Feather down may fill many warm and cosy things in our lives – pillows, duvets, winter coats and jackets, but the reality of where this material comes from is cold and harsh. 

Ducks and geese whose feathers are labelled and sold as down in these jackets are sensitive, sentient creatures who feel joy and fear just like any other animal. If you’ve ever enjoyed watching a duck peacefully float across a lake out in nature, or felt opposed to cruel duck shooting, you’ll be horrified by what happens to these birds on factory-farms.

Fortunately, there are innovative alternatives to down that are actually warmer and, unlike down, are also water repellent. Some of these materials are also available made from recycled materials! 


Two ducks enjoying a swim. 

Live plucking

If people think about animal cruelty behind down, they often think of live-plucking. This horrific practice, occurring in 1-2% of down farms, sees birds have their feathers plucked from their skin while they are alive, screeching in pain. Live plucking can result in skin tearing, wing hanging (posture change) from pain, and even death due to severe injury.

These poor birds are plucked over and over again, each time their feathers grow back.  Not only is the plucking itself painful, but when it’s time to ‘harvest’ the feathers of geese and ducks, they are caught, carried and restrained. Often this handling is very rough, and birds commonly dislocate and break their bones, sometimes even suffocating as they try to flee farmers in fear.

A goose stands with eyes slightly closed, after she has been painfully plucked so jackets and coats filled with her feathers can be sold and bought.

A very small number of down farms claim that they simply ‘collect’ feathers from birds who are naturally moulting. The suggestion is that feathers are ‘loosened’ by the molting process and are either swept up from the ground, or pulled gently by hand. However, it is not possible for these ‘cruelty-free’ claims to play out in reality. Feathers that are swept off the ground of a factory-farm (there’s no feather collection outside in nature) would likely be coated in faeces and unable to be used if they were dropping naturally over time. These facilities still put birds under stress during ‘harvest’, and birds will never all be molting at the exact same time, so will inevitably still be plucked, even if some birds’ feathers are more ‘easily collected’ because of natural molting. 

It can be difficult to know whether a bird has been live plucked for down or not, due to a lack of transparency, and because consumers and even fashion brands and businesses themselves are sometimes deceived by farm suppliers. Further, some brands that do claim to know there is no live plucking in their supplier farms are unable to audit their entire supply chain – so can never truly be sure. 

Geese who have been live plucked in China, where 80% of down is sourced. In China, there are limited nationwide laws that prohibit the mistreatment of animals. While there are some codes of practice which supposedly ‘protect’ farmed animals in Australia and which can result in cruelty convictions, these animals are still also ultimately exempt from legal protections.

Birds out of water

Lesser known or considered about the down industry, is that geese and ducks are aquatic birds. To be healthy and happy, they must spend a significant amount of time in water each day. The legs of aquatic birds are naturally weaker, as normally they do not need to hold their body weight for such extended periods of time.

Farmed ducks and geese in total confinement systems are packed tightly together, and are denied access to bodies of water to float in; they are instead forced to hold their weight, which can cripple them. 

A duck on an Australian farm, unable to hold their own weight or get up off their back. Image: Animal Liberation via Farm Transparency Project Repository

Faux claims of ‘responsible’ and ‘ethical’ down

You might have seen brands claiming that the down they use is ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’ down. In fact, there is a Responsible Down Standard which accredits many fashion brands and their down-filled jackets. Unfortunately, these certifications are incredibly misleading. 

What these standards actually mean, is that live plucking does not occur. And while this is positive, the alternative is simply for ducks to be slaughtered and then plucked. 

A supply chain claimed as ‘responsible’ by the Responsible Down Standard, still resulting in birds being slaughtered.

Ducks raised in farms and slaughtered following supposedly ‘high animal welfare standards’ are often partially dunked in electrified water with the aim of stunning them, before their throats are slit open, often by a mechanical blade.

Investigations have revealed that ducks commonly lift their heads, missing the stun bath and are consequently slaughtered whilst fully conscious.

Commercially bred ducks are commonly slaughtered for their flesh and feathers at 6 weeks old, and geese at up to 24 weeks old.  When left in peace, ducks can live to be up to 12 years old, and geese generally live to be about 15 years old, though some have lived over double that. To claim that feather down is responsible or ethical in any way when it comes from factory-farmed and slaughtered baby birds is unjust. 


These ducklings on a poultry farm deserve kindness. Unfortunately, unless we make kinder choices, they will never know it.

