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What Does “Responsible Down” Really Mean?

Author: Ashley Gill

November 01, 2017

You might notice a blue logo on our website and hangtags for some of your favorite cold weather gear, labeled Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Products with this logo comply with RDS, an important certification for the humane practices and processes of collecting down insulation. We invited Ashley Gill from Textile Exchange, the non-profit governing body for responsible production practices, to tell us more about RDS products and how purchasing these can benefits animals worldwide.

Nature’s best insulation.

Of all insulations used today, down provides you the greatest warmth for the least weight. Its high warmth to low weight ratio makes it an ideal option for long treks where every ounce counts. Its ability to wick away moisture avoids that clammy feeling associated with synthetics. Above all, down’s ability to trap air and body heat are what keep adventurers at safe temperatures in harsh climates. So what exactly is down insulation?

“Down” does not actually mean “feathers” – it’s actually the plumage that sits next to fowl’s skin, underneath its feathers. Think of it as nature’s perfect midlayer for birds that spend their time swimming, sleeping, and traveling through harsh and cold climates. Down is only collected from ducks and geese who are being raised for their meat. Since down is a natural material, it’s biodegradable and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels for production. Duck down is more common, and is typically a bit cheaper than goose down. Goose down, on average, has a better weight-to-warmth ratio and better loft or fluffiness (we typically refer to this as “fill power”).

Trouble ahead?

Down is a great product with a long history and a bright future, albeit a sensitive subject among animal activitist organizations. But recently, two issues have challenged the notion that down could be used without worry over negative impacts: Force-feeding and live-plucking.

Force-feeding is a practice that’s pretty self-explanatory. Fatter geese produce better foie gras, and this unfortunate practice has gone on for many years. Live-plucking is the act of collecting down from ducks or geese before they have been processed. This exercise may provide some farms with additional income, by allowing them to pluck and sell the down from animals while they are still alive. Both of these practices inflict an unacceptable level of cruelty on ducks and geese that shouldn’t be tolerated in any production process.

Responsible for change.

The good news is that there are many farms around the world that ensure the welfare of ducks and geese, and there are great incentives in place to reward and encourage those efforts. Enter, Responsible Down Standard.

The Responsible Down Standard is a global standard for best practices in animal welfare throughout a brand’s entire retail supply chain. Since 2014, Textile Exchange has sought input from animal welfare groups, industry experts, brands, and retailers to perfect this standard as it is today.

In order to receive certification, brands invite a third-party auditor called a Certification Body to visit factories and farms to interview staff, analyze hygiene conditions, and ensure that ducks and geese are well cared for. After checking each stage of the down sourcing process, Certification Bodies can give their approval and follow the down material to production where it is used as insulation in jackets, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, as well as other products. When you see the RDS logo on a final product, it represents a great deal of work at every stage in the supply chain.

A long plane ride to Asia.

In early 2017, my colleague and I traveled to China to visit some certified farms and facilities. We planned the trip for two reasons: We wanted to see the impact the standard was actually having on the ground, and we wanted to learn how we might work to make it better in the future. RDS certifications apply to small family farms with fewer than one thousand birds to larger facilities with 20,000 foul or even more.

Our trip was coordinated by the Certification Bodies that actually perform the audits of each farm.

During our trip, I met a young family that owns one of the contracted farms. They live in a small apartment attached to the shelter for the birds. They provide direct care for the flock of birds under their contract. They explained to us how they care for the birds, including details about handling, feed, access to water, and keeping the baby chicks warm in their early days. With each flock of birds, they also receive the feed, medicine, and books for record-keeping.

Ensuring credibility.

By requiring the farms to be certified to the RDS, down suppliers have more insight into the conditions of the farms. They know that the farms have met key criteria, and they can hold farms and processors accountable to follow the best practices in animal welfare. Where there are no standards in place, farms or processors may state that they follow the rules, but the down suppliers have no way to know if this is true or not.

Brands—like Outdoor Research—that commit to using the Responsible Down Standard are creating demand for more responsible practices on the farms and processors, ensuring that animals receive the care they need, and are not subject to harm during their life.

As we move forward, we hope to use the standard to create change for more birds in the down and feather supply chain. When you purchase Responsible Down Standard products, you are part of that change. Thank you!

To learn more about the Responsible Down Standard, visit http://ResponsibleDown.org.

Click here to shop products that comply with the Responsible Down Standard.

Ashley Gill

Ashley Gill is Senior Manager of Integrity at Textile Exchange, on a team that works to address industry gaps in preferred material verification. Her expertise extends beyond down into verification, supply chain management, recycling, certification, labeling, and preferred fiber and materials. She leads the multi-stakeholder groups behind the Responsible Down Standard, Recycled Claim Standard, and Global Recycled Standard. Ashley speaks frequently at industry events on topics related to traceability and textile sustainability issues.