” said Jess Clayton, who handles public relations for Patagonia. “It’s by far the warmest for its weight, it’s one of the most important insulating materials for alpinists. I think instead of bailing out of the market, it’s better to go in and try to fix the problem.”

Responsible down
The North Face faced similar allegations of sourcing down from force-fed birds in 2012, before it looked deeper into the problem.

“We of course wanted to get to the bottom of this issue,” Adam Mott, senior manager of sustainability for The North Face, said via email. He was in Europe educating farmers on its new Responsible Down standard. “Upon close inspection, we found that, on an industry-wide basis, there was a general lack of traceability of materials in the down supply chain. We wanted a solution that would go beyond anything currently in existence by establishing a certification standard that addresses animal welfare and traceability.”

The North Face assembled Control Union Certifications, a third-party certification body with expertise in animal welfare and farming practices, and Textile Exchange, an international nonprofit with expertise in textile standard development and management, to assess animal welfare and traceability throughout their down supply chain. Teams inspected hatcheries, farms, slaughterhouses, collectors, pre-processors, processing facilities and garment manufacturers across sourcing regions in Eastern Europe and Asia.

“Environmental responsibility and ethical sourcing practices are integrated into our company culture,” Mott said. “We aim to seamlessly embed our commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility into every aspect of our business, and strive to be a leader in meeting industry challenges whenever possible.”

The North Face made its Responsible Down standard public by giving it to Textile Exchange for anyone to use. So far, it’s been translated into five languages. On Jan. 24, one of the outdoor industry’s top suppliers and processors of down, Allied Feather and Down, announced a commitment to the standard.

“During the supply chain evaluation process Allied Feather and Down, our main down supplier, was instrumental in providing direct access to their down suppliers to conduct initial evaluations and gain the suppliers’ feedback on early drafts of the RDS,” Mott said.

“Really, it was just a collaboration to make it as robust but also as practical as it could be within the supply chain,” said Daniel Uretsky, COO of Allied Feather & Down. “The thing with down is it is a complex supply chain and what we were looking for was something that would allow us to be more inclusive than exclusive. It’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t use this, don’t use that.’ But then you’re also closing yourself off from a lot of things that could be completely fine.”

Allied expects to offer its vendors certified Responsible Down for fall 2015 products.

Early adopter
While The North Face and Patagonia are grabbing headlines today for their efforts, British outdoor brand Mountain Equipment has been tracking its down supply chain with its Down Codex project since 2009. The program allows consumers to trace the source of down in products they purchase It also uses a third-party auditing check to confirm that suppliers that their down was a by-product of food production and obtained from humanely-slaughtered birds who were not force-fed or live-plucked. As of spring 2012, all its down-filled sleeping bags came with a 12-digit code that lets customers trace their down via the website.

Economic drivers
Although it’s likely more industry players will adopt responsible and traceable down standards — bringing cleaner supply chains to outdoor brands and their consumers — the overall market is a bigger challenge.

For starters, even with down prices soaring, the meat of the birds is more valuable.

“All of the down used in our manufacturing is derived from geese that are raised for the production of food products, which industry experts estimate comprise 85-90 percent of the economic value of a goose,” Mott said. “By comparison, down is estimated to comprise roughly 5-10 percent of the economic value.”

The goose’s liver alone, for foie gras, is more valuable than the down, Uretsky added.

“When you’re talking about how the animals are being transported or fed, they say ‘Are you buying the meat?’ ‘No, we’re just interest in buying the down.’ ‘Well, come back to me when you’re buying the meat. For 7 percent of the value, we’re not changing,’” Uretsky said. By consistently working with the same suppliers, he said, they’ve sent a message they understand the changes need to be incremental and reasonable.

“Maybe we’re not able to make every single change immediately, but over time in the aggregate, we’re going to be doing much better,” he said.

“That’s definitely one of the biggest challenges,” Savage said. Patagonia chooses to tackle it through education that extended from the farms to the factories. “You really have to change hearts and minds here and make your suppliers understand where are we coming from and what do we stand for — it’s at the heart of our mission statement, no unnecessary harm.”

Rising down prices
As down prices have nearly doubled in the past five years, it is easy to assume in the outdoor world that the jump is due to the popularity of the insulation.

While that played a role, the larger reality is that less people are eating geese and duck after several bird flu epidemics. That reduced meat demand and supply, which in turn reduced down supply, even though demand for the latter continued to rise. Hence, the price increases. Since meat continues to drive prices at the source, it’s difficult to say whether the stricter down standards will add further to price, but there’s likely some increase with the extra documentation and work to conduct the audits.

The hope is that costs for everyone will come down — and conditions for geese everywhere will go up — as more companies ask for sustainably sourced down.

“The more brands are asking for this type of material, the more the practices will improve,” Savage said.

Industry-wide effort
The Outdoor Industry Association established a down task force in 2012 — a match to working groups that address other specific materials, including recycled, organic and wool materials — with the objective of creating a universal standard to be used industry-wide.

“That really came about just as it became evident that, as an industry, individual companies really needed to have a message and ensure that down in the supply chain was being ethically sourced,” said Nikki Hodgson, corporate responsibility coordinator for OIA.

The Down Task Force will be looking to companies such as Patagonia, The North Face and Mountain Equipment, which are participating, to bring their insights and priorities to the table there.

“I think the best strategy for us is to go through the existing standards and other tools and resources and pick the common ground and create something from that,” Hodgson said. There’s no specific time frame outlined for the release of those standards, but it’s been identified as a priority for 2014.

--Elizabeth Miller

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