Foie gras

Some down comes from foie gras farms. Foie gras is considered a delicacy by some, and it means ‘fatty liver’. Foie gras is like a paste of sorts, made from the livers of ducks and geese who have been force-fed, with tubes forced down their throats. It is an incredibly cruel industry, and fortunately, foie gras bans are coming into place in more and more places. Most recently, the New York City Council announced that the cruel food will no longer be available in the city by 2022. 

It is almost impossible to know if the down in a jacket or coat has come from a foie gras factory-farm or not.

Environmental Exploitation

Factory-farm run-off

Factory-farming, or ‘intensive animal agricultural enterprises’ not only harm animals, but our environment. Nutrient run-off from factory farms, when massive amounts of animal faeces must be discarded, can result in eutrophication. 

Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients. As a result, excessive algae growth occurs and this process often results in oxygen depletion in the water. In turn, this kills fish and other aquatic life. Areas where this occurs are called ‘dead zones’. Phosphorus, found in faeces, is a main driver of eutrophication if it is found in excess.

These discharge issues are also relevant to slaughterhouses, as the wastewater generated from them may often contain high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, residues of chemicals like chlorine for washing and disinfection, as well as blood, fat, flesh and excreta.

A dead fish in a highly eutrophic lake. Image: Tom Archer

Land clearing for feed

Poultry birds like ducks and geese are fed a diet predominantly made up of cereal grains. The dominant feed grain is corn. 36% of the world’s crop calories are fed to farmed animals, not humans, and it’s been found that feeding animals to feed us is inefficient and unnecessarily resource intensive. In fact, eating animals is, on a calorie basis, one-tenth as efficient as eating crops directly.

The amount of land we could save by moving to a system in which we do not farm animals for food or fashion is immense. This land could be used for feeding and clothing humans directly, for rewilding and natural regeneration, for energy farms, for eco-tourism.

Human exploitation and health

An Australian duck factory-farm, and the automatic grain feeders these ducks will live off for their short lives. Image: Animal Liberation via Farm Transparency Project Repository

Global hunger

Just as raising animals for fashion and food is a waste of land, it is a waste of our plant resources. Plants that could, importantly, be going towards feeding our human population. 

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations estimates that about 815 million people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment. In 2011, it is estimated that 45% of all child deaths were caused by undernutrition. 

It is irresponsible and unjust for our desire to wear and eat animals to trump the fair distribution of the world’s resources. Of course, ending world hunger is no simple feat, but what we choose to eat in the West does impact so-called developing countries and hunger issues. This is because our food choices drive resource use, food pricing and policy-making on a global basis in many instances.

Risking human health

Abattoirs are a critical element of feather down supply chains, and the wastewater which comes from poultry slaughterhouses pose serious human-health risks. Slaughterhouses are normally located in urban or peri-urban locations to reduce transport costs to markets, and where there is a large amount of labour available. Neighbouring communities are directly negatively affected by surface-water and groundwater contamination animal slaughtering industries cause. 

One poultry slaughterhouse which was dumping manure, feathers, carcasses, organs, blood and wastewater was sued by Food and Water Watch because evidence showed that people living around the abattoir were having health implications such as gastrointestinal illnesses, birth defects, epilepsy and miscarriages. Levels of nitrates in the well water of many homes surrounding the abattoir routinely exceeded those proven to increase the risks of serious health risks, including some forms of cancer. 

No material or food is worth this many animal lives – birds or humans.

Alternatives

There are plenty of animal free alternatives to down, and they are often more affordable, too!

The alternative, man-made materials, do not grow mould, are water repellent (unlike down), and are quick to dry. They are also less likely to cause issues for people with allergies. 

There are many brands now releasing vegan, down-free puffer jackets and products that are made of recycled materials, which is a great win for the environment! 

You can get a selection of vegan puffer jackets from a huge range of brands, just google and you’ll see! Some top, ethically made brands that offer down-free jackets are:

Wuxly

Made ethically in Canada and 100% vegan, this brand lets you trade in your down jacket for a cruelty-free one. 

Wuxly uses a material called PrimaLoft Gold which has 98% heat retention when wet. It’s also made of 55% post consumer recycled content.

Kathmandu

This is not a vegan brand, but one of the most renowned for warm wear. This brand now offers a selection of recycled vegan jackets (they also sell down, so make sure to check the label).

Hemp Tailor

This amazing sustainable, fair and vegan brand offers some super warm, built-to-last jackets for men and women. Their alternative to down is made from recycled materials, as is their outer material.

Patagonia

This is not a vegan brand, but one of the most renowned for warm wear. Patagonia created Micro Puff, a high tech down alternative (they also sell down, check the label).

Unreal Fur

This completely vegan brand ethically produces puffer jackets for those wanting a fashionable alternative to down for the winter.