By Arwa Lodhi
Ah, a warm duvet, a crackling fire, a cup of cocoa. It’s all we need to make winter bearable. For most of my adult life, I’ve snuggled under the same duvet. I bought it in Canada, and was delighted at how light and fluffy it was, leaving me cool enough to sleep in fall and spring, but very toasty indeed in winter, too.
Since it was full of feathers, I thought it was an ethical purchase. My assumption: though I eat vegan, most people don’t, and the duvet was filled with the feathers of all the chickens that people around the world had eaten.
I was wrong.
‘Down’ is actually the undercoating of waterfowl (geese, ducks or swans) and consists of light, fluffy filaments growing from a central quill point, creating the perfect structure to traps air, giving down an insulating quality. Down is used to stuff not only duvets, but cushions, pillows, jackets, clothing and more.
It takes the down of around 75 birds to make one duvet, and most of the feathers we use for home and fashion items come from Chinese ducks. And yes, they are usually a by-product of the meat industry, but ducks and geese in Europe and North America are often raised for eggs and foie gras – which many of us, vegan or not, are opposed to on moral grounds. But how are the feathers collected?
Basically, there are technically three methods used to remove down and body feathers: Post mortem; gathering, and live plucking.
Post mortem means the feathers are removed after the birds are killed, and this is the most common method. But sometimes, before the bird is killed, it may undergo live plucking – which is horrendous. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a goose or duck is held down by their neck or wings as the “targeted feathers” are torn from their skin. When the skin rips during this process it is sewn up with a straight needle (no analgesic or sterilisation used) and the bird is left to recover before the next feather ‘harvest’.
This process is repeated every 6-7 weeks before the bird’s eventual slaughter (or death from the trauma of the plucking process itself).
Perhaps the most humane way of getting down is gathering. This means brushing loose feathers from live geese or ducks, kind of like using hairs we would lose from brushing our hair naturally.
While the term “gathering” sounds nicer, in most operations hundreds of birds have their feathers gathered at one time. Even if all of the birds are at the same stage of moulting (which is unlikely) feathers mature at different times on different parts of the body, so some feathers are likely to be “live plucked” by accident during this process as well. The rather brutal methods of catching, carrying and restraining birds is also the same no matter whether the feathers are gathered or live plucked.
During the gathering process, bones may be broken or dislocated and, more uncommonly, some birds suffocate. There’s also potential for torn skin, hanging wings and death during “live plucking.”
Down and feather industry advocates assure consumers that most down and other feathers are removed after the bird is killed, and are an inevitable by-product of the meat industry. They also argue that feathers are completely natural, biodegradable, and breathable, keeping the wearer warm in winter with little weight. And all of that is true.
But in 2009, a Swedish TV documentary discovered that a whopping 50-80 percent of the down on the market was coming from birds being live plucked. Personally, I doubted they could have gone to 80% of global suppliers to verify this, and many major suppliers such as the China Feather and Down Industrial Association denied these claims. However, Swedish furniture company IKEA independently verified the documentary’s claims and consequently cancelled all orders from China.
The truth is that it’s highly likely that birds are live plucked whilst living and are plucked post mortem as well – it would make financial sense as suppliers could gather more product this way.
We all want to stay warm in winter: ducks and geese included! While some people may think that using our fellow animals’ evolutionary adaptations such as warm fur and feathers for our own benefit is the most natural way to stay cozy, I disagree. We have gained the intellect and ability to source, grow and create alternatives that are ethical, eco friendly, and cruelty free.
Hemp, coconut, pineapple or palm fibres, bamboo and other materials are kind to the planet – and to animals. Whilst these may not be as readily available as down, the more demand we create, we must remember that the more available they will become, right?
Great Ethical Winter Coat Brands
This popular eco brand helps you stay toasty sans feathers with high-tech, eco-friendly Thermogreen, which keeps you warm even when wet. The coat’s shell is a breathable, water-resistant polyester ripstop fabric, and there are multiple pockets to keep your winter stuff like hats, gloves and tissues, safe.
Long a vegan favourite, Vaute Couture uses 100 percent recycled, cruelty fibres, meaning it’s not only great for animals, but for the planet, too. This wonderful coat features PrimaLoft ECO insulation, which is so warm, it’s used by Arctic explorers. It’s also lined with windproof, water-resistant Teijin ripstop material.
This year, outerwear brand Napapijri went 100% down and fur free as part of their ‘Make It Better’ philosophy, a mind-set which embraces product innovation to enable solutions that improve consumers lives, while making a meaningful contribution to the world. Instead of animal products, the brand will be use Thermo-fibre technology, an innovative micro- sphere polyester that guarantees the same thermal insulation properties as pure duck, without sacrificing quality.
Available in loads of colours, this vegan friendly coat may look pretty lightweight, but its breathable WeatherEdge shell will protect you from wind and moisture, while a detachable liner of ThermaFill insulation will keep you warm.
This coat does have down – but it’s recycled from old French down comforters. The outer shell is also constructed from recycled material; in this case, polyester that has been ‘harvested’ from PET bottles and old clothing.