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The shape and composition of the down cluster is the key to its unparalleled warmth to weight. 

Different from a feather, the down cluster has thousands of filaments radiating from a central point, and each of these filaments have barbs, much like the branches of a fir tree. These barbs connect with the barbs and filaments of the nearby clusters, creating a structural web of insulating air.

the cluster
Down cluster

The natural brilliance of the down cluster is that it is able to fill a volume with very little material and incredibly low weight. 

approximate total plumage
Down vs feather

Each filament is just a fraction of the width of a human hair, and it is estimated that there are as many as 30 miles of these filaments in just one gram of down. 

GGD-800-crl-elect
Macro of down fibers

While widely misunderstood, there are small differences between the down clusters of the duck and goose. The goose down cluster tends to have longer filaments, a different barb shape and a unique fat and oil composition. This all makes the larger goose down cluster slightly more compressible and resilient when it comes to jackets or sleeping bags that need to provide as much warmth as possible with minimal weight. Both insulate in the same way and more often than not it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

cluster protein model
Protein Molecular Composition

The down cluster is composed of a protein — beta keratin — which is very similar to our human hair. Like our hair, it has fat and oils that give it bounce and resiliency. But again like our hair, proper processing, care and handling are needed to ensure durability, which can long outlive any garment. 

As a by-product of the food industry, all down is sourced from domesticated birds with the exception of Eider down. 

The species of goose found in the supply chain is Anser Anser f. Domestica which is a domesticated descendant of the Greylag Goose. Occasionally there may be other related regional species found in the rural supply chain. 

fowl comparison
Goose Duck Size Comparison

For duck, the most common is Anas Boschas Domestica, descended from the Mallard. Other species throughout the supply chain include descendants of Muscovy ducks. It is important to note that in most cases, ALLIED will not source from Muscovy ducks due to the difficulty in keeping them in captivity and the animal welfare issues that can arisde from farming this breed. 

Goose down cluster v. Duck down cluster

There are slight differences between the quality of the species and regions in which they are raised. However, most of the marketing around quality stems from a time when most material was aggregated and now we find a lot more overlap in quality from Duck to Goose and from China to Europe. 

In the industrial Chinese supply chain, there is a desire for a more tender meat, and due to that demand  both duck and geese are younger when they go to be processed for food than their European counterparts. The average age of ducks are 8-11 weeks and geese are slightly older at 10 – 16 weeks. 

Graphic of region and age

In Europe, the preference is for a gamier tasting meat and there the birds are processed at older ages — 11 – 14 weeks for duck and 18-24 for geese. 

The older birds will tend to grow more mature and larger down clusters, and when material was aggregated and simply sold as duck or goose down from these regions, a qualitative assumption was made that European goose was superior in quality to Chinese duck. And while in general that still is the case in terms of warmth to weight, we now can offer 800 fill power duck down from China that rivals goose down from Europe. 

Sourcing from the collector part of the supply chain offer even older birds and larger down clusters. Many of these regions with collector sourcing also tends to be colder than industrial farms and thus, produce an extremely high quality down.

There is also a slight difference in both how the shape of the cluster itself and the fat and oil content between species. Goose tend to produce down that has longer fibers which makes it generally more compressible for a given fill power. The fat and oil composition of the goose also gives it a slightly more durable nature when considered over several years. 

For more on the supply chain, click here.

The extreme warmth-to-weight ratio that can be achieved by down is due to the size of insulating air pockets created. This is referred to as loft, and measured as “Fill Power”. 

cluster comparison
Cluster size difference 

Fill Power is simply a measurement of the volume created by a given amount of down — in most cases, measured in 30 grams per cubic inch. The higher the fill power, the greater warmth to weight that material has. Down has an extremely linear warmth curve and can be used in many ways. In theory, one could use half as much 1000 fill power down as one would need of 500 fill power to create a product of the same warmth but extreme compressibility. But there are also times where fabrics or designs might require a smaller down cluster to provide loft. 

