Are Feathers & Down Vegan?

From the opulently feathered fans of times gone by to the feather hair extensions of today, feathers have played a large role not only in fashion- but also in home decor, sporting equipment, cat toys, and even cleaning tools. Feathers and down have a reputation for being innocuous, even sustainable and eco-friendly, because most people believe its cultivation doesn’t require the death of animals- like fur does, for example. But is this true? Is harvesting feathers and down cruelty-free? To answer that we must first take a look at who we obtain feathers and down from and how it’s processed.

It’s pretty obvious what feathers are, but who do we take them from? While most feathers are collected from ducks, we also take feathers from geese, swans, and ostriches. What about down? Where and who does it come from?

Down is the undercoating of waterfowl such as geese, ducks, or swans. It consists of light, fluffy filaments growing from a central quill point, thereby creating a three dimensional structure which traps air and gives down incredible insulating ability. Down is meant to help keep waterfowl warm, but has since been billed as an “all natural” stuffing material to help keep us warm.

So, are feathers and down vegan? Nope. But don’t worry, there are lots of great alternatives. 

FAQ: Geese, ducks, and other birds aren’t killed for their feathers so why should I avoid them?

Some well-intentioned people overlook clothing and other items that contain feathers or down because the cultivation of the raw material does not always require the immediate death of an animal. The thing to understand is that veganism is an ethical philosophy which begins with the idea that we should not use animals in any way and avoid, to the extent that is possible and practical, all forms of use. Every plucked goose, duck, or swan whose feathers are used to make down will be slaughtered once their productivity lessens. In the end, they all die.

How are Feathers & Down Harvested?

The vast majority of feathers and down come from ducks who are raised for eggs, meat, or foie gras- and some feathers and down are collected after the birds have been killed. The USDA classifies down and feathers as a byproduct of the food industry. According to the American Down & Feather Council, 80% of the down and feathers used globally is produced in China; the majority – 90% – comes from ducks. This is because duck meat is a staple in the Chinese diet. Other countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States also produce feathers and down. (1) It’s important to note that purchasing eggs, meat, or foie gras supports the feather and down industry, much like consuming dairy products supports the veal industry.

There are several methods harvesting feathers and down; post mortem, live plucking, and gathering. Generally speaking, most people are unaware of the methods used to collect feathers and down. For this reason I think it’s important to explain the distinction between them because they are very different from one another and have varying degrees of cruelty involved.

Post Mortem

Post mortem collecting happens after the birds have been killed. Ironically, this is the most humane collection method. After scalding the birds in hot water for one to three minutes to make the job easier, the feathers are plucked by hand. Once plucked, the down is removed either by hand or by machine.

Live-Plucking

Live plucking is undoubtedly the most cruel method of collecting feathers. A struggling goose or duck is held down by their neck or wings while the “targeted feathers” are ripped out. The frantic birds struggle to escape, causing strained muscles and sometimes broken limbs. Depending on the breed of bird, live plucking can happen several times in the short lifespan of birds. Not surprisingly, this process is extremely painful for the bird.

“Nociceptors

[pain receptors] have been identified in the skin of several avian species [including ducks, geese, and chickens]. The follicular wall of the feather is richly supplied with general somatic afferent (sensory) fibres, and nerves are present in the papilla, pulp and feather muscles. . . The feather is firmly held in the follicle. . . .In conclusion, from the results presented here and from those of previous experiments it seems likely that feather removal is painful to the bird. . . Pain in animals [has been defined] as an aversive sensory experience caused by actual or potential injury that elicits progressive motor and vegetative reactions, results in learned avoidance behaviour and may modify species specific behaviour, including social behaviour. Feather removal [experimentally done to Leghorn hens by these researchers] results in tissue injury which gives rise to motor behaviour and cardiovascular changes which when repeated results in stress-induced immobility and thus satisfies most of the criteria in this definition of pain.” (2)

It takes approximately 75 or more birds to create enough feathers to stuff one comforter.

