Is Down Vegan? What Is Down Made Of?

By Divya Kashyap. Published: May 2022.
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Feathers have long been used in fashion and a variety of other applications. Home decor, athletic equipment, cat toys, and cleaning aids are a few areas of their use.

The truth is, it’s not always easy to know whether certain materials are vegan or not. It’s important to do your own research and make an informed decision that aligns with your personal beliefs.

Feathers and down have a reputation for being harmless. They are even considered sustainable and eco-friendly. People assume that their cultivation does not cause animal slaughter.

But is that true? This post dives into the similarities and differences between feathers vs down, and what it means for veganism. Read on to know whether down is vegan, cruelty-free, and sustainable.

Is Down Vegan?

To be vegan, products have to be free of any animal ingredients or byproducts. Down is not vegan because it comes from ducks or geese and therefore contains their animal parts.

Waterfowl such as geese, ducks, and swans have down as their undercoating. It is made up of light, fluffy filaments that develop from a central quill tip. This results in a three-dimensional structure that traps air and provides amazing insulation.

When it comes to keeping a duck or goose warm when swimming in a freezing lake, down is waterproof. However, these waterproof characteristics are lost once it is taken from the birds and converted into clothing.

Water deteriorates down clothes and bedding. Moreover, these goods can only be cleaned by dry cleaning.

What Is Down Made Of?

Down is basically the undercoating of waterfowl. If you think about it, when a duck clambers onto a leaf, its down coat is what keeps the bird from being cold. 

Down means warmth to birds. The feathers are what insulate the bird, but the down provides warmth and protection for their internal organs.

Many people are unaware that feathers and down can be sourced from slaughtered animals. Feathers are a commodity of the food industry, while down is used to fill items like jackets, pillows, cushions, and comforters.

It takes approximately 75 or more birds to create enough feathers to stuff one comforter. Animal-based feathers also have different qualities as they age (like stiffness).

Is Down A By-Product Of The Meat Industry?

Down and feathers are classified as a food industry byproduct by the USDA. The great majority of feathers and down originate from ducks reared for eggs, meat, or foie gras. Some are taken after the birds have been slaughtered.

According to the International Down and Feather Bureau, “there are no farms that raise ducks and geese purely for the procurement of down and feather”.

This is not to say that feathers are a useless byproduct of the meat business. Rather, like leather, down is a lucrative byproduct of meat manufacturing, bringing in a sizable profit.

It’s worth noting that purchasing eggs, beef, or foie gras benefits the feather and down sector. This is the same as how the sale of dairy goods benefits the veal business.

Is Down Ethical?

Is Down Ethical

Through the lens of veganism, down is neither ethical or humane. Down is produced by live animals, who are mostly kept in terrible conditions on farms where they are slaughtered to produce meat or feathers.

The industry is valued at more than $6.6 billion USD. Every year, an unfathomable 3.3 billion ducks are butchered throughout the world—9 that’s million every day.

Secondly, there is no such thing as the humane slaughter in a factory-farming environment. Down taken from animals slaughtered for human consumption will come with some degree of cruelty and torture.

Ducks and geese have a relatively short life span, usually only around two years. They are usually slaughtered in the third year of their life, while they are still producing quality down. 

The production of down is a very painful process for the animals. They spend their lives cruelly confined in tiny wire cages and forced to live on the waste from other animals. 

Feathers are harvested from either live or dead animals. There is no way to harvest feathers or down without causing harm to the animal.

There are numerous ways for harvesting feathers and down. Post-mortem, live-plucking, and gathering, all involve varying degrees of cruelty. The killing methods include gassing, neck-breaking, and decapitation.

Animals raised for meat may be given some crude anesthesia before being slaughtered. But this does not change the suffering involved in slaughtering them for their natural feathers to use them as a stuffing material.

They are then killed by being smashed into a vat of boiling water while they are still conscious. This improves the quality of the feathers and makes them easier to pluck.

Post Mortem

After the birds have been killed, post-mortem collection occurs. Surprisingly, this is the most compassionate technique of collecting. The feathers are plucked by hand after scalding the birds. The down is removed by hand or machine once it has been plucked.

Live Plucking

The most inhumane way of gathering feathers is unquestionably live-plucking. The struggling bird is restrained by its neck or wings while the “targeted feathers” are extracted.