Most down is measured according to the US/IDFB method. This standard has proven to provide the most reliable and provide the most consistent results. Other global / regional standards may produce different fill powers due to small changes in methodology. Until very recently, the two biggest standards – the US/IDFB and the EU – both gave far different results for the same lot of down. The EU standard at the time relied on a method of conditioning that was never as consistent as the US steam method. So while the fill power would always test “higher” under the US standard, the lack of consistency between tests for the preferred conditioning recently allowed for the EU adoption of the steam method – making the US and EU fill power results much closer than previously.

There are three basic steps to testing fill power: 

  1. Down is stored and conditioned prior to testing. This allows the down to fully expand following what can be months of tightly packed storage. Different standards provide for different conditioning methods. The most consistent is the steam method where the down is steamed to allow it to loft. This is the method used by the US/IDFB. Other methods require different conditioning such as heating in an oven. The EU standard now allows for several different conditioning methods – including steam – which makes it much closer to the US than it was prior. 
  1. Most methods now use 30g of down loaded into a cylinder, the diameter of which is determined by the individual method. Most testing cylinders are now very close in size providing more universal results than in years past. These periodic adaptations of other standards is also why the US/IDFB is measured in competing metrics – cubic inches / 30 grams. 
  1. The cylinder has a lid slowly lowered onto the down and measurements are taken to quantify the total volume achievable by the down. Normally, 3 tests are done and the average is taken to provide the final fill power. 
Fill Power Testing

For more specific differences between the different measuring standards, please see the following documents from the IDFL in the links below. 

Down is a by-product of the food industry, and as such, most down comes from those countries that eat the most duck and geese. That’s why approximately 75% of the world’s down comes from China with the heavy majority of the rest coming from Central and Eastern Europe. This supply chain is one that has been around for hundreds of years and still has not changed much over the generations. 

AERIAL OF CHINESE AF+D FARM
AERIAL OF CHINESE AF+D FARM

There are generally three different modules of the supply chain with each providing their own benefits and complexities – industrial, collector and parent farms. We estimate that the collector and industrial supply chains are fairly evenly split with the parent farms only representing 3-8% of the total global down supply.

AF+D REGIONS OF COLLECTION
AF+D REGIONS OF COLLECTION

Industrial Farms

Due to the age of the duck and goose supply chain, and the fact that many farms have been owned and operated by generations of the same family, the use of the word “industrial” in this supply chain refers almost solely to relative scale. While these farms have larger contracts with slaughterhouse groups and produce far more birds than the other farms in the supply chain, these farms are generally not at the industrial level and overcrowding seen in other poultry supply chains in other parts of the world. The norm on these farms is a location on large bodies of water with birds roaming free. Many times, larger goose farms act as a secondary use to the land. We have seen many farms on orchards with the fruit trees providing natural shade for the birds and the birds supplying fertilization – creating a surprising circularity.

Traceability within the industrial supply chain is far easier than the collector-based module, but this is where one has to be careful from an animal welfare perspective. In many parts of Europe, force feeding is the norm. You’ll probably never see French duck down from ALLIED for this reason. 

The Parent Farms

Within the industrial supply chain are farms where mother geese and ducks are raised to lay eggs for trade. These parent farms represent approximately 3-8% of the global supply chain. At the end of their cycle after 4-6 years, they become part of the food supply chain. 

Collector based 

This supply chain is a maze of collectors that gather material from micro farms sometimes as small as a single household raising birds to feed their family. Collectors travel from house to house within a village collecting all the waste products left out to be picked up – the down and feather from the birds being one. The village collectors will then usually aggregate material with a larger village collector who then transports to a regional collector where material is further aggregated and ultimately purchased and shipped from there.

These small farms and households raising down to simply feed their families have almost no risk to animal welfare (if the birds are harmed, they don’t eat), but can be incredibly hard to trace due to their small size and rural nature.

