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.
- 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 )
Read more: Animal Rights, Bed & Bath, Behavior & Communication, Conscious Consumer, Conservation, Do Good, Family, Global Healing, Green, Health & Safety, Home, Household Hints, Inspiration, Life, Make a Difference, Nature, Nature & Wildlife, Peace, Raw, Smart Shopping, Vegan, Vegetarian, Wildlife, Down feathers, ducks and geese, Foie Gras