The “swoosh” sound of your arms swinging while you walk in a puffy jacket is the sound of winter in many places around the globe. Puffy jackets, as they’re commonly called, are a go-to piece of outerwear for pretty much anyone that spends time outdoors in the cold. That’s because they usually come in awesome colors, keep you toasty warm, and are easy to find — almost every outdoor brand makes at least half a dozen. But while you can’t see the feathers inside your puffy, the fill — down — is sourced from geese and ducks. Historically, those geese and ducks haven’t been raised in good conditions, and the process for extracting the feathers has been harmful to the animals.
That makes it very much not ethically sourced down.
There are, however, lots of ways to ensure you are buying ethically sourced down. Here’s the low-down on why ethically sourced down matters, how to find it, and some great gear from brands leaning into the sustainable movement.
What is down, and where does it come from?
“Most down is a byproduct of the food industry,” says Scott Kaier, President of Formidable Media, which represents ALLIED Feather & Down. It provides ethically sourced down to clothing manufacturers around the globe. Most of the down used in jackets, vests, pillows, and other common items, is a mix of different types of feathers from geese and ducks, Kaier notes, explaining that historically, most down comes from countries where eating those animals is common practice.
Therein lies the problem with most down, he says. Because it’s a byproduct of the food system, which usually raises geese and ducks in factory farm settings where they’re often exposed to neglect and abuse, the down they produce is unethical. Buying products that use that down is supporting an industry that doesn’t care much about animal welfare.
Of course, those wholly opposed to using animal products can argue that all down –- even down sourced from animals treated humanely – is unethical by default. But Kaier argues that ethically sourced down can be a renewable resource that helps the products it fills be more sustainable. The most commonly used alternate option is plastic filling or other materials that are harmful to the environment (or finite in quantity).
“Down is a fully circular product,” Kaiser says. “It is natural, useable, and recyclable, with no microplastics. So when a brand uses down, and then surrounds it with responsible coating, what they’re producing is a product that is as sustainable as possible.”
Whether it can be called ethically source down comes down to how it’s sourced. Feathered birds living in natural and outdoor environments that experience life with space to roam and exhibit natural behaviors produce higher-quality feathers, in part because they aren’t plucked when not molting. This practice also reduces cruelty, as the animals are not “farmed” in the modern sense of the food industry. Instead, their feathers are taken towards the end of a natural life cycle. ALLIED Feather & Down doesn’t ever use feathers that were live-plucked (a process both painful and harmful for the birds), nor does it work with farms that force-feed birds to create foie gras (a dish so closely tied to animal cruelty that it was banned in California in 2004).
In the case of Allied Feather and Down, each batch of down receives a “Lot number” displayed on the final product. “This allows consumers to see what is in their jacket and its history,” Kaiser says. “Pretty cool way to know exactly what you’re buying.”
In order to tell whether your down product is ethically sourced, check the label. Brands are not shy about boasting of sustainability and the ethical causes they support.
Why is down insulation better that other materials?
Fashion designer Eddie Bauer created the down jacket as we know it today in 1936. Down gained popularity because of its ability to trap heat, thus keeping its wearer warm and insulated — a product of particular use in cold climates with long winters. Because down jackets are water-resistant, they gained traction among outdoor enthusiasts (hence the original appeal to Eddie Bauer), who used them for everything from skiing to camping to hiking. These days, down jackets are a fashion symbol as much as they are a functional piece of outerwear, especially if you live in a place where outdoor activities hold cultural supremacy (looking at you, Boulder).
As a fashion trend, down has stuck around, even as trends introduced afterward have come and gone. That’s because down is extremely functional, and no company has yet come up with a natural material that works better. Travel the world and you’ll see down worn by extreme mountain climbers and urban hipsters alike, largely for the same purpose: staying warm.
How does down work?
Down works by clustering heat. The “puffy” pockets in your puffy jacket create space for the down feathers to expand and loft up. Those fluffy feathers trap heat generated by your body. Whether it’s in a jacket, pants, shoes, blankets, or sleeping bag, there’s no better natural material for keeping people warm. And the icing on that toasty cake is that down is also incredibly breathable, so you can walk, ski, hike, or even jog in your down layer, and perspiration won’t get trapped in your layers. Down is also water-resistant, so it won’t soak up your sweat. And if you get caught in some light rain (or heavy rain; it depends on the outer fabric), it won’t penetrate your down.
How to care for and wash down clothing
It may surprise you to learn that down actually can be machine washed. Wash your down jackets, pants, or other wearables on a gentle cycle in warm water and use a down-specific soap. Don’t throw it in the dryer with the rest of your clothes, though — it’s better to hang it or lay it flat on a clothing rack and let it sit for several hours. You can tumble dry on a slow cycle if you’re in a hurry. Note that high heat can ruin the jacket, so be conscious of the settings on your tumble dryer. This is all just a general rule, though, so check the label on your specific product before tossing it in the washer to be safe.
Because down jackets, in particular, are made with thin coatings and are generally designed to be packable, they are prone to punctures from sharp objects (we’re looking at you, bushwhackers). Fortunately, this problem is relatively easy to fix. All you need is Gear Aid’s Tenacious Repair Tape. Stick a small cut of the tape over any punctures or small holes, and your down jacket will continue to function as normal. You can usually buy waterproof iron-on patches in various colors and shapes, too.
How to find ethically-sourced down clothing
We hope you love the ethically-sourced down products we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to make a purchase. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
Many popular outdoors brands including The North Face and Patagonia, as well as smaller companies with eco-conscious founders like Jones, makes ethically-sourced down products. Bonus for REI Coop members as many are available for purchase directly from REI (see the complete list here). You can find nearly every down product in an ethically sourced version., s actually possible to build your entire down collection in an ethical fashion. Let’s run through an example for an avid camper. You could fill up on down, but any one of these products makes an excellent gift or addition to your own camp setup.
NEMO Disco 15 sleeping bag
NEMO produces ethically-sourced down sleeping bags in its Disco line, available in both women’s and men’s options. With 650-fill down, full-length two-way zippers, and a breathable shell, the Disco is an excellent option for spring, summer, and fall camping below treeline, or anywhere where the overnight temperature won’t drop below 15 degrees. Our outdoor editor has the women’s version of this bag and loves it, both for the spoon shape that accommodates bent-knee sleepers, and the front zippered “gills” to dump heat if you wake up sweating in your bag at 3 AM.
REI Coop 650 Down Jacket
All of the REI Coop branded items are made with ethically sourced down, making for an easy win if you aren’t sure what to buy. The brand’s basic 650 Down Jacket, available in women’s and men’s options, will keep you toasty on cold evenings by the campfire and is great for everyday use during winter. The jacket is also made in a Fair Trade Certified factory.
Sea-to-Summit Down Pillow
If you prefer to sleep atop a comfortable pillow rather than using your down jacket or pulling the classic “tent bag stuffed with clothes” move, Sea-to-Summit makes an excellent ethically-sourced down pillow. It’s pillow-topped, inflatable, and easy to pack in a backpack or keep in the back of your car.
REI Coop Down Blanket
Sitting ‘round the campfire until the wee hours is much more enjoyable when your entire body is warm. This is where the REI Coop Down Blanket comes in. You’ll feel good on frigid nights when you’re protected from the cold and feel good about buying an ethically sourced product. In fact, even the polyester used in the blanket is recycled. The quilt itself is stuffed with 600-fill down.