We have been able to add traceability in this supply chain by opening offices in these rural parts of the world where this supply chain resides that teach the collector communities how to read and write so the proper paperwork can always accompany the collection of the material. 

The collector based supply chain is important as it not only has almost zero risk of animal welfare issues, but provides some of the highest quality of material as the birds are much older and produce a large and strong down cluster.

Where each particular quality comes from

White goose down tends to almost exclusively be collected from the industrial supply chain. The European White Goose Down we source comes from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. In most cases, the final lot of down is blended from various sources – much like wine – to build an insulation with the exact properties needed for this product. These regions tend to be much colder than others and the birds live slightly longer producing an extremely high quality, luxurious down. These regions are also known for a particular sub-species that provides an extremely white feather and down. Since ALLIED does not use any bleaches when processing, it is important that our White Goose Down comes from such sources.

ALLIED’S Chinese White Goose Down mainly comes from the provinces of Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Liaoning, Handong, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Guangxi and Sichuan. White Goose Down at a higher fill power can be a fairly high risk for live plucking since it can come from the parent farms – though that only occurs within a small part of the supply chain. Even though live plucking is rare, we are still very careful within this supply chain and have identified those regions having the best transparency through parent farms to ensure that no material ALLIED procures comes from birds that have been live-plucked at any time in their lives

The nature of the Grey Goose supply chain is such that most of this material comes from smaller collector-based farms. These birds tend to be much older than those found in an industrial supply chain and therefore provide extremely high quality down.

Our European Grey Down usually comes from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine while the grey goose in China most often comes from the provinces of Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Liaoning, Handong, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Guangxi and Sichuan.

White duck down is predominantly sourced from the industrialized supply chain.

Most of ALLIED’s duck down will come from China as much of the European duck – white and grey – are used for the production of Foie Gras. In China, We work with farms in Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Liaoning, Handong, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Guangxi and Sichuan to not only ensure the animal welfare and traceability, but overall chemical management and environmental impact. It makes no sense to us at ALLIED to source what could effectively be the most sustainable insulation on the planet from farms engaged in harmful environmental practices.

Grey duck is often found as part of the smaller farm and collector supply chain throughout the world. Looking closely at the collector based supply chain for duck has allowed ALLIED to expand its high quality duck down offerings significantly. In years past, it was almost impossible to source duck down consistently above 700 fill power. Now, by uncovering new and unique supply chains in rural parts of China, we can regularly provide 800 fill power duck down.

Even though the down we collect would otherwise be waste from the poultry industry, we feel it is our responsibility to also account for the welfare of the birds. There are two particular animal welfare issues that are endemic to our industry. The first is the horrific practice of live plucking, and the other is collecting material from birds that have been force fed for the Foie Gras industry. 

Live Plucking

The most egregious and shocking practice is the collection of material through the live plucking of the birds. Down is not unlike the undercoat of a dog which older birds will periodically shed or molt. This material, in the past, was collected by hand and referred to “hand collected” down. The down naturally shed by the birds can be extremely high quality with extremely large strong clusters. 

As certain farmers realized the value of this material, it degenerated into a practice where the down is picked from the birds, feathers and all, whether they are naturally shedding or not. This is extremely harmful to the birds and a practice we have always abhorred. 

Most birds in the industrial farms go to processing for food at between 6-8 weeks for Duck in China and 12-16 for Goose (both are slightly older in Europe). In the vast majority of the supply chain, there is no possibility for live plucking since the birds are so young at time of processing. Live plucking only has the possibility to happen on parent farms where the birds are allowed to live for several years. But even at that, there has only ever been evidence of this happening at White Goose Farms. So considering the global supply chain, it is 1/4 of a small percent of the total farms that is even at risk. It has been estimated that only 1-2% of the down supply chain is at risk for this practice. And the material collected will always test at 800 fill power or above. Because this is the higher value down, anything that is not white goose down above 800 fill power isn’t even at risk for this practice.

