People have been using down to keep warm for centuries – archaeologists have even discovered eiderdown inside Viking tombs! Realising its many advantages, mountaineers first started using specialist down clothing and equipment at the beginning of the 20th century.
These days, down jackets and down sleeping bags are widely used for all sorts of outdoor activities. However, being an animal product, using down always comes with some ethical considerations. We take a look at why down is still used, its benefits and what we can do to ensure that the down we buy is ethical.
- Why do we use down in outdoor gear?
- What are the animal welfare concerns with down?
- What is ethical down?
- Is down sustainable?
Specialist down equipment didn't really take off until the 1960s, 70s and 80s, thanks to innovators like Pete Hutchinson and Rab Carrington. Pete Hutchinson worked with the legendary Don Whillans to design the very first one-piece down suit, used by Chris Bonnington on his 1970 Annapurna expedition. Down was perfect for high altitude mountaineering, particularly the fast and light 'Alpine-style', for two main reasons:
High warmth, low weight
Down has a structure that traps lots of pockets of insulating air for very little weight. It's this property that keeps ducks and geese warm in very cold temperatures. This allows us to make jackets and sleeping bags that are incredibly warm but still lightweight enough to carry easily.
The other big advantage of down is that it's highly compressible. Down feathers can be squashed right down and will still spring back into shape without losing any loft (the fluffy structure that traps air). This allows you to carry a much smaller pack without having to sacrifice any clothing or equipment.
If you look after down properly, it will last for decades – far longer than modern synthetic alternatives.
Historically, down was gathered from the nests of Eider ducks in Iceland and Scandinavia during the nesting season. But this practice produces very little down – nowhere near enough to meet global demand – as only loose feathers are gathered to avoid harming the birds.
Most down now comes from ducks and geese as a by-product of the food industry. These animals are intensively farmed for their meat so many vegetarians, vegans and animal rights advocates are against the use of down, full-stop.
In recent years there have been a series of scandals over the welfare of animals used in the down industry. Reports discovered the widespread practice of live-plucking – literally ripping the feathers out of birds while they were still alive. Other birds were force-fed to enlarge their livers for use in foie gras. More information on the horrors of live plucking and farming of ducks and geese can be found on the PETA website.
Ethical down refers to any down that passes the highest animal welfare standards and comes from birds that are protected from live-plucking and force-feeding. These standards are based on the Five Freedoms of animal welfare, freedom from: hunger, thirst, pain, injury, disease and fear, in addition to the freedom to express animal behaviours.
The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is a voluntary code of practice that was established in cooperation with animal welfare groups and the down industry. The RDS certification is independently assessed, looking at every stage of a brand's down supply chain before any accreditation is awarded.
Looking out for the blue RDS logo is the best way to ensure that the down clothing and equipment you buy is ethically sourced. At Alpkit we only use RDS-certified down or 100% recycled down.
Synthetic insulation brands, such as PrimaLoft® and Thermolite® are now using increasing amounts of recycled material in their products and looking at new ways to reduce their energy consumption. However, ethically sourced down still holds several key sustainability advantages:
- As a natural product, it's a completely renewable material
- It's fully biodegradable at the end of its life
- It's a by-product of the food industry that would otherwise be wasted
- No extra energy or resources are required to produce it
- Recycled down keeps existing down out of landfill
- Well-looked-after down will last a lifetime
Down With Down?
Synthetic insulation alternatives are catching up but down still can't be beaten on its warmth-to-weight, compressibility or longevity. While there are still performance and sustainability advantages, we'll continue to use ethical down in our jackets and sleeping bags.