The frenzied birds fight to flee, inflicting strained muscles and even fractured limbs. Live plucking can occur numerous times throughout a bird’s brief existence, depending on the breed. As you can imagine, the bird suffers greatly during this procedure.

A Swedish TV program investigated the industry’s assertions that live-plucking was uncommon. The 2019 program was called Plucked Alive: The Torture Behind Down and Goose Down Practices Called Animal Cruelty.

It discovered that live plucking was responsible for 50 to 80 percent of the market downturn. Organizations like China Feather and Down Industrial Association, among others, rejected these statistics.

Gathering

This is another technique for collecting bird feathers. It happens when the bird’s feathers are about to come off due to molting. This method would imply using a brush or comb to pluck feathers and down that are about to come off.

Although this procedure appears to be humane, most procedures involve hundreds, if not thousands of birds.

Even if they are all molting at the same time which is highly unlikely, feathers mature at various periods on different areas of the body. This implies that some feathers are still extremely likely to be live-plucked.

The down industry has developed a certification of ethically sourced and/or traceable down to put customers to rest. This is a similar scheme developed by the meat and dairy industries.

These projects tout proprietary technology and processing processes. They include water recycling and non-toxic biodegradable detergents used to clean the feathers.

But, despite these certifications, the fact remains that animals are still bred and murdered in order for this business to exist. Traceability does not guarantee humane treatment. 

Instead, these tactics, if we may call it that, mislead people into assuming they are purchasing an animal-friendly product. In reality, they are not.

The proper way to be compassionate towards these animals would mean not exploiting their lives. Especially, to manufacture commodities that we can find alternatives for.

According to the American Down & Feather Council, China produces 80 percent of the down and feathers used worldwide. The bulk – 90 percent – is derived from ducks.

PETA released video footage in 2016 depicting the atrocities taking place in China. Workers are seen removing feathers from living, suffering birds in the video.

“The only way to reduce animal suffering is for retailers to go for synthetic rather than natural down,” said Brainard from PETA in a statement. 

“Synthetic down is allergen-free, it doesn’t collect dust and mold. In many ways, it is better. Modern technology means that companies can be innovative as well as compassionate”, he adds.

Other nations that make feathers and down include Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. Fortunately, the United States and the European Union have banned live plucking.

Is Down Environmentally Friendly?

Down also has an environmental cost. Due to its buoyancy, huge amounts of water and energy are needed to clean it properly before it reaches consumers. The birds themselves take a toll on natural ecosystems.

The factory farm runoff contains phosphorus-rich feces of birds. This typically leads to eutrophication. This is a process that promotes dense growth of blue-green algae that can create dead zones for aquatic life.

While down is technically biodegradable, feathers are always preserved inside jackets and coats. The outside shell is usually not composed of a biodegradable substance. This effectively reduces its biodegradability.

When discussing biodegradability in fashion, we must check the entire garment. This means examining other materials contained within it.

Some companies in the fashion industry are looking to reduce their environmental impact. Companies like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI have all made sustainability a big part of their brand identity.

Over one billion ducks, geese, and swans are slaughtered for their down every year, not just by humans but also by the fashion industry.

This is becoming a cause of concern. The global fashion industry is leaning towards natural fibers and sustainable materials.

So what is needed? The growing popularity of veganism might be the answer as there is a global shift towards eco-friendly fashions.

Vegan Down Alternatives

It’s never been easier to find alternatives to feathers and down. There are lots of vegan alternatives to animal-based feathers and down. And while they might not be quite as soft or fluffy as real down, they’ll certainly do the job.

Some are manufactured from natural elements such as coconut husks. Others from eco-friendly synthetic materials. Some are a combination of synthetic and natural or recycled materials. Still, others are composed entirely of synthetic fibers.

Primaloft, Omni-Heat, Cocona Insulation, Thermolite, Thermacore, Coreloft, and Weatheredge are some registered trademarks.

Some others include 3M Thinsulate Featherless, ThermoBall Eco, ReNew, and Plumtech. They greatly mimic the feel and performance of real down.

Summary

While down from animals is most effective at insulation and is biodegradable, it’s neither ethical nor cruelty-free. Its sustainability is also questionable. 

Thanks to advancing innovation, there are currently many great vegan down alternatives. They include both natural and synthetic and get the job done at a cheaper cost. A better choice has never been simpler to make.

Divya is a content crafter at Vegan Avenue. She is a long-term happy vegan who is also enthusiastic about slow, mindful living in the company of cats.