Force Feeding

The other practice we, at ALLIED, have long made a commitment to not source is from birds that have been force fed for the foie gras industry. At the end of their lives, these birds are forced to gorge on a diet of corn which makes their livers extremely fatty. Again, this is an exaggeration of a naturally occurring process whereby birds in the wild will overeat in anticipation of a long journey as they migrate. The practice of forcing the birds to feed, however, has become a practice that covers most duck supply chains through central Europe. ALLIED has made the commitment to never procure from farms that engage in this practice at any point throughout the year. 

Aside from those two unique issues we deal with, we continue to work with farms to improve the lives of the birds and constantly reconsidering what  “best practices” mean to animal husbandry.

Aside from those two unique issues we deal with, we continue to work with farms to constantly improve the lives of the birds and constantly reconsidering what  “best practices” mean to animal welfare organizations. 

Animal welfare shouldn’t only consider those issues of live plucking or force feeding. It is important that we, as an industry, help to move all animal welfare practices forward within this poultry supply chain and rethink what best practices for us mean. 

Working with animal welfare groups, auditing bodies and brands, we realize that any claims to animal welfare need to consider Brambel’s Five Freedom of Animal Welfare and not just solely, but in addition to, the two main issues we face as an industry. The RDS and subsequent standards now follow this model ensuring robust positive treatment of all animals in the down supply chain.

Brambel’s Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare. 

All animal welfare standards and certifications use Brambel’s Five Freedoms as a baseline toward the positive treatment of animals and consists of the following elements. 

This means ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.

This requires providing an appropriate environment including appropriate shelter and comfortable resting area.

Rapid diagnosis and necessary treatment must be in place to keep animals healthy

Grey duck is often found as part of the smaller farm and collector supply chain throughout the world. Looking closely at the collector based supply chain for duck has allowed ALLIED to expand its high quality duck down offerings significantly. In years past, it was almost impossible to source duck down consistently above 700 fill power. Now, by uncovering new and unique supply chains in rural parts of China, we can regularly provide 800 fill power duck down.

Any conditions or treatment of the animals should not cause animals undue stress or unnatural fear.

“ALLIED has shown true leadership and has proven that regardless of a suppliers’ size, if they want to be cruelty-free they can. We call on all suppliers to follow ALLIED’s example and fully exclude down feathers from force-fed or live-plucked animals from their supply.

FOUR PAWS has called for prohibiting parallel production at the supplier level since the inception of those standards. We applaud ALLIED Feather and Down for being the first major processor to concur and understand the importance of such a measure,” – Melanie Lary, Four Paws

In 2014, the Responsible Down Standard, developed by The North Face and ALLIED, was published and gifted to Textile Exchange for use by the entire down industry. It’s robust requirements and auditing immediately set it up as one of the most significant animal welfare standards in the entire textile industry. Soon thereafter, other standards were launched and some that had existed prior were re-written to become much stronger. 

There are other small standards, but none with the scope and scale of the RDS. ALLIED does, however, work with brands to develop robust sourcing stories that exceed any existing certification. 

The Responsible Down Standard

Developed by ALLIED alongside The North Face and Control Union and gifted to Textile Exchange in 2014, the Responsible Down Standard stands as the most robust scalable animal welfare standard for down. It ensures that all material is traceable and sourced from farms audited to all Five Freedoms of animal welfare and prohibits the collection of material from  live plucked or force fed birds. No certified farm is allowed to engage in these practices whether down is sourced from those birds or not.

The RDS is based on the Content Claim Standard which means that all points of the supply chain – from hatchling farms through product manufacturing and distribution – require certification in order to label any product with the RDS logo. 

Click on the downloads to learn more about the labeling guidelines and current standard requirements and visit responsibledown.org for additional information and assets.