North Face and H&M Try to Clean Up the Down Business

Down insulation, for all of its warmth, can be a cold and dirty business. Ducks and geese are often plucked alive, and many of the fine feathers in comforters and puffy coats come from birds that were force-fed to make foie gras. The North Face, recognizing a problem in its pitch, is backing a certification standard to create a down supply chain that customers can feel warm and fuzzy about.

“We’re trying to change the down industry on a global level,” says Adam Mott, director of sustainability at North Face, a unit of apparel conglomerate VF Corp. “And we’re trying to create a standard that’s inclusive enough that anyone can use it.”

In addition to nixing the medieval practices described above, the certification requires that birds have clean water and plenty of food and natural light in their quarters. It also calls for a carefully documented chain of ownership, so a down supplier won’t qualify if it buys birds raised in noncompliant conditions.

The Textile Exchange, a nonprofit environmental watchdog hired to produce and oversee the standard, finished its initial work in January. The first batches of the clean down are making their way to factories in the next few weeks, and now some retail giants have signed on, including H&M, Eddie Bauer, Marmot, and Helly Hansen. By this time next year, a wide array of goods will be marked with tags that read “RDS,” or “renewable down standard.”

“We’re just now starting to see a lot of momentum on this,” says Anne Gillespie, director of integrity at Textile Exchange. The biggest challenge has been convincing duck and goose farmers–almost all of whom are in China and Eastern Europe–to clean up their operations. Roughly 90 percent of revenue in such operations comes from the meat of the birds, not the feathers, which leaves Textile Exchange little negotiating leverage.

Patagonia, a North Face rival with an environmental focus, has its own clean down program (PDF). The California-based apparel company started stripping harsh conditions out of its down supply as early as 2007, and all of the down in its clothes this fall bear a “100% Traceable” seal.

For now, North Face’s new down is coming at a bit of a price premium, but retailers are hoping the price will fall back to normal levels as more garment makers demand humanely sourced feathers. “If this becomes the new way of sourcing down,” Mott says, “you’ll have true economies of scale.” Until then, however, North Face promises to absorb the extra cost rather than add it to the prices of its sleeping bags and puffy coats.

Still, the brand is treating the ultraclean feathers as a luxury material. The first piles of certified down will only go in the company’s Summit Series of gear, typically its most expensive products. The goal is to reach 30 percent RDS down in its line of gear for fall 2015, with 100 percent by the end of 2017. “We’re able to probably hit a higher number,” Mott says of this year. “But we didn’t want to be taking up all of the certified down in the market.”

Consumer interest remains an open question. Awareness of down-harvesting conditions is rising thanks in part to campaigns by activist groups like PETA, but remains “incredibly tiny,” Gillespie says. “I still run into people all the time who don’t realize down comes from ducks and geese.”

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