When choosing bedding products and clothing, comfort is usually a priority. From your winter jackets to comforters, there’s no doubt that you want to make sure they keep you warm. Companies recognize the need for this comfort by creating pieces using down or feathers from ducks and geese. Sometimes they create down-feathers blends. This fiber is particularly popular within the bed and bedding industry for duvets and pillow fillings. Additionally, it’s not uncommon to see feathers in the wardrobes of style icons or on runways.
This article will examine down and feathers from their difference to how sustainable and ethical these fabrics are.
Quick links in feather down and sustainability:
Questions usually arise regarding what is feather down? and down and feather, what's the difference? Although sometimes mistaken for each other, these two have several contrasts in structure and composition. However, both down and feathers for most uses in fashion and materials for bedding and the like come from ducks and geese.
Down is basically the small, soft clusters that grow under the visible tougher exterior feathers of a bird, usually from either a goose or duck. Found beneath the protective feather covering, down clusters serve the purpose of protecting the birds.
Down usually comes from the soft underside of a bird’s belly, and it keeps them warm through natural insulation. They exist next to the body under the feathers in adult birds and give the young ones a fluffy appearance4.
Down clusters have a spherical shape and contain no quills. For this reason, down pillows are usually considered luxurious. The down clusters make airy and light fibers for pillow fillings. Generally, for a pillow to be labeled as down it must contain 75% down cluster.
People consider it ideal for a supportive and soft pillow due to its malleability, structure, and composition. Some believe this leads to better quality sleep and support for any sleeping position. Aside from manufacturers using these fibers in pillows, clothing brands also create down-filled jackets.
On the other hand, feathers are the plumage we see on the bodies of geese and ducks. Unlike down clusters, feathers are larger and heavier. They aid the flight of birds but also help to keep them dry and warm.
Feather pillows offer more firmness compared with down pillows. The shape is long and flat, and in order to provide insulation, manufacturers would need more of it. Due to the quills and how firm it is, a feather pillow will most often be used for decorative purposes. This is because down pillows offer more softness in quality. Down does not contain quill materials that poke out. They are therefore easier to sleep on whereas feathers tend to scratch.
Related: Looking for more eco-sleep ideas? Check out our guide to bamboo mattresses for our picks of some of the best sustainable choices.
There’s often the contemplation of choosing down vs. feather products. You’ll generally find pure down products more expensive than feather products. Although both are derived from the body of a bird, they have different properties which significantly affect the quality of the clothing or bedding products. For instance, a feather pillow is firmer than a down pillow.
Feathers also have quills that can poke through the material of a product. Down gives pillows more softness and malleability. A blend of these two materials will offer both firm and soft properties for support. So it’s possible to acquire a product with fillings of goose or duck feathers and goose or duck down.
Fill power measures the quality of the down. If you’re looking for something fluffy, the fill power also rates the fluffiness of a product. Also, it takes into account the ability of the down to return to its original form after compression. You can observe this quality in a pillow, cushion, or down comforter.
High fill powers also help to indicate the insulating quality of the down material. Additionally, the fill power rating measures the amount of space one ounce of down will occupy in cubic inches. The fill power rating can range from 300 to 900 and above. Products with higher fill power are said to have a greater loft, better quality, and retain their firmness longer.
Unlike the fill power that measures quality, fill weight measures quantity. It helps you identify the amount of down that the manufacturers processed in a product. Generally, the more down fibers that exist in products like down pillows, the more the fill weight. The amount of down and fill power collectively indicates how warm the product or material will be. The fill weight is commonly represented in ounces.
Generally, geese are larger animals compared with ducks. As a result, there is a difference between the amount of down you’ll obtain from a goose and a duck. Because they are larger birds, geese have larger down clusters.
A duck is a smaller animal compared to a goose. As a result, they have smaller down clusters. In this light, because geese are larger, their down produces a higher fill power. This translates to a fluffier and better insulating pillow, cushion, comforter, or down-filled jacket. However, your end choice will come down to personal preference and price point.
Goose or duck down and feather are natural products that people value for their quality, softness, and insulating properties. Before turning these into materials for bedding and clothing products, it is necessary to obtain the raw materials from the birds.
Various methods exist as to how producers remove and acquire down from the body of a bird. Studies reveal that down and feather harvested from live goose by hand is superior to the industrial feather types2. However, it’s necessary to question the ethics of this practice as it causes harm to the animal involved.
In this light, there are other methods. The three common types are:
Gathering is the process of removing and acquiring loose or ripe feathers from live ducks or geese during molting. Molting is the period when birds naturally lose or shed their feathers. The gathering process involves using a combing or brushing method to remove down or feather that is ready to fall. Although people may see this process as unharmful, incorrect handling can cause injury, stress, or harm to the bird. There’s also the possibility of accidental plucking1.