The live plucking process can sometimes rip the skin of the goose or duck, which is then sewn up with a straight needle without the benefit of analgesic or sterilization. Once sewn up, the bird is tossed to the floor with the rest of the birds who have been stripped of their feathers. (3)

The practice of live-plucking has been decried as inhumane by industry representatives who vehemently claim that most of the feathers and down on the market today are those removed from the birds post-mortem. These same claims say that using feathers and down actually minimizes waste by “making use of materials that would otherwise be thrown away.” (4) By “materials” they mean the lives of birds. This truly demonstrates the disconnect that exists. These birds are seen as nothing more than materials, when in reality they are individuals who matter.

In 2009, a Swedish TV documentary, Plucked Alive: The Torture Behind Down and Goose Down Practices Called Animal Crueltyexamined the industry claims that live-plucking was rare. What the documentary found was that 50 – 80% of the down on the market came from live-plucking. These figures were adamantly denied by organizations such as the China Feather and Down Industrial Association, among others. Another investigation, conducted by Ikea, confirmed the same high percentages. As a result, they phased out a Chinese brand of down bedding citing concerns about live-plucking. (5)

Gathering

Another method for collecting the feathers of birds through a process called “gathering.” Gathering feathers from live birds is defined as “removing feathers that are ripe due to the phenomenon of molting” and would refer to using a brush or comb to remove feathers and down which are ready to fall out. This process may sound humane, but most operations have hundreds (if not thousands) of birds. Even if all of them are at the same stage of molting at the same time (very unlikely), feathers mature at different times on different parts of the body. What this means is that it is still very likely that some feathers will be live plucked. In addition, the methods of catching, carrying, and restraining birds is the same whether they are live plucked or gathered- meaning that bones can still break or become dislocated, and some birds don’t survive the process. (6)

Related Reading: The Barbaric Cost of Your Winter Coat

Roosters & Ostriches & Peacocks

But it’s not just geese and ducks that are abused for their feathers- roosters, ostriches, and peacocks are also victims of the feather industry. Raised and slaughtered for their beautiful saddle feathers, the striking feathers on their backsides, are commonly used in fly fishing, hair fashion trends, home decor, costumes, and cat toys.

“Whiting Farms in western Colorado is the world’s largest producer of fly tying feathers. There, the roosters are given only a year to live while their saddle feathers grow as long as possible. Once the feathers are deemed satisfactory, the rooster is slaughtered, and his feathers plucked. His lifeless body is then thrown out for compost; Thomas Whiting, the company founder (via the Orange County Register), claims that, “They aren’t good for anything else.” The Whiting Farms website boasts that “over 125,000 total birds (were) harvested in 2000.” (7)

Looking Behind the Curtain

Free living geese normally live in small family units, living up to 20 years, and mate for life. Geese bred for meat, foie gras, and their feathers live just a fraction of that time- a mere 2 years in some cases. Research varies but roosters can live to be 10 – 15 years old, but are killed at one year old for their beautiful plumage. Ostriches have a lifespan of 30 – 40 years old, but can reach as old as 70 in the wild.

It’s not profitable for humans to allow these animals to live their natural lifespan, therefore these animals are slaughtered at young ages and in terribly cruel ways.

“Before slaughtering, starve geese for 12–18 hours. This facilitates bleeding and cleaning. . .Geese should be killed. . .as quickly as possible. The most efficient way is to place the goose headfirst into a killing funnel and cut the jugular vein with a sharp knife. If the birds are difficult to manage, stun them by hitting them at the base of the skull before cutting their throats.” (8)

Breeding domesticated animals into existence is also problematic for much of the same reasons as factory farming: forced breeding, disregard for family bonds, overall welfare and care of animals, resource depletion, and environmental destruction.

What about recycled or second-hand down and fake feathers?

