Athletes are notoriously unreliable when it comes to recommending gear–and I’m hardly an exception. While I may use and abuse products more than any other group, I also prone to the same issue we all face: when somebody gives me something, or pays me, I’m less likely to give products or people the scrutiny they deserve. A bad pocket placement or issue with camber becomes something to deal with, an email sent, and perhaps a change in the line for the next year, but not a reason to switch brands when a purchase is at hand.
Also, the part of me that loves rational, scientific thinking about outdoor gear hates the ambiguity of a decision between this or that jacket, or which bindings, or what carries better in a given situation. Clear, interesting innovations or differences are what still get me excited about outdoor products. In order to avoid my personal biases, I try to focus on those when someone asks me how I like my gear.
Bearing all that in mind, I’m really quite jazzed on Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex project. In order to audit animal welfare and clean up their supply chain, ME started by asking a simple question: where does our down come from?
That answer, it turns out, is alarmingly complex. When they started asking back in 2009, nobody knew for sure, because nobody had yet asked. Raising ducks or geese purely for their down isn’t profitable, so all the down in sleeping bags or puffy jackets is a byproduct of slaughter for meat. Such birds are farmed all over Europe and Asia, from ten to ten thousand birds on individual farms. Processors or mid-level agents collect down, process it, then pass it on to wholesalers, who pass it on to manufacturers like Mountain Equipment.
A duck in China may go through three middle men who aggregate the feathers of hundreds of farms before making its way onto a processor. Maybe it’s a simpler scenario, where one farm in Ukraine goes through a processor, then wholesaler, and then into a sleeping bag. Either way, we’re talking about the lives of millions of animals over several continents–chasing down whether they have access to water or are plucked live is no small task. Beyond that, the quality of the down must still remain quite high, because nobody wants to be cold.
ME followed up their original inquiries by drawing up a set of rules to which their down suppliers needed to conform. Covering things like adequate space, no force feeding, and the elimination of solvents in the cleaning and sorting processes, the rules were then communicated to suppliers. Going further than anyone else in the industry, ME has created and implemented successful, third party audits by the IDFL that check the compliance of every part of their supply chain. To date, one supplier has been phased out as a result of recurring infractions. Several other manufacturers have begun to do these sorts of things, which are steps in the right direction, though nobody else has gone nearly this far towards understanding and auditing their supply chain.
In the picture above is my Xero 300 (30 degree F) sleeping bag, along with the tag that I’ve cut out. The number (101012010018), when traced, shows the down to be sourced from Ukraine alongside the rest of the high quality 850 fill power fluff that fills something like thirteen nalgene bottles per ounce. It’s warm, comfy stuff. And I certainly sleep better knowing that birds weren’t live plucked or inhumanely slaughtered for my jacket.
Overall, specialty outdoor brands constitute less than 1% of global down usage. There’s literally thousands of tons of down going into pillows or comforters to be sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, and none of that is subject to scrutiny of this level. And while the stuff that ME produces constitutes a tiny fraction of the global demand, it’s admirable that they’ve taken the steps to understand and control their supply chain. It’s a definitive difference in how they’re doing business–one of the things that makes me proudest to work with them. Check out the site, see what it’s about, and perhaps think about where the down in your gear is coming from for your next purchase.