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Feathers & Down

Can feathers and down be harvested without harming animals? The answer might surprise you.

Published: July 2016
Last Update: December 2022

Reading Time: 16 minutes

Are feathers and down vegan?

Is using feathers and down in fashion, home decor, sporting equipment, cat toys, and cleaning tools vegan? While feathers have been used in these items throughout history and are often considered harmless and even sustainable, there is a belief that their cultivation does not require the death of an animal, similar to fur. However, this may not be the case.


The tail feathers from one of the roosters at SAFE glisten in the sun / Source

1. What are feathers and down?

A definition and look at who we collect them from.

The basics

Okay, this section might seem ridiculous. It's pretty obvious what feathers are, but where do we get them? Or should I say, from who?

Feathers come from a variety of birds, including ducks, geese, swans, and ostriches. Down, on the other hand, is typically collected from waterfowl such as geese, ducks, and swans.

Feathers are the light, strong, and flexible structures that grow on the bodies of birds. They are used for flight, insulation, and protection. Down, on the other hand, is the soft, fluffy layer of feathers that grows under the outer feathers of birds.

Birds need their feathers

Feathers are an essential part of a bird's anatomy, providing it with several vital functions. In addition to enabling flight, feathers also help to insulate birds from extreme temperatures and protect them from the elements. Some birds, such as ducks and geese, have feathers coated with a layer of oil, which helps keep the feathers waterproof and allows the bird to stay warm and dry even when it is swimming in cold water.

They're made up of a protein called keratin, the same protein that makes up human hair and nails. Birds produce feathers throughout their lives, with new feathers growing to replace old or damaged ones. This process is called molting, typically occurring once or twice a year.

Feathers come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors, and they are often used by birds to attract mates and to help them blend into their environment.

Roosters, ostriches, and peacocks

It's not only geese and ducks victimized for their feathers; other birds like roosters, ostriches, and peacocks are also a part of the industry. These striking saddle feathers are in fly fishing lures, hair fashion trends, home decor, costumes, and cat toys.

Whiting Farms in western Colorado is the world's largest producer of fly-tying feathers. Over the years, the farm genetically bred birds to maximize the production and size of the saddle feathers. Once the bird reaches about a year old, workers slaughter them and pluck the saddle feathers. After that, the birds become compost. Thomas Whiting, the company's founder, claims that "they aren't good for anything else." (1)

According to their website, they harvested 60,000 birds in 2015. (2)


An ailing goose at a factory farm of 6,000 birds / Source

2. How are feathers & down harvested?

The processing of animals.

By-products of the food industry

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers feathers and down a byproduct of the food industry. Most feathers and down come from ducks raised for their eggs, meat, or foie gras. Some feathers and down are also collected after the ducks are killed.

According to the American Down & Feather Council, 80% of feathers and down used globally are produced in China, where duck meat is a staple in the diet. Other countries that produce feathers and down include Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. (3)

It is important to note that buying eggs, meat, or foie gras supports the feather and down industry in the same way that consuming dairy products supports the veal industry.

A large group of geese in the barren outdoor area of a factory farm / Source

Collecting feathers & down

Feathers and down can be harvested in a few different ways, including post-mortem, live-plucking, and gathering. Most people are unaware of the methods used to collect feathers and down, so it is essential to explain the distinctions between them. These methods vary in their degree of cruelty and are very different from one another.


Post-mortem collecting involves collecting feathers and down from birds after they have been killed. This is the most humane method of collecting feathers and down.

After the birds are scalded in hot water for one to three minutes to make the feathers easier to remove, they are plucked by hand. The down is then removed either by hand or by machine.


Gathering is the removal of loose feathers by hand from a live animal during molting, a period when they would naturally lose their feathers. It involves using a brush or comb and handling live birds, a process which could result in increased fear, stress, or even injury, according to EFSA Panel on Animal Health & Welfare.

One problem with this method is that molting depends on the bird's age, breed, and genetics. Because of these differences, not all birds molt at the same time or at the time of harvesting. Meaning they may be subject to live-plucking, whether intentionally or unintentionally. (4)

Geese at a factory farm, Poland / Source


Live plucking is considered to be the most cruel method of collecting feathers. In this process, a goose or duck is held down by their neck or wings while the feathers are ripped out. The struggling birds often suffer from strained muscles and broken limbs as they try to escape.

Depending on the breed of bird, live plucking can happen several times in the bird's short lifespan, causing them a great deal of pain and suffering.

Pain during live-plucking

"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." (5)

The numbers

Though it's unknown how much of the global supply of feathers and down comes from live-plucking, Matthew Betcher of Allied Feather and Down estimates that parent farms produce around 13% of it. (6) Other organizations claim that Betcher's number is way too high, saying the number is closer to 1% of the global supply. (7)

One thing everyone agrees on, the practice is still happening. And some businesses specifically request it.

Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity at Textile Exchange, a nonprofit group focused on industry sustainability issues, says live-plucked down is "higher value and very, very fine, with an 800-to-900 fill power. It's very high-end and sought after for bedding, and some [manufacturers] specifically ask for live pluck." (8)

A 2009 Swedish TV documentary, Plucked Alive: The Torture Behind Down and Goose Down Practices Called Animal Crueltyexamined the industry claims that live-plucking was rare. The documentary found 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. (9) Another investigation conducted by Ikea confirmed the exact high percentages. As a result, they phased out a Chinese brand of down bedding, citing concerns about live plucking. (10)

The practice of live plucking is illegal in the United States, Canada, and Europe. However, it still occurs in the top three down-producing countries, including Poland, Hungary, and China. And also in France, where the geese and ducks force-feed for foie gras. (11)

Live-plucking is inhumane

Some industry representatives have decried the practice of live-plucking as inhumane, claiming that most feathers and down used in the market today are obtained from birds post-mortem. These same representatives argue that using feathers and down minimizes waste by using "materials" that would otherwise be discarded.