This is a question that is brought up frequently when discussing vegan fashion. Should we wear or use animal-based clothing or textiles if they are recycled or bought at a second-hand store? Some organizations claim that reusing or repurposing textiles already produced is perfectly fine and falls under the proverbial vegan umbrella. I emphatically disagree. It is true that these products have already consumed resources in their manufacturing, thus eliminating the need for additional resources to produce new, plant-based items. But the wearing of these items still sends a message that animal-based clothing is not only acceptable, it is fashionable. After all, in most cases the people will have no idea if the item is second-hand or recycled. They will only see the item for what it is- the skin, fur, or feather of an animal. Instead, we should work on reducing and eliminating these items from being manufactured in the first place.

What about “ethically sourced” or “traceable” feather or down products?

There is a new trend in the feather and down industry: ethically sourced and/or traceable down standards. Much like the “humane certification” program from the meat and dairy industry, the feather and down industry has come up with it’s own certification process meant to put consumers minds at ease. These programs make claims of proprietary machinery and processing procedures, complete with water recycling and biodegradable non-toxic detergents used to clean the feathers. They boast “environmentally sensitive initiatives” and renewable energy systems in their offices and facilities. From the lightbulbs to the recycled office paper, they want you to know they are “ever mindful of [their] footprint on the Earth.” Their customers are assured that they “always receive quality and humanely gathered down and feathers.” (9)

Despite standards, certifications, audits, processes, and assurances, the truth is that animals are still being bred and killed for this industry to exist in the first place. Traceability does not ensure humane treatment- only freedom and autonomy can do that. Instead, it misleads consumers into believing that they are buying a product that is kind to animals when in fact, it isn’t. There is only one way to truly be humane to animals, and that is to let them be, on their own terms.

How are Feathers & Down Listed on Labels?

It would be great if the labels on our clothing, bedding, and other textiles would list the animal that the natural materials came from, but sadly that isn’t the case. Not only are the labels ambiguous in terms of who the raw material was cultivated from, there are a plethora of names to describe the type and fill. This can confuse even the most well-informed consumer. I’ve listed some of the most common names you might find listed on a label, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. When the origin of a textile is in doubt, avoiding it in favor of a plant-based alternative may be the only solution.

Crushed Feathers, Plumage, landfowl plumage, waterfowl plumage, down, down blend, down fibre, plumule, feather, feather fibre, feather fillings, residue, and commercial down. (10)

What Are the Alternatives to Down & Feathers?

There are lots of alternatives to animal-based feathers and down. Some are made from natural ingredients such as coconut husks, some are eco-friendly synthetic materials, some are a mix between synthetic and natural or recycled materials, and some come straight from synthetic fibers. Finding alternatives to feathers and down has never been easier. Look for products that use these registered and trademarked insulation names: Primaloft, Omni-Heat, Cocona Insulation, Thermolite, Thermacore, Coreloft, Weatheredge, and under a more generic name such as down alternative.

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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

1. ^ American Down and Feather Council. “Info for Consumers.” Retrieved March 3, 2016

2. ^ M.J. Gentle, L.N. Hunter. “Physiological and behavioral responses associated with feather removal.” Research in Veterinary Science, Vol. 50 (1990).

3. ^ Liberation BC. “Down and Feathers.” Retrieved March 4, 2016

4. ^ American Down and Feather Council. “Info for Consumers.” Retrieved March 4, 2016

5. ^ Digital Journal. “Ikea Drops Live-Plucked Chinese Down Bedding from Shops.” Retrieved March 4, 2016

6. ^ European Food Safety Authority. “Scientific Opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production.” Retrieved March 4, 2016

7. ^ Global Animal. “Trendy Feather Hair Extensions Cause Rooster Slaughter.” Retrieved October 29, 2014

8. ^ New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. “Processing and Marketing Geese.” Retrieved October 29, 2014

9. ^ Allied Feather & Down. “Responsible Down Certified Pledge.” Retrieved March 5, 2016

10. ^ Competition Bureau of Canada. “Guide to the Labeling of Down and Feathers Enforcement Guidelines.” Retrieved March 5, 2016

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update March 2016