Textile Exchange signs up Eddie Bauer, H&M, the North Face, Marmot and others to responsible supply chain certification.
Textile Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the apparel and textile industry, has announced signatories to its Responsible Down Standard, launched earlier this year. Companies including H&M, Eddie Bauer, The North Face, Marmot, Mammut, Helly Hansen, Outdoor Research, Downlinens, Down & Feather Co., and other fashion, bedding, and outdoor brands have adopted the RDS, a third-party certification standard that ensures responsible sourcing throughout the down feather supply chain, from gosling to end product. I spoke with Anne Gillespie, Director of Industry Integrity, Textile Exchange, about the RDS, and why it’s needed—John Howell, Editorial Director
Why is animal welfare important to commercial down users?
Animal welfare is important to commercial down users first and foremost because animals have rights, and we would like to think everybody in the supply chain would respect those rights. But if we don’t live in an ideal world as that, I think there’s still a real commercial reality to the idea, thanks to groups like Four Paws and PETA that have brought attention to the ethical treatment of animals. Consumers are aware, brands are aware—brands are being campaigned on the issue of animal rights. Ultimately, a narrative has been created, mostly driven by the big brands that have been targeted by these animal welfare groups. The companies that are taking on the certification of the supply chain, that are adopting the Responsible Down Standard, they’re the ones that are being pro-active to meet their own CSR goals and to maintain their own strong brand reputation so their consumers can see them doing the right thing. And from there, that attitude about animal rights goes back down through the entire supply chain.
How does the RDS add value to the down used in products?
Those values don’t add literal value to the product. There’s no actual difference between non-certified and certified feathers. The quality is defined by other factors. When we look at companies that are able and willing to comply with the standards, the biggest value comes from favorable consumer perceptions. Certification satisfies consumers that they’re buying goods that don’t violate their own moral code. However, many consumers may not know about the issues of live plucking or force feeding of fowl. So the primary driver is the brands’ being aware of these issues and their awareness of the potential that they could be brought more to light at the consumer level. Consumers are becoming more aware—and aware more quickly—about these issues due to increasing media coverage.
So how do brands engage their customers on RDS?
Part of the work of brands is to tell consumers they have a choice to make. Finally, choice gives the power to consumers to make a change in industry practices. They can vote with their dollars for responsible down over uncertified, non-protected down. That should force the industry to change and we can eliminate some of the worst practices
What are the challenges in establishing RDS?
There are two big challenges in certifying and safeguarding the supply chain of down. Down feathers are essentially byproducts of the meat industry. Their value ranges from two percent to fifteen percent of the overall value of the bird—I think it averages out at around ten percent. That gives you very little leverage to start demanding that suppliers comply with the RDS, that they go through the extra cost and effort for certification, that they change their practices. Even getting access to the supply chain was really difficult in developing the standard. Very few commercial, consumer companies know much very far into the down supply chain. They generally work with down suppliers, not the producers.
The other thing that made setting up the Standard so difficult is the variety of supply chain models and the multiple steps in the sup9ply chain: there can be 10, 12 steps from the feathers on the bird to the down getting into a final product. As far as production, there are two basic types of production models. One is the industrialized farm which can be either a single farmer with 7,000 geese or what we think of as a big factory-type operation with 100,000 birds. Then there are the small, collector-based farms that you find a lot of in Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania, Ukraine. Many of them are households raising a half dozen geese for their own consumption. Every time they kill one to eat, they’ll pull off the feathers and put them in a bag. Every year or so, a collector will come by and pick up the bags. In Hungary, these collectors are usually gypsies. It’s an incredibly informal process. So it was very hard for us to get a grasp of how that part of the supply chain worked, and then to figure out how to establish a really strong chain of custody for those feathers. We did a lot of work to get access and then also to audit in a way that was reasonable and effective.
How are you getting out the message about RDS?
We’re getting the word out through talking to the media, through public campaigns by animal rights groups and, most of all, through the brands themselves. I’ve worked in retail for years, and I know that the staff in stores love a good story. Sales staff can be a powerful tool to communicate with consumers on a one-to-one basis in stores. It feels good to sell something that has a good story, that is a more ethical product. Then there are hangtags. We’ve got a strong logo, so hopefully people will look for it, and will look it. On-product labeling like the hangtags is a critical issue. They give a lot of credibility and communicate if their claims are authentic.
Is down still the go-to material for bedding and cold weather clothing? Is there anything synthetic that will replace it?
Down is going to be used for the foreseeable future. There’s no synthetic replacement yet that completely mimics the warmth-to-weight ratio of down for use in the bedding industry, and in jackets and sleeping bags. That’s why we need the RDS.
Anne Gillespie is the Director of Industry Integrity at Textile Exchange. The organization administers the Responsible Down Standard. She and her team have been responsible for the development and implementation of key textile industry standards addressing chain of custody, recycled materials, animal welfare for wool and down, social and environmental aspects of manufacturing, in addition to general industry education on the why and how of practicing integrity. Anne has over 10 years of experience as a product manager for Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada’s largest outdoor retailer, where she was responsible for converting the cotton program over to organic. She was also co-founder of Continuum Textiles, a sales company representing sustainable supply chains.