Down: water resistant and ethical?

Chris Townsend investigates the moral and technological dimensions of down products

Illustration photo of Down: water resistant and ethical?

Down is by far the most efficient insulation for clothing and sleeping bags. It’s much warmer for a given weight than anything else and is comfortable over a wide temperature range. It also compresses into a tiny bundle for packing and lasts a long time. Synthetic insulation has improved over the years but does not yet approach down in performance or length of life. Down does have drawbacks though. It is expensive but this is countered by the very long life. The big disadvantage, especially for UK use, is that it needs to be kept dry. Sodden down doesn’t insulate much and takes ages to dry. This factor alone stops many people from using down. Then there is the ethical question. How is the down produced? How are the geese and ducks it comes from treated? This has been an unknown area with little information available.

Down is changing however. Water-resistant down has appeared that is claimed to work even when wet while an increasing number of companies are revealing where their down comes from and trying to ensure that it’s produced ethically.

The problem with down and water is that down is absorbent and once soaked its tendrils collapse and with it the trapped air that provides warmth. And because it soaks up so much water and holds it in its fibres, it takes a very long time to dry. Synthetic fibres absorb very little moisture and retain much of their thickness and warmth when wet, which has given them a great advantage in wet climates. Water repellency treatments have been around for decades but until very recently no company had applied these to down. Nikwax’s Down Proof, a water repellency treatment for down clothing, has been around for many years but this requires people to take the risk of applying it themselves to expensive down garments. I did try it many years ago on an old down vest and the results were promising regarding water repellency but I wasn’t quite so happy with the handle and feel of the garment. That was an early version of Down Proof and I expect it has been improved since then.

Two years ago the first down with a water-repellent treatment became available and was launched in the UK under the name Hydrodown by Berghaus, not a company with a track record in down gear. I have to admit I was dubious at first but after trying the Mount Asgard Hybrid jacket on the very wet TGO Challenge last year I was convinced. The down got wet several times but stayed warm and dried quickly. I found this had a big psychological bonus as well as the obvious practical one. I stopped worrying about keeping the jacket dry. Waterrepellent hydrophobic down really is a breakthrough. This last winter I’ve been using a much warmer Berghaus Ramche, a fully specified winter down jacket, and have been out in sleet and wet snow without any worries. There are no disadvantages to hydrophobic down as far as I can see. It’s just as warm for the weight as standard down and, according to Berghaus, is very durable.

Berghaus stole a march on the main down companies with Hydrodown but others are now following and one, Rab, has announced that all its down clothing and sleeping bags will use hydrophobic down from this year, a big commitment. Others who will have hydrophobic down products in their ranges soon include Marmot, The North Face, Salewa, Mountain Hardwear, Nemo and Patagonia.

What about all those down jackets and sleeping bags made from non-hydrophobic down? Nikwax Down Proof is the only answer. I shall try it again.

Down can be obtained by live plucking birds or from slaughtered birds. The first is inhumane. There is also the question of whether birds have been force-fed during the fattening process, which is also inhumane, and how they are kept before slaughter. Before it reaches the clothing or sleeping bag manufacturer, down can pass from the farm through a number of other agencies so it is quite possible for the company not to know where its down originated from or how it was obtained. Increasing concerns over the origins of down has led to pressure on companies to find out and reveal the sources and, to be fair, some companies have been concerned to do this anyway. It is now possible to find down products that have not come from live-plucked or forcefed birds and from birds that have been reared humanely.

The leaders in this field are Mountain Equipment with its Down Codex project, which began in 2009. As well as not using down from live-plucked or force-fed birds Mountain Equipment says that: “birds should be kept in good conditions and raised to high welfare standards appropriate for ducks and geese. They should be free to
roam compounds and have barns to shelter in with good access to fresh water and natural food. Stocking densities, i.e. how many birds per square metre, should be lower than recommended maximums.” To achieve this Mountain Equipment has set up an auditing process using a third party, the International Down and Feather Laboratory (IDFL), to check all aspects of down production. Also, every down sleeping bag has a code so customers can trace the down via the Mountain Equipment website. This will eventually be applied to down clothing as well.

Berghaus is also now using the IDFL and says that: “all of the down we use is a by-product of the food industry. Berghaus does not use down plucked from live birds, nor from birds that have been force-fed for the production of foie gras.” Rab are following suit and phasing in down that is traceable from this year and which should only come from birds that aren’t live-plucked and which are looked after well.

Making changes to down supply isn’t easy as is acknowledged by Patagonia which discovered, after being challenged by animal rights campaigners, that some of its down came from force-fed birds despite assurances from the supplier that this was not so. Patagonia has now sourced down from non forcefed birds that will be introduced in some products this spring and across the whole range in the future. Another company that found that supplier’s guarantees couldn’t be relied on is Vaude. In response the company says they will hire an independent organisation to audit down production and check each step. It’s good to see companies being honest about this and trying to do something about it.

Other companies who are using or planning on using ethically produced down include Haglofs, Deuter, The North Face and Mammut.

Find out more about a company’s down policy here: