The puffy jacket is a key piece of every skier's closet. Perfect for layering under a jacket on a cold day at the resort or just tossing on at home to take out the garbage, a puffy provides two crucial necessities for winter gear: comfort and warmth.
But that comfort and warmth comes at a price—down insulation is made with the feathers of ducks and geese raised, often inhumanely, in Eastern Europe and China. Because waterfowl in these regions are raised for their meat, not their feathers, down is a waste byproduct of an often-abusive meat industry, with birds being live-plucked of their feathers (exactly what it sounds like) as well as being force-fed to fatten them up for gourmet meals like foie gras (the state of California even bans the sale of foie gras for this reason).
While newer, synthetic insulations have been introduced over the last few years, the warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility and longevity of natural down is nearly impossible to beat, leaving many manufacturers going back to the farm and investing in sustainable down practices.
Two big names in the push for sustainably sourced down are The North Face and Patagonia, both of which in recent years announced their commitment to focusing on animal welfare when sourcing virgin down to use in their products.
As of 2014, Patagonia pledged to use only 100 percent traceable down in their apparel through their newly defined Traceable Down Standard. This means that every feather used in their products can be traced back to the factory where the garment was made, all the way back to the parent farm where the bird was hatched, confirming that the bird was not subject to force-feeding or live-plucking along its journey.
"People need to be aware that the clothing they are wearing to go skiing can have a positive or negative effect on the planet. When there is a wider customer awareness of what, where, and how they're buying products, they start to ask more questions. And it is these questions that provoke companies to start taking steps in the right direction." –Corey Simpson, Patagonia
"Using traceable down allows us to give our consumers a piece of mind to know what their product is made of, and where it's coming from," says Corey Simpson, communications coordinator at Patagonia. "We realized before that many people were buying products without having any clue what went into producing them. Within one down jacket, you could have had three or four farms worth of feathers, all of them coming from birds that were live-plucked or force-fed. Traceable down provides transparency within that supply chain."
Also in 2014, The North Face launched the Responsible Down Standard, a system that ensures the down they use in their products did not come from birds subject to live-plucking or force-feeding through vigorous documentation along the supply chain. Working alongside Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit dedicated to sustainability efforts in the apparel and textile industry, The North Face opened up RDS to the public, allowing outside companies to use the standard for certifying down in their own supply chains. Over 90 other companies have adopted the RDS, including Marmot, Outdoor Research, L.L. Bean, and Black Diamond. "The RDS is plug-and-play for companies," says James Rogers, director of sustainability at The North Face. "The network of farms and suppliers and third-party certifiers is already in place, making it incredibly simplified for them to adopt vs. where the down supply chain was a decade ago."
In 2016, more than 3,000 farms were certified to the RDS across the globe, which represented an estimated 400 million birds at the farm level. "We believe to truly make an impact, we had to get the primary suppliers and the many companies that use down on board," says Rogers. "The RDS has gained momentum and adoption across the supply chain, meaning farms and production sites across Europe and Asia are striving to adhere to the standard."
Patagonia also made their standard open-source, working with NSF International to make their virgin down certified to the Global Traceable Down Standard. "We don't care if it's our product or somebody else's," says Simpson. "We just want people to be supporting the use of sustainable materials."
While down products only make up a fraction of what many of these companies produce on a yearly basis, the push to using sustainably sourced down is a step in the right direction for creating a more sustainable apparel industry. "People need to be aware that the clothing they are wearing to go skiing can have a positive or negative effect on the planet," says Simpson. "When there is a wider customer awareness of what, where, and how they're buying products, they start to ask more questions. And it is these questions that provoke companies to start taking steps in the right direction."
Below are a few examples of new gear produced using only sustainably sourced down:
The North Face Summit L3 Down Hoodie – $350
Patagonia 850 Down Sleeping Bag 19F/-7C – $499
Black Diamond Women’s Forge Down Hoody – $199