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Despite many efforts, no synthetic alternative has been found to match the warmth to weight ratio of down. Most of the down in production comes from geese, as a by-product of the meat industry. The feathers are plucked from the carcass after the bird has been killed. Sometimes feathers are collected after the bird has moulted naturally, which is said to result in a higher quality product.
However there are producers who, agonisingly for the birds, pluck them
while they are still alive. This also helps meat production as the lack
of insulation encourages the birds to put on weight. Live feather plucking
is banned in the EU but it seems that it is still carried out in Poland,
Hungary and China. This issue is currently a minefield with no clear information
about suppliers or any sort of certification for down that is produced
for one are starting to explore these issues, but if you are looking for
an excuse to buy a very expensive jacket, PHD
is one of the few brands who can claim to know exactly where their down
Like other animal products, leather should be inherently sustainable. However the chemicals used in modern leather production have prevented this from being the case. Various known and suspected carcinogens are used in processing hides and many studies have been conducted to survey the prevalence of cancers among leather workers. The tanning process generally uses Chromium VI, enough of which can be left over to cause allergic reactions on contact with skin. Organic and chromium-free leather is starting to appear on the market, but at this stage is mostly restricted to luxury handbags and jackets.
Wool has been used for clothing for thousands of years. For performance clothing however, the original and best is merino wool. This comes from merino sheep, which were originally bred in Spain. Such was their value that until the eighteenth century there was a total export ban on the sheep, broken on pain of death.
Sheep cannot let moisture touch their skin, and so they sweat through their fleece. The inner layer of wool fibre is the most hydrophilic of all natural fibres and can hold a third of its own weight in water. Moisture is then transported to the outer scale of the wool fibre where it evaporates. The fibres retain this moisture wicking action when they are woven into textiles. (They also retain a natural anti-bacterial property, which is why you can wear merino a lot before it starts to smell). All sheep sweat in this way, but because merino sheep are built for dry climates their fleece is much finer than those who have to put up with rain. Today the bulk of wool and merino production comes from Australia and New Zealand.
In many ways wool is a highly sustainable fibre. However there is one issue which has dogged modern wool production – mulesing. The wrinkly skin of merino sheep is particularly susceptible to flystrike, or blowfly infestation. The flies lay eggs in the folds of the skin, and when hatched the larvae can eat the sheep alive, an agonising death by anyone’s standards. To prevent this happening it has been common practice to remove a portion of the skin around the tail – this is mulesing. Google image it at your peril. Animal rights groups such as PETA are wholly opposed to mulesing, while some in the wool industry argue that it is far more humane than allowing flystrike and no decent alternatives are available. Currently there is research being done into non surgical alternatives, and there are some breeds of merino sheep whose skin is less wrinkly and so have reduced – but not eliminated – risk.
In New Zealand the practice is banned, and Australia had agreed to phase it out by the end of 2010, but the trade group Australian Wool Innovation has announced that it will not meet this deadline. Many outdoor brands have chosen to use merino from New Zealand that is certified to meet high standards of animal welfare. This is often branded Zque. The New Zealand brand Icebreaker has gone one step further and made its whole supply chain transparent, so you can type in a code from your garment’s label and see the farm where it came from.