Live plucking is the manual plucking of targeted down and feathers on the body of a live bird. This occurs outside the molting season. Therefore, this method has raised many concerns regarding the welfare of the animal.
Live plucking usually causes skin tearing and bleeding, which causes discomfort, stress, and pain on the part of the animals. Plucking may begin when the animals are just ten weeks old. This can continue in six-week intervals until the workers slaughter the birds5.
This method follows the slaughter of animals and entails removing the down and feather material after killing the animals for their meat. It usually involves immersing the bodies of the animals in hot water to make plucking easier. The down can be removed by hand or machine. Some companies acquire down and feather as byproducts from the food industry.
As early as the 1600s, historical documents in Russia highlight traders sending down and feather to the Dutch. In traditional Scandinavian communities, the inhabitants would protect eider nests from predators. This act was to ensure that they would be able to gather the sheddings for various purposes.
The Native American people considered these fibers to be sacred. They would use this in religious ceremonies as well. Down jackets became popular in the 1970s. The down filling in jackets provides an insulating property.
Currently, China is the largest producer of down and feather. The country produces about 80% of the world’s down and feathers3. These ducks and geese are not just raised for their down and feathers, however. These materials often come as byproducts of raising them for their meat, foie gras, or eggs. Today, manufacturers use these materials for pillows, apparel, bedding, and comforters.
The question of ethics arises when discussing the process of acquiring down and feather. As a result, ethical brands that use these materials make ethical acquisition at the core of their practices.
In this light, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is an organization responsible for certifying products that contain down or feather. The RDS ensures that the methods manufacturers employ to acquire down and feather do not cause harm to the animals. Another criterion to acquire this certification is an identification and traceability system regarding the origin. RDS promotes down and feather from responsible and ethical farms.
In terms of environmental ethics and sustainability, down and feather are waste products of the food industry. This means that they would otherwise end up in landfills. Brands that practice sustainable and ethical practices argue that they help divert these.
The American Down and Feather Council claim that this natural alternative to synthetic fills has up 97% lower impacts than polyester.
Through cleansing, this can help reduce agricultural waste. The manufacturing processes also leave a lesser carbon footprint than those of synthetic materials. Brands then make thousands of these fibers into fillings for pillows, clothing, duvets, and many other items. If considering buying items that have these materials, make sure they hold certifications. It’s also important to consider the transparency of a brand.
A US-based study revealed that 70% of consumers who use down and feather products indicated having better quality sleep with down and feather bedding. Below are some of the pros of using these fabrics:
We have highlighted a few notable down and feather company recommendations you can shop with below.
This brand provides down sweater options with 800-fill-power Advanced Global Traceable Down. This means that the goose down is certified by NSF International to ensure the animals are not force-fed or live-plucked.
Vero Linens is a bedding brand that provides down comforters, blankets, and pillows. The brand has been in the luxury linens business for 25 years, prioritizing quality sleep and comfort.
This bedding brand offers various items from down and organic cotton pillows to comforters and mattress toppers. The website hosts a care tips section for the items.
This brand sells bed, bath, loungewear, and decor items. Some of its offerings include down and feather pillows. From pillows and sheets to towels and sweats, this brand offers comprehensive collections.
Both of them come from birds, ducks, and geese particularly. However, down doesn’t have quills which contributes to it being a softer material. Although, it is not as firm and strong as its counterpart.
Also, down has a spherical shape vs. feather which has a long and flat shape.
Down provides a warmer material than wool. However, it is not as effective as wool when wet. Wool can withstand moisture and wetness better than down.
Down and feather offers soft, comfortable, and insulating products. However, the population continues to show concern about ethics. There are various methods manufacturers apply to acquire these fibers. Ultimately, careful attention needs to be paid to the means of obtaining the fibers - such as responsible farming.
EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW). (2010). Scientific Opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production. EFSA Journal, 8(11), 1886. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1886
Kozák, J., Gara, I., & Kawada, T. (2010). Production and Welfare Aspects of Goose Down and Feather Harvesting. World's Poultry Science Journal, 66(4), 767-778
Gibson, K. (2016, May 26). A Foul Truth Behind the Down in Pillows and Comforters
O'Malley, B. (2005). Chapter 6 - Avian Anatomy and Physiology. Clinical Anatomy and Physiology of Exotic Species (pp. 97-161). Elsevier Saunders. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-070202782-6.50009-0
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). (n.d.). The Down Feather Industry
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.