Friday 5 September 2014

The North Face And Patagonia: Getting Down And Dirty

An interesting spat is developing in the world of outdoor clothing, as the Guardian's Mark Gunther reported recently. It's all down... to down.

Goose and duck down, to be more exact. The stuff is great for pillows and bedding, but its ability to hold in warmth while staying light makes it the ideal padding for performance outerwear. The problem comes with the harvesting of the down.

Ducks and geese are primarily bred for food. Their feathers and down are largely viewed by producers in Eastern Europe and China as a waste product, which they remove with maximum efficiency and minimum care for the the fowls involved. The birds are plucked while awake, and the process causes major distress.

For Doug Tompkins of The North Face and Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, this simply won't fly. Both men are committed environmentalists. Tompkins, in particular, is on record as showing his disdain for factory farms. After facing criticism from animal-welfare group Four Paws on the issue, both companies set out to make things right.

Sustainability experts were sent out to unpick the often tangled supply lines, and one thing became clear: there were no existing guidelines for the ethical treatment of waterfowl. Tompkins and Chouinard set out to draft their own standards--and therein lies the problem.

Both companies claim that their guidelines offer the best possible protection for wildfowl whose down is destined for their products. There have been heated declarations as to who offers the most transparent and ethically sound set of standards. There are minor but significant differences between the two documents: for example, Patagonia reaches out to so-called 'parent farms', where there is more likelihood of birds being plucked, while The North Face concentrates its efforts on breeding farms.

This may all seem like two people fighting to prove who's the nicest, but there's more at stake. The down industry is largely focussed on bedding products, and are unlikely to implement standards laid down by companies like Patagonia and The North Face, whose business makes up a tiny percentage of the whole. If they can get the larger players to agree and settle on a welfare plan for the ducks and geese that form such an integral part of their product, then there's a much greater chance of the slaughterhouses taking note.

As for Four Paws, who started this whole thing? At the moment, they prefer Patagonia's Traceable Down Standard, damning The North Face's Responsible Down Standard as "a step in the right direction". Owch, burn. But it's still early days for an arena which has seen little in the way of regulation. The winner in this row, hopefully, will be the animals at the centre of it all.

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