Q: Were any animals harmed in the making of my new down comforter and feather pillows?
A: Funny you ask considering that I'm fielding this query in a horizontal position directly from my down, feather, and hypoallergenic fiber-filled (more on this later) home office (I mean advice) headquarters. One has to tackle the hard-hitting questions in resplendent comfort, am I right?
Given that there is no magical factory in the sky that makes feather and down -- the fluffy, insulating undercoating of quill-less feathers located underneath the tougher outer layer of feathers belonging to ducks, geese and other waterfowl -- it's most likely that the heavenly filling in your comforter and in those pillows was directly plucked from a real, live (well, ideally not live) bird. Yes, grisly to think about but it seems that even the many ardent animal rights activists who wouldn't be caught dead eating or wearing a dead animal have no problem with sleeping amongst their plumage.
Here's the thing: The feathers and down found in most, but not all, bedding and clothing is a by-product of dearly departed waterfowl that have been slaughtered for food purposes. The plucking of live birds, while once commonplace, is now said to be more of a rare occurrence and has been outlawed in the United States and in several European countries. Still, the practice of live-plucking ducks and geese does reportedly live on at factory farms in countries such as China, Poland and in feather powerhouse Hungary, where PETA estimates that 50 percent of down and 40 to 45 percent of feathers have been live-plucked by experienced "rippers" who are paid piece-rate. So to answer your question, yes, animals have been killed in the creation of your new comforter and pillows although it's tough to say whether they were methodically harmed in a rather painful and cruel manner (I'll spare you the gory details) before eventually being slaughtered for food.
In addition to PETA's Hungarian, ahem, crackdown, a Swedish news program called "Kalla Fakta" ("Cold Facts") ran a two-part expose on the down harvesting industry in 2009. The documentary claimed that 50 to 80 percent of the world's down market comes from live-plucked birds, a much higher figure than broadcast by the global feather and down industry. Naturally, the feather and down industries in several countries including China freaked out, claiming that live plucking was a rarity and that the 50 to 80 percent figure was simply not true. The China Feather and Down Industrial Association claimed that a mere 1 to 3 percent of the country's feathers came from live birds while the European Down and Feather Association claimed estimated live-pluck rates to be around 2 percent.
And the down and feather industries weren't the only entities to freak out and take action in the wake of the "Kalla Fakta" expose. IKEA, beloved purveyor of Swedish meatballs and MDF side tables, independently verified the figures, found them to be accurate and, as a result, canceled an order of down-filled furniture from China, a nation that produces 80 percent of the world's down and feathers. This, of course, prompted another round of rebuttals from the beleaguered China Feather and Down Industrial Association.
So who to believe here? I'll leave it up to you. Whether live plucking is rare or rampant, if you can't live without your down bedding or clothing I recommend purchasing goods from companies (IKEA and Patagonia being two) that have taken a firm stance on the issue and are transparent about exactly how the down and feathers in their products was harvested. If a company isn't up front about the origins of the down that they use, then ask. Or you could just buy Canadian.
There are also synthetic, hypoallergenic down alternatives on the market like PrimaLoft and Polarguard which are inherently cruelty-free but also petroleum-based. Talk about picking your battles, eh? I recently retired my old featherbed and purchased a hypoallergenic fiberbed filled with a mix of synthetic and natural materials not so much out of concern about the plucking issue but because after several years, sleeping on a traditional featherbed got to be a bit too barn yard-y with all those feathers poking out. That said, my down-filled duvet has seen better days, so I'll be on the lookout for a new one from a bedding company that sources strictly from no-live-pluck farms. I'll let you know what I find.
Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of their many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit their advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.