Ducks on intensive farm.

Down is the layer of soft, fine feathers found beneath the tougher outer layer of feathers on waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans.

It naturally traps air and insulates the birds against the cold. As a light, natural thermal insulator, humans have exploited down for our own purposes. The most common uses are pillows, duvets, sleeping bags and winter jackets.

Ducks and geese are farmed mainly for meat, liver, and eggs. However, even though down and feathers are considered a by-product of these industries, they play a significant part in economically sustaining them.

Down is obtained mainly after slaughter, but ‘harvesting’ from live ducks and geese also happens during moulting – a time when the birds naturally lose their feathers. Poor handling at this stage is likely to result in increased fear, stress, and injury to the birds. As the moulting season can vary within a flock, some birds who are not moulting at the time can be subject to ‘live plucking’, during which time the birds suffer dreadfully while their feathers and down are torn out. 

‘Parent animals' (the birds used solely for the production of offspring) are at high risk of live-plucking because they are kept for 4 to 5 years and can be subject to live-plucking more frequently than the birds kept solely for meat. Parent geese can be plucked up to 16 times during their lifetime, suffer open wounds and broken wings due to rough handling. 

There are also welfare concerns similar to that of other farmed birds: lameness, feather-pecking, bill trimming, high stocking densities, air quality and, in the case of geese and ducks being farmed for fois gras: forced-feeding.

‘Ethical’ down

Momentum for change has come from outdoor companies with some developing their own standards. These standards guarantee that down is not from live-plucked or forced-fed animals, only from animals raised for their meat. However, even certified down isn’t an inconsequential by-product of the meat industry. It is economically important, and so buying down directly contributes to goose and duck factory farms and abattoirs.


Girl modelling a

Down from ducks and geese are commonly used as insulation and padding in winter jackets and parkas. But nowadays synthetic fillings are comparable in warmth to down, are often more resistant to the wet, dry faster, and are easier to care for. They’re also generally cheaper. Many companies are now using synthetic filling with at least a proportion of it from recycled sources. 



Decorative feathers used on clothing, and accessories such as boas, hats, and jewellery, have just as cruel a background as down has. Purchasing items with feathers supports the meat and exotic skin industries where birds such as ostriches and peafowl will be kept in cramped spaces and be subjected to live plucking.

A mask with real feathers.


Synthetic feathers are widely available but can have their own environmental issues. There are many decorative alternatives to feathers which don’t cause animal suffering.

Did you know?

Most feathers found in craft stores are real. Be aware feathers can be found on pet toys too!

What can you do?

  • When buying winter jackets always check the label for materials used, and if in doubt about the filling , contact the manufacturer.
  • When shopping for pillows, duvets etc, look for alternative fillings to down.
  • The only way to avoid supporting the suffering of such birds is to choose animal-free alternatives to feathers.