However, it's important to recognize that these "materials" refer to the lives of sentient beings. Using this term demonstrates the disconnect between the industry's view of these animals and the reality that they are individuals who matter.

Rescued hens at the veterinarian / Source

Shortened lifespans

Geese, roosters, and ostriches typically live much longer than those bred for human consumption. For example, free-living geese can live up to 20 years, while those bred for meat, foie gras, or feathers are often killed after just a few years. Similarly, roosters can live for 10-15 years in the wild but are typically killed at a young age for their plumage. Ostriches can live for 30-40 years, and some have been known to reach 70 years old in the wild.

However, these animals are often slaughtered at young ages in cruel ways because it is not profitable for humans to allow them to live out their natural lifespan.


A down-filled jacket / Source

3. Ethically sourced feathers & down

Recycled, second-hand, humanely harvested, traceable, or ethically sourced. Different names for the same fate.

Recycled, second-hand, and fake feathers

Whether or not it is acceptable for vegans to wear or use animal-based clothing or textiles that have been recycled or bought at a second-hand store is common in discussions about vegan fashion. Some organizations argue that reusing or repurposing these textiles is acceptable and falls under the vegan umbrella. However, I strongly disagree.

While it is true that these products have already consumed resources in their manufacturing, wearing them still sends a message that animal-based clothing is fashionable and acceptable. In most cases, people cannot tell if an item is second-hand or recycled, so they will see it as an animal's skin, fur, or feathers.

Instead, we should focus on reducing and eliminating the production of these items altogether.

Ethically sourced or traceable feathers & down

There has been a trend in the feather and down industry toward promoting something called 'ethically sourced' and 'traceable' down standards. Similar to humane certification programs within the meat and dairy industries, these programs exist to ease the minds of consumers. The idea these labels are selling is that it's possible to farm animals in a kind, compassionate way. This idea is called The Humane Myth.

In reality, humans have a long history of mistreating and exploiting animals for their benefit, and the humane myth is more of a convenient fiction than a reflection of reality.

Ethically sourced and traceable down programs make claims of proprietary processing procedures, complete with water recycling and biodegradable, non-toxic detergents used to clean feathers. The promises of quality and humanely gathered down and feathers are almost always on their websites. But do they care about animals?

Steve Uretsky, the founder of Allied Feather + Down and creator of the Responsible Down Standard, the most prominent animal welfare standard in the textile industry, called these animals "a generic ingredient" when discussing the down supply chain. (12)

Despite standards, certifications, processes, audits, and assurances, the plain truth is that animals are still being bred and killed. If they weren't, these industries wouldn't exist. It's true; vegans want people to treat animals better.

But through freedom and autonomy, not humane deaths and proprietary cleaning processes.


 Shop window of winter jackets / Source

4. Reading labels

Know what to look for before heading to the store.

Getting started

It would be great if the labels on our clothing, bedding, and other textiles would list their animal origin, but sadly that isn’t the case. Not only are labels ambiguous in terms of animal origin, but they also use a wide variety of names to describe the textile.

This practice can confuse even the most well-informed consumer.

How feathers & down are listed on labels

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.

  • Commercial down
  • Crushed Feathers
  • Down
  • Down blend
  • Down fiber
  • Feather
  • Feather fiber
  • Feather fillings
  • Landfowl plumage
  • Plumage
  • Plumule
  • Residue
  • Waterfowl plumage

5. Feather & down alternatives

Know what to look for before heading to the store.

Feather & down free options

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 feather & down alternatives

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 'a down alternative.'


Truth in advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains the information available at the time of publishing.

I don’t just say it; I source it too.

Please contact me if you find incorrect data.

Article Sources

  1. Mellow, Michael. (2011). Fullerton fly-fishing shop is center of hair feather craze. The Orange County Register. Retrieved from
  2. Whiting Farms. The Whiting Farms Story. Retrieved from
  3. Schmitz, H.A. (2018). The Sustainability and Humane Practices of the Down and Feather Industry. Down and Feather Council. Retrieved from
  4. RSPCA Australia. (2109). What are the animal welfare concerns with the production of down (feathers)? Retrieved from
  5. Gentle, M. J., & Hunter, L. N. (1991). Physiological and behavioural responses associated with feather removal in Gallus gallus var domesticus. Research in veterinary science, 50(1), 95–101. Retrieved from
  6. Cosier, Susan. (2020). Everything You Need to Know About Buying Ethically Sourced Down Products. Audubon Magazine. Retrieved from
  7. IDFL Laboratory & Institute. Live-Plucking and Harvesting Information. Retrieved from
  8. Gibson, Kate. (2106). A foul truth behind the down in pillows and comforters. CBS News. Retrieved from
  9. Xinhua News Agency. (2009). China down industry disputes Swedish reports. Retrieved from
  10. Halvorson, Sharla. (2019). Our view on animal welfare. Inter IKEA Systems. Retrieved from
  11. Wikipedia. Down Feather. Retrieved from
  12. Allied Feather + Down. About Page. Retrieved from

Photo credits

White feather / Wolfgang Hasselmann
Yellow down jacket / v2sok
Shop window of winter jackets / The Nix Company

Photos by JoAnne McArthur, WeAnimals Media

  • The tail feathers from one of the roosters at SAFE glisten in the sun

Photos by JoAnne McArthur, Animal Equality, WeAnimals Media

  • Rescued hens at the veterinarian

Photos by Andrew Skowron, WeAnimals Media

  • An ailing goose at a factory farm of 6,000 birds
  • A large group of geese in the barren outdoor area of a factory farm
  • Geese at a factory farm, Poland
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