Down vs. Synthetic: Ethical & Environmental Issues

[Editor’s Note: We received this question from Blister reader, Frame, about whether it’s fair to characterize down / the use of down (insulation) as a non-green-friendly material. That’s a good question, and a worthy Topic of the Week. So here is Frame’s question (originally posted in the Comments Section of our Patagonia Micro Puff review), and then a reply from Blister’s Outerwear & Apparel editor, Sam Shaheen.]

Frame’s question:

“Live plucking is very uncool, but aren’t most ducks and geese farmed for meat, with down the by product? I don’t see down as a non-green friendly material. What are synthetics made of?”

Sam’s reply:

“Hey Frame,

There are a few rather unethical processes that plague the down industry. Live plucking and force feeding (for foie gras) are the primary things that accountable supply chains are trying to eliminate. In both cases, the animals are eventually killed for their meat/organs. Some prominent outdoor companies are making huge efforts to eliminate animal cruelty from their supply chains (The North Face and Patagonia are the most prominent) but much of the commercial down in the world comes from non-regulated farms and greater supply chains.

As a result, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of force feeding and live plucking at farms where down is harvested but there is no doubt that it does exist. According to the American Down and Feather Council, 80% of the world’s down currently comes from China where animal regulations are often quite lax compared to the US and Western Europe.

The outdoor industry has been making steps towards accountable supply chains in the past few years, which is helping with the ethical concerns but it doesn’t change the fact that animals must be killed to harvest their down — a serious ethical concern no matter how humanely we treat them while they’re alive. There are also environmental concerns with raising animals for food (and down by proxy) — pressures on water and other natural resources make farming animals a burden on the environment.

As far as synthetics, there are some environmental concerns with manufacturing. The processes can be energy intensive, potentially dangerous to those working in the factories, and the materials themselves also have their own environmental impact (most synthetics are likely petroleum based). However, most companies keep the specifics of processes and materials as trade secrets, which makes finding specific details difficult.

If you are concerned about the ethical and environmental impacts of your purchases, remember that not making a purchase is the most ethically and environmentally sound decision. Take care of your gear, wash it, repair it, make it last. Then, when you absolutely have to replace it or get something new, take the ethical and environmental issues into consideration. And here it’s important to note that down is more durable than synthetics, and when properly taken care of, can last for years. Synthetics are inherently less durable, though they do have the advantage of an established system for recycling, while recycled down still struggles to gain traction due to the lack of infrastructure and market demand.

As you can see, it is definitely not a simple black and white issue, but I think on the whole, synthetics come out on top both ethically and environmentally.”

What do you think — is it right to think of down as not only ethically problematic, but environmentally problematic, too? Do these factors make a major impact on your purchases?

4 comments on “Down vs. Synthetic: Ethical & Environmental Issues”

    • Hey Tony,

      This is definitely an interesting problem, and one that is not completely alleviated by using down insulations because almost all technical clothing uses synthetic fabrics for their engineer-ability and strength-to-weight ratio. Down jackets all use nylon or other synthetic outer and inner layers, for instance.

      However, using more natural fibers, or developing synthetics that will degrade naturally, are the only real way to attack this problem (besides some more controversial things like engineering and releasing microorganisms into the oceans that use nylon for food… scary).

      One point of solace is that, although this microfiber pollution is popping up everywhere, it doesn’t seem to be having many adverse effects (besides its presence) at current levels. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be an ecologic priority, but it might help you sleep at night.

      This is a hard one to stomach and, personally, I don’t have a good answer. Your down or synthetic jacket will get washed maybe 1-2 times a year (or less) while all of your other poly/nylon/blends will get washed weekly (don’t your socks and underwear stretch?).

      There are interesting things on the horizon though. Synthetic fibers made from polylactic acid (PLA) are both biodegradable and derived from renewable resources (corn starch, sugar cane, etc). Though petrol plastics overwhelmingly dominate the plastics industry, bioplastics are slowly gaining ground. It’s only a matter of time before bioplastics show up in technical outdoor garments as well.

    • Hey Konsta,

      Definitely an interesting read, like I said to Tony above, I don’t really have a good answer on this one. But #9?? Do people really wash their lint down the drain?

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