You might wonder how an animal product like down fits into a world increasingly focused on sustainability and animal ethics. However, you can make ethical choices when choosing down outdoor equipment and clothing that support animal welfare and sustainable practices.
What is down?
Down is the soft material found close to the skin of waterbirds, including ducks and geese. It is down’s light and fluffy nature that traps air, which traps heat and provides insulation.
Why use down in outdoor clothing and equipment?
Light, squishy, durable, warm – these qualities make down great for outdoor gear. Down’s insulation properties are superior to other natural and synthetic options. Its warmth-to-weight ratio has made it the preferred insulation material for outdoor activities. Because down is so light and fluffy, it compresses easily. This means you can pack down-filled items away tightly when not in use. This makes down equipment take up less room and easier to transport. It also means a down-filled garment or sleeping bag is a lightweight piece of kit that won’t weigh you down on your adventures.
Synthetic materials are improving all the time. However, they are typically heavier and less compressible than a down item with an equal warmth rating. Synthetic materials compact over time and won’t fluff up as easily as they get older. Down lofts readily after compression and stays durable year after year, so long as it’s cleaned regularly and stored in a light and loose form. Modern outdoor gear often uses water-repellent down and outer materials. This helps down perform better in wet conditions and manage moisture from sleeping.
Find out more in our article on how to choose the right down outdoor jacket.
How is down rated for quality and warmth?
Look at a quality piece of down outdoor gear and you’ll find a rating on it, usually between 600- and 800-loft. This rating – called fill power – refers to the down’s warmth-to-weight ratio. Fill power is a measure of volume. It’s not a rating of how warm an item is, but how fluffy its down is. It refers to how many cubic inches a 30g cluster of fully lofted down takes up. The higher the number, the larger and fluffier the down clusters are. So, the higher the fill power, the warmer the item is when you compare the same weight of down.
The amount of down inside each piece of clothing or sleeping bag is different. Comparing fill power AND weight of down is important. When comparing items, you can multiply the fill power by the down weight. For example, a 600-loft jacket with 400g of down (240,000) is warmer than an 800-loft jacket with only 150g of down (120,000).
Likewise, two similar items filled with 800-loft down will have different warmth ratings if the amounts of down are different. However, a 600-loft jacket with only 200g of down (120,000) is the same warmth as an 800-loft jacket with 150g of down. This means the fewer big clusters of 800-fill-down squash smaller than a similar garment filled with many small clusters of 600-loft-down. The advantage is the 800-loft item compresses better, is more packable and less bulky to wear.
Based on this, a slimline 800-loft down jacket will pack small, be ultralight which is great for hiking, skiing, and backpacking. A well-filled 600-loft down jacket, which will be heavier, bulkier and less compressible, is better for travel and walking around in cold countries.
Many factors affect how warm your down outdoor gear is. These include:
- what the outside conditions are
- what windproof layers you wear
- what clothing you wear underneath
- how insulated your sleeping mat and tent are
- how well fed and looked after you are
The specific design features of the item, such as baffles and down distribution, also affect warmth. The external fabric of your down jacket or sleeping bag also changes how much air passes through it and how much warmth is trapped inside. Some items use a wind-stopping or waterproof fabric or durable water repellent (DWR) treatment on the outside. Ultralight items with very thin external fabrics are colder than those with thick outer fabrics.
Is down an environmentally friendly and sustainable product?
Down is a waste by-product of the meat industry, rather than a product created for the clothing and bedding industry. Harvesting down doesn’t support or fund the meat industry. It simply removes waste that would otherwise go to landfill and puts it to good use. Because down is a natural fibre, it’s biodegradable and compostable. It is also recyclable.
The down industry has a significantly lower carbon footprint than the synthetic fibre industry. Studies show that down has 85%–97% lower impacts than polyester on human health, ecosystems, resources, cumulative energy demand, and climate change. These reasons make down an environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to oil-based synthetic fibres. Find out more about down and sustainability at the International Down and Feather Bureau website.
How is down sourced responsibly?
Over 75% of down comes from farms in China. This is because China is the world’s largest consumer of duck and goose meat. The rest comes from Europe, plus North America and other parts of the world. The down and feather industry is heavily regulated. Down found in clothing and bedding rarely comes from live birds. Rather, it comes from farms that grow ducks and geese for their meat and eggs. Down harvested at these farms can be certified to meet strict standards for animal welfare.
