Winter warmers - what are you really wearing?

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As we head into the depths of winter, you might be thinking about investing in some extra warm clothes. But when it comes to products made with down or wool, what are the animal welfare issues you need to be aware of?

What is down?

Down is the soft layer of feathers closest to a duck or goose’s skin, and due to it being a good insulator, is a common material used in winter clothing such as ‘puffer’ jackets, as well as in duvets, sleeping bags, and other products designed to enhance warmth. By checking the label and asking for assistance when shopping you can determine if a particular product or garment contains down.

What are the animal welfare issues associated with down production?

Whilst the majority of down is collected after slaughter, from birds primarily farmed for meat, it is estimated that 1-2% of down worldwide is still collected by ‘harvesting’ (removal of loose feathers from the bird during their natural moult), or ‘live plucking’. Live plucking involves plucking feathers that are still attached to birds, and can cause bleeding and tearing of skin. Both methods can result in bruising and skin injuries, causing pain and stress to birds.

Other animal welfare issues in the down industry include lack of access to water for birds, feather pecking, bill trimming, respiratory problems, and force-feeding of birds for the production of foie gras

In Australia, the duck industry is relatively small, and is focused on production of duck meat. Down and feathers are considered a by-product. However, many down products you might purchase in Australia are produced overseas, which is why it’s important to know where your down is coming from.

What are the animal welfare issues associated with wool?

Wool can be a staple of most Australian wardrobes, but there is growing awareness of the welfare issues associated with wool production, primarily related to the practice of ‘mulesing’. Mulesing involves cutting strips of skin from a lamb’s ‘breech’ (the upper part of their back legs and hind area), to create a wool-free area of stretched, bare skin. The scarred skin is less likely to attract blowflies, and can prevent ‘flystrike’, where fly maggots feed off the flesh of the sheep.

Mulesing is generally done without anaesthetic, though pain relief may be administered after the procedure. Alternatives to mulesing include the breeding of naturally flystrike-resistant sheep.

How can I choose responsibly?

If you’re keen to keep animal welfare front of mind when shopping, you can keep an eye out for brands that are part of the relevant animal welfare certification scheme.

The Responsible Down Standards (RDS) are independent, voluntary global standards for the production of down. Brands that carry the RDS logo are complying with the standards, which include a requirement for no live-plucking or harvesting from live birds, no bill trimming, and no force-feeding of ducks and geese. Whilst these standards do not cover all animal welfare concerns associated with the farming of ducks and geese, they are one way that consumers can identify brands that have taken initial steps to source more responsible down.

The National Wool Declaration (NWD) allows wool growers to voluntarily declare their wool as coming from sheep  who have or have not been mulesed (and whether pain relief has been used at mulesing). Whilst individual brands aren’t registered on the NWD, it is possible to track whether a particular producer is mulesing, if they have chosen to declare it.

The RSPCA is calling for the NWD to be mandatory, to allow more transparency within the industry, and to give wool buyers (and ultimately, consumers) greater knowledge when making purchasing decisions. Stay informed by signing up to our e-newsletter.

We can all make a difference by actively seeking products that put animal welfare first when shopping this winter.