If you’re considering buying a product stuffed with down or body feathers, the first thought on your mind probably isn’t: “Where (or rather whom) did these feathers come from, and do I want to be supporting the industry that ‘harvested’ them?” But after learning about the animals involved in the down and feather industry, I hope that, like I did, you will become determined to make your household and clothing feather free.
What is down?
“‘Down’ is the undercoating of waterfowl (goose, duck or swan) and consists of light, fluffy filaments growing from a central quill point, thereby creating a three dimensional structure which traps air and gives down insulating ability.” – Guide to the Labeling of Down and Feathers Enforcement Guidelines, March 2000 Down is designed to help keep waterfowl warm, but it is now commonly used and promoted as a “natural” stuffing for warm clothing and bedding* for humans instead. Body feathers (from ducks, geese and other birds kept for meat or eggs) are also used to stuff pillows, cushions, bedding/clothing and other such items. As ducks and geese are the primary animals used for the production of down, this piece will predominantly focus on how the down and feather industries affect these particular birds. * It takes the down from approximately 75 + birds to make an average comforter.
Where are the down and feathers used in clothing and bedding sourced from?
“80 percent of the down and feathers used globally [are] produced in China; the majority – 90 percent – come from ducks…” – American Down & Feather Council Ducks and geese are not raised solely for their feathers and down though. They are raised and used instead for eggs, meat or foie gras*. Purchasing down products directly supports these industries. Although the majority of feathers come from China, they are also “produced” in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the European Union and the U.S. *Note that much like the link between veal (juvenile) calves and the dairy industry, there is a strong link between foie gras (fatty liver from force fed ducks and geese) and the down/body feathers used in household items.
How are down and body feathers removed from the birds?
There are technically three methods used to remove down and body feathers: Post mortem, gathering and live plucking. Let me be clear though, while I choose to explain each method separately it is not because I think one method is “better” than another, as they all require the commodification, use and eventual deaths of the birds involved. But rather I have described each method on its own so that the down industry, as a whole, can be clearly understood.
1. Post mortem (after slaughter):
For this method, feathers are removed from the birds’ bodies after they are killed for their flesh and/or internal organs (foie gras). The process usually involves scalding the birds’ bodies in hot water for one to three minutes so the feathers are easier to pull out. The body feathers can then be plucked (often by hand), after which the down is removed by hand or machine.
2. Live Plucking
Live plucking is exactly what it sounds like: a goose or duck is held down by their neck or wings as the “targeted feathers” are torn from their skin. When the skin rips during this process it is sewn up with a straight needle (no analgesic or sterilization used) and the bird is left to recover before the next “harvest of feathers.” This process is repeated every 6-7 weeks before the bird’s eventual slaughter (or death from the trauma of the plucking process itself). In videos* I watched of the live plucking process, the ducks and geese struggled against their captors, honking and squawking throughout the plucking. After their chest was stripped of feathers, the birds were simply tossed to the floor where they struggled to stumble away, some with freshly sewn skin. *Plucked Alive: the Torture Behind Down and Goose Down Practices Called Animal Cruelty – CBS5 (There are a number of other videos out there as well.)
3. Gathering (live birds):
“Gathering feathers from live geese [or ducks] is defined as removing feathers that are ripe due to the phenomenon of molting and would refer to using a brushing or combing action to remove feathers or down which are ready to fall out.”
– Scientific Opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production. EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW). European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy
While the term “gathering” sounds nicer, in most operations hundreds of birds have their feathers “collected” at one time. Even if all of the birds are at the same stage of molting (which is unlikely) feathers mature at different times on different parts of the body, so some feathers are likely to be “live plucked” by “accident” during this process as well. The methods of catching, carrying and restraining birds is also the same no matter whether the feathers are gathered or live plucked. In the EFSA study mentioned above they admitted that during the gathering process bones may be broken or dislocated and, more uncommonly, some birds suffocate. These of course are added to by the potential for torn skin, hanging wings (posture change) and death during “live plucking.”
(see: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/1886.pdf )
How does the whole picture of down “harvesting“ fit together?
Down and feather industry representatives claim that the majority of down and other feathers on the market are removed from the birds after they are are killed for their flesh or organs and thus the feathers are an inevitable “by-product” of the meat industry. While the meat (duck and geese) industry and the down industry are intrinsically connected*, in February 2009, a Swedish TV documentary** called into question industry claims about the rarity of live plucking. The documentary supposedly discovered that in reality 50-80 percent of the down on the market was coming from live birds. These figures were denied by the China Feather and Down Industrial Association (among others), but IKEA (the Swedish furniture company) independently verified this fact and promptly canceled orders from China (at the time).
Now what does this tell us? It suggests that instead of some birds being live plucked (and then killed) and others having their feathers only plucked after they have been killed (as if that would make it any better!) most birds are probably live plucked many times before they are killed for their flesh or organs and then their down feathers are taken from them again and for the final time after death.
So yes, down and feathers are technically “by-products” of the meat and egg industry… and the story of their production is just as disturbing as any other animal sourced product. As we know from the story of leather*** and other animal products like rennet, casein, blood/bone meal and manure, these “by-products” are very profitable (sometimes more profitable than the animals’ flesh or milk) and purchasing them perpetuates the cycle of animal abuse and use that they come from. However you weigh all three methods of down “harvesting,” any purchase of down or feathers funds the animal exploitation industries that they are a part of and requires the enslavement and eventual deaths of the birds involved.
Warmth is essential to human life. We thrive in warm climates and moderate our homes and clothing in cold climates to insulate and protect us from the elements. While some people may think that using our fellow animals’ evolutionary adaptations (tough skin, warm feathers and fur) for our own benefit is the price of our nomadic wanderings, I happily disagree. Along with our fellow animals we have also evolved. We have gained the intellect and ability to source, grow and create alternatives to our past animal use that are ethical and cruelty free.
There are plenty of alternatives to down and feathers on the market today and if you don’t find the style of alternative that you’re looking for then help create it! (Bamboo, algae, hemp, coconut or palm fibers – there is a world of potential out there!)
* I recently learned that, because fewer people are eating duck and geese meat out of the fear of “the bird flu“ there is a shortage in the down supply: “China Feather and Down Information“ (CFDIA) [Letter to the Distributors in Down Industry] April 27th 2013..
**This documentary was for the television program “Kalla Fakta“ (meaning “Cold Facts“ in Swedish).
*** Large numbers of cows, mainly from India, are used solely for their skin.
– Guide to Labeling of Down and Feathers, Canada (http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/01237.html)
– “Scientific Opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production.“ EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW). European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/1886.pdf )
– American Down & Feather Council (http://downandfeathercouncil.com/down-feather-byproduct.html)
– CFDIA China Feather and Down Information [ Letter to the Distributors in Down Industry] April 27th 2013 (http://www.cfd.com.cn/en/Information/2013/0428/article_18.html) – European Down & Feather Association (http://www.edfa.eu/gb/)