Only buy down products that meet the highest standards approved by a third party to the down industry. This way you ensure your outdoor gear uses responsibly sourced down from cruelty-free practices causing no undue harm. All down clothing and sleeping bags sold at Paddy Pallin are made from recycled down or contain virgin down certified to the Responsible Down Standard or Global Traceable Down Standard. You can find out more in our article on responsible sourcing of down.
What is the Responsible Down Standard (RDS)?
The RDS is an accreditation and validation system that certifies the supply of down and feathers. The standard was created by materials supplier ALLIED Feather & Down and outdoor brand The North Face. Textile Exchange, a non-profit organisation that drives climate change and sustainability action in the fashion and textile industry, has run the standard since 2014. RDS certification aims to ensure that the down and feather supply chain doesn’t include animals subjected to unnecessary harm. It encourages the humane treatment of birds to the highest welfare standards, including the Five Freedoms of terrestrial animal welfare.
A separate certification called the Content Claim Standard (CCS) ensures that materials accredited under the RDS have a chain of custody. This tracks down through the entire process, from production to processing to the creation of the final product. It covers the grower of the hatchling bird through to the finished product. It also makes sure that down from different sources, especially non-certified sources, isn’t mixed at any stage of the process. Farms, processing plants, and manufacturers are inspected and audited as part of the RDS and CCS certification. Independent third-party certification bodies carry out the certifications. Most outdoor equipment and clothing brands use down that is RDS-compliant. You can find out more about the RDS at the Textile Exchange’s website.
What is the Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS)?
Outdoor brand Patagonia created the 100% Traceable Down Standard in 2013 as an internal method for checking their down supply. In 2015, NSF International developed this into the Global TDS to make it publicly available. NSF is an independent certification and standards body that also completes the certification process (along with other authorised auditing organisations). The Global TDS is like the RDS and meets the same requirements. However, it’s considered a more stringent accreditation. The auditing process starts with the parent farms, which supply the birds raised for their eggs and who may supply naturally shed down. Also, traceability is a critical part of the Global TDS, not a separate standard. Down is tracked at every stage, from the egg through to down processing and garment manufacturing. This prevents the mixing of certified down with down from non-compliant sources.
Different certifications are given to collector-based (Certified Global TDS) and industrial (Advanced Global TDS) down supply chains. This adds a greater level of traceability and animal welfare standards, particularly for down sourced from small family farms. Fewer brands currently use the Global TDS certification. However, if you buy a product with this certification, you know the birds involved have received the best care throughout the entire down supply chain. Find out more about the Global TDS at the NSF website.
What is naturally shed down?
Some down is collected when it is naturally shed by farmed birds during the moulting and breeding seasons. Down retrieved this way comes from mature animals and has a higher loft, supplying a superior product. These birds are raised for their eggs rather than meat. However, they may be used for meat at the end of their lives. Naturally shed down is considered the most ethical method of collecting down, as there is no harm to the animals during collection. Premium outdoor brands such as Western Mountaineering only use naturally shed down from mature farmed geese for their products. As a result, their down is rated as 850+ fill power.
What is recycled down?
Thanks to recent advances in collection and recycling processes, a down item at the end of its life no longer needs to go to landfill. Down is stripped from old items such as doonas, puffer jackets, pillows, and sleeping bags. It is carefully cleaned, processed, and separated into different fill powers. The recycled down is then reused in new garments and bedding products. It’s possible to retrieve high-quality 600- to 700-loft recycled down through the recycling process. However, because it’s harder to find large amounts of high-lofting down (i.e. 800- to 900-loft), only certain items will contain recycled down.
How can I keep my down outdoor gear performing at its best?
Like regular clothing, down clothing and sleeping bags get dirty with use. After all, our outdoor gear gets to share all the blood, sweat, and tears of our adventures! As the down absorbs moisture, dirt, and oils with use, the item will look less fluffy. Water-repellent treatments also become less effective. Your gear needs regular washing to help it perform. We recommend using a specialised downwash, as other detergents can damage down. They can also remove water-repellent treatments from down and outer fabrics. Find out how to clean a down sleeping bag on our Caring for your Sleeping Bag page.
If the DWR on your down equipment is no longer working well, you can retreat it using a spray or wash-in product. Paddy Pallin stocks a range of cleaning and treatment products for looking after your down outdoor gear. All wash and DWR treatment products supplied by Paddy Pallin are PFC-free. Even better, our range of Storm products are not only free from PFCs, but their aluminium containers are easy to recycle.
Lifetime Club Membership