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    The Lowdown on Down: An Update

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    In April 2011, we posted here a report on problems we’ve experienced sourcing down for our down clothing. As we mentioned, quality is not the problem. We’re proud of the down clothing we make. The designs are simple and beautiful, the fabrics are strong and lightweight, and the quality (fill-power or insulation value) of the down is excellent. The sales are important to us – and one percent of those sales contribute a significant chunk of change to environmental causes.

    Lesen Sie hier die deutsche Version dieses Artikels (Read the German version of this article).

    Down clothes are tricky to make in two ways: Special care has to be taken to safeguard workers who fill and sew the garments. Anyone who has worked with down knows that it is lighter than feathers and resistant to gravity. Down rooms have to be sealed off from other areas and workers have to wear masks to keep from inhaling the fiber. We have worked with our factories to ensure healthy conditions for people who work with down.

    The second area of concern is treatment of the geese. You have to go deep into the supply chain from sewing factory to down vendor to processor before you finally get to a farm. And a single goose can spend its life on four different farms. This complexity is also true of other products involving animals, including shoes and wool and sweaters.

    Many animal-rights organizations decry the practice of live-plucking, in which feathers are removed before they are ready to molt. In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a scientific opinion to confirm that gathering, as opposed to plucking, feathers at the time of molting does not harm geese when done properly. We are not confident, though, that guidelines for humane live-plucking can be implemented and monitored through the supply chain.

    In 2009, before the EFSA ruling was issued, we decided to avoid risk of inadvertent harm by sourcing our down only from slaughterhouses, where down and feathers are removed after the geese have been killed for food. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the economic value of a goose is as food and only five to ten percent for its down. Goose down is a by-product of geese raised as food, either for meat or liver (foie gras). In 2009, we required our supplier, Allied Feather & Down, to certify that all down shipped for use in Patagonia products be from geese killed for food, and that the shipments not contain any live-plucked material.

    In December 2010, the animal-rights organization Four Paws (Germany) accused Patagonia of using live-plucked down; we refuted this. During the controversy, though, we struck up a conversation with Four Paws, who told us they suspected that – on the basis of photographs that appear on the Footprint Chronicles® – we were using down from gray geese and that, conventionally, gray geese in Hungary are raised for foie gras, which involves force-feeding to fatten the liver, a controversial practice banned in most European countries and some states in the United States (including, as of 2012, California). This practice however is not banned in France (where foie gras is a national delicacy) or in Hungary, the country from which we source our down.

    We had been told previously that geese force-fed for foie gras produce an oily, second-quality down that would not be supplied to us. This turns out to be incorrect; the quality of down is not affected. And we were, and are, being supplied down from force-fed geese raised for their liver as well as their meat.

    We decided to investigate further: we dispatched our director of social and environmental responsibility; our director of materials development; and our strategic environmental materials developer to Hungary with two principals from Allied Feather & Down. We wanted to get the facts firsthand. We visited two down and feather processing facilities, two slaughterhouses and two goose farms that supply geese. Our suppliers were honest and open with us on the trip but we should note that we did not visit all stages of the supply chain.

    What we did learn does not sit well with us. Four Paws was correct: We are using down from geese harvested for foie gras as well as meat (with down as a by-product).

    We didn’t see any evidence of live-plucked down in the parts of the supply chain we visited, and we verified that the slaughterhouses we visited contract with and audit the farms from which they purchase geese to ensure that they do not live-pluck the birds.

    Since then, we have made more trips to learn about our current, and alternative supply chains. Our goal is to bolster our tracing program so that the documents we inspect at each stage can be linked together with more clarity to pass a formal chain-of-custody audit by an independent third party. We want to ensure that no live-plucking is done at any point in the supply chain, including on farms where geese lay eggs that will be hatched and raised as chicks before going eventually to slaughterhouse.

    We are not comfortable using down from force-fed geese. We have learned much from our research but still have no short-term alternative source for down from geese that are neither live-plucked nor force-fed. We are continuing to deepen our knowledge of down supply chains and to talk with Four Paws and other NGOs that have something to teach us.

    We are also participating in the formation of an Outdoor Industry Association and Textile Exchange Task Force on Down Products and Supply Chains and its parent Traceability Work Group. The goal is collaboration among brands and suppliers to establish standards and methodologies for traceability in complex supply chains. We will meet for the first time in January.

    We are committed to finding a long-term solution. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

    In the meantime, the caveats we mentioned last spring still apply. If you’re a vegan whose avoidance of animal products extends to shoe leather, you may also want to avoid down clothing. And if you think foie gras should not be produced or sold you may also want to avoid its by-product. We offer a number of synthetically insulated garments. Synthetic insulation, while not as efficient as down, works better than down in wet conditions.

    Editor's note: Starting in the Fall 2014 season, Patagonia will only use 100% Traceable Down sourced from birds that have been neither force-fed for foie gras production nor plucked for their feathers and down during their lifetime. Read more at Patagonia.com

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