“Ethically sourced.” “Certified down.” “Cruelty free.” Can you trust the claims on your puffer jacket?
On a cold winter’s day, a puffer jacket can take the sub-Antarctic chill off. If your jacket’s filled with down, much of that toasty warmth comes courtesy of feathers plucked from geese and ducks.
Mounting pressure from consumer and environmental groups has seen manufacturers move to assure us the down they use is responsibly sourced and no animals were harmed in the making of their jackets.
But do the claims they use stack up? We checked out nine brands, priced from $200 to $899, to see what they were made from and what the label tells you.
Down from geese and ducks is often used in puffer jackets to help keep you warm and cosy. The down comes from birds primarily raised for meat. Their feathers are taken after slaughter. However, publicity about inhumane practices, such as live plucking and force-feeding of the birds, has seen the industry develop animal welfare standards.
Between 2013 and 2014, manufacturers Patagonia and The North Face created their own standards to evaluate their suppliers’ animal husbandry (see “Who certifies the down”).
The North Face’s Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and Patagonia’s Traceable Down Standard (TDS) prohibit force-feeding and live plucking of birds.
Patagonia’s TDS also requires “parent farms” (where birds are bred and raised) to be audited but that’s optional with the RDS. Checking parent farms is important because that’s where birds spend the most time (from four to five years) and are more at risk of live plucking.
Patagonia’s standard has since become the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS). It operates the standard in partnership with certifier NSF International.
Six of the nine brands in our survey use RDS-certified down in their jackets. Patagonia is the only brand to use Global TDS.
Two local manufacturers, Cactus and Wear on Earth, get their down from Aro Artländer, a German company that uses down certified by Traumpass under the Downpass standard, although you won’t find this information on the label.
The Traumpass standard states its down must not come from live animals. Farms are subject to regular audits to ensure compliance with European Conventions of animal protection.
Local brand Earth Sea Sky sources its down from Australian supplier, One Planet, that buy RDS certified down.
Three of our manufacturers make their clothes in New Zealand: Cactus, Earth Sea Sky, and Wear on Earth. The former two are at the pricey end of the scale, while Wear on Earth is mid-range. Huffer designs its jackets here; they’re made in China.
Whenever you wash your puffer jacket, or any synthetic clothing, it sheds little bits of plastic called microfibres.
This plastic goes down the drain and ends up in the ocean. According to a report collated by the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, a full 6kg load of washing can release as many as 700,000 fibres.
These fibres have been discovered in animals in the six deepest marine ecosystems on earth. Any clothing with synthetic fibres will shed microplastics. Even once discarded, it can still be a problem – there’s evidence microplastics can leach from landfill.
The Guppyfriend wash bag promises to catch microfibers before they head to the ocean – see our trial to see if it works.
There are four global audit companies that carry out RDS certification: ICEA (an Italian certification service), International Down and Feather Testing Lab, NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation), and Control Union.
As part of the audit procedure, assessors visit facilities to check they follow the standard. While the primary concerns are live plucking and force-feeding, the RDS also covers birds’ access to food and water, housing, health, pest control and transport.
The Global Traceable Down Standard is assessed by NFS International. The criteria is similar to RDS, but Global TDS cover parent farms – for RDS auditing parent farms is optional.
If you’re worried about harming our feathered friends, you could opt for a synthetic filling – but it’s not without downsides.
While some fibres can be made from plant materials that are chemically dissolved and spun into fabric (such as rayon, lyocell, modal and cupro), most come from a form of plastic made from petroleum.
If you’re looking for a natural alternative, a merino wool-filled jacket is an option. Wool has a natural insulating quality.
Of the puffer jackets we assessed, polyester, nylon or nylon taffeta were used in the outer shells. While these materials have different names, they’re all varieties of plastic.
Four manufacturers – Macpac, Cactus, Wear on Earth, and Earth Sea Sky – use nylon or variations of it. Local manufacturer Moke use nylon for its men’s jacket, while its women’s coat is a combination of nylon and polyester. The North Face also uses a nylon/polyester mix.
Jackets from Huffer and Kathmandu use polyester. Like nylon, it’s made from non-renewable petrochemicals.
Recycled polyester is a better environmental choice. Patagonia uses this in the jacket surveyed.
There are other certifications you may spot when you’re shopping for a jacket: Bluesign and Oeko-Tex.
Every year, 43 million tonnes of chemicals are used to produce textiles. Manufacturers can get certification to show their chemical use meets health, safety and environmental standards. Bluesign and Oeko-Tex are amongst the most well-known certifications.
Kathmandu, Macpac, North Face, and Earth Sea Sky use Bluesign-approved fabrics. Some Patagonia products have Bluesign-approved fabrics while others use recycled fabrics (like the jacket in this survey). Wear on Earth and Cactus use fabrics certified to Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
While Huffer said “all raw materials must be sourced responsibly”, it doesn’t mention a chemical certifier explicitly.
Moke didn’t know the chemical certification of the fabric mills they work with. A spokesperson said it works with “reputable fabric mills” and will check the certification when they visit the mills later this year.
buy a jacket that’s fit for purpose – if you’re just walking to work and going on the occasional ramble, you don’t need a jacket designed for mountain climbers
support retailers that are transparent about supply chains and the materials they use
look for down certification and whether the fill of the jacket is made from recyclable materials (a natural alternative is merino)
check the quality of the jacket and make sure the fabric is hard-wearing so it’ll last longer than one season
choose a classic style that will always be in fashion
repair rather than replace your existing jacket (if you’ve ripped the jacket, it can be repaired using clear-film stick-on patches, or you can take it into an alteration service).
check out a second-hand store – you may find something that sparks joy
look in your wardrobe – the most environmentally friendly jacket is the one you already own.