By Colleen Ward
With winter is in full swing for many of us, staying warm and dry often involves a coat containing down or a synthetic material similar to down. In either case, it’s worth considering how these materials are produced and come to be part of your wardrobe.
Down is the small, pillowy undercoat of feathers – usually from a goose, but sometimes from ducks as well. Less expensive outer feathers are sometimes used in outerwear, but they don’t perform as well and often don’t hold their puffy, warmth-retaining shape.
An important ethical issue that is getting considerable attention in the fashion industry is how the down is harvested. In many cases, the birds are “live-plucked,” which appears to be as painful for the geese as it sounds. Down does grow back, but that only means that the birds can be subjected to multiple live-pluckings before they become someone’s dinner. Live-plucked down traditionally has been preferred over down harvested from geese slaughtered for food, because the feathers can be damaged in the slaughtering process.
Patagonia, The North Face, and others are promoting certification processes to ensure that the down they use is never plucked from live birds. There is no universally accepted standard yet, but if you look for brands that are trying to move the industry forward and label their clothing as meeting the Traceable Down Standard or the Responsible Down Standard, you are probably safe.
Another approach is recycling down from old coats, pillows, and bedding. Unlike recycling materials like plastic or paper, recycling down is a process that is almost identical to the process of cleaning new down feathers. In other words, it doesn’t save energy or improve the material’s environmental footprint. However, it does divert old down items from landfills, and it extends the “lifespan” of down, an extremely resilient material that retains its shape and warmth-retaining qualities for many years.
Other natural fibers include kapok, a cotton-like fiber made from seed pods, and Ingeo, a manmade fiber derived from fermented cornstarch. These materials don’t deliver down’s performance, but may be more than adequate depending on where you live or the conditions under which you’ll be wearing an item.
Of course, there are many synthetic alternatives. The challenge is finding materials that are not made from fossil fuels (as polyester is) and still have the performance qualities of down – warmth, lightweight, and resilient in all kinds of weather.
The most eco-friendly options we can find are made of recycled polyester – mostly recycled plastic bottles. As long as human beings continue making polyester, recycling it to make other products is probably a good idea. However, we’ll need a better alternative at some point. Post-consumer recycled plastic is used by companies such as the Hempstress.
It’s a Journey and We Haven’t Arrived Yet
OK, we admit it. We haven’t found the perfect solution – as far as we know, it doesn’t yet exist. But there are some options that are better than others – down that meets one of the standards mentioned above, recycled down, kapok and Ingeo, and recycled polyester.
To learn more, here is a selection of worthwhile articles on down and its alternatives:
Treehugger.com: “Do recycled feathers make your down coat more ethical”
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