Feathered Friends: Why the Insulation in Your Winter Garment Matters

words :: Ben Osborne // photos :: Courtesy of Allied Feather & Down. 

When you step into Matthew Betcher’s East Los Angeles office, the cluttered nature perhaps best illustrates the scope of his work as Creative Director for Allied Feather & Down, the supplier of down for major brands including Patagonia, The North Face, Mammut, and many others. You’ll see wall-sized whiteboard riddled with notes, down fibres littered across the room, plenty of futuristic gadgets roughly organized on one of the three desks, and some top-of-the-line down jackets—an odd sight after you’ve just stepped out of the Los Angeles heat. 

Matthew has a lot on his plate. This is a man whose job involves negotiating complicated trade with foreign countries, helps monitor ethical plucking practices at family-owned farms thousands of kilometres away, and everything in between. The end goal? Allied wants to change the way we think about and wear those fluffy white feathers that keep us warm during the winter.

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The outdoor industry is at a sort of constant crossroads, faced with ethical dilemmas of environmental and social consciousness versus profitability. Allied and Matthew Betcher want the two to go hand in hand. While most conscious users accept materials like Gore-Tex as a harmful but necessary evil, the narrative surrounding down strikes a different chord. One of the oldest outerwear materials in the world, down has recently been pushed to the side for cheaper, easier-to-produce synthetic blends. The problem? Simply put, these petroleum-based solutions are not sustainable.


“When you see a bright white recycled fibre, question it”


And while the down industry isn’t perfect, companies like Allied are working to make it close. Their technique includes sourcing solely from family farms where birds are already raised to be slaughtered for food; developing dry-cleaning techniques to reduce the amount of water used to treat the feathers; and most importantly, working to create a level of transparency similar to when you visit your local farmer’s market—perhaps even more so.

The ethical down industry of a few years ago relied heavily on word of mouth to ensure best practices, with third-party companies monitoring factories and farms. The problem was with so many different cooks in the kitchen, not everything went exactly as planned. Enter Allied, who helped develop the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) to make sure their product is sourced in a way that both the brand and consumer can feel good about. They want to tell you the whole story. 

While most of Betcher’s office is filled with scribbled notes and whiteboards, one piece of technology stands out: a flat screen that could be mistaken for a television if not for its vertical orientation. In the coming months, these “Smart Mirrors” will be placed in stores that carry brands that source from Allied down. Next time you’re trying on a down jacket, go stand in front of one. The Smart Mirror is a touchscreen for the consumer, allowing you to trace the down in garments treated with a mineral taggant that reflects the infrared light. Now you can get the full story of that little white fibre—starting with the family farm, to the machines at Allied that wash the down, to the manufacturer who fills the jackets, and finally onto your back to keep you warm.

These little white fibres are much more than just feathers that keep you warm.

“When you see a bright white recycled fibre, question it,” says Betcher. Allied’s plan is to use a DNA marker on each piece of down to confirm traceability. Currently, one of the problems in the down industry is that although Allied ethically and sustainably sources around 9 million pounds of down according to the RDS, when they ship it off to factories to be cut and sewn, a third party is in control. In an effort to cut costs, this can sometimes result in unethical practices of blending down, which defeats the efforts of everyone from the family farmers raising and plucking, to the team at Allied washing and sorting.

Everything you wear has a story, and an impact on the environment through its sourcing, distribution, and the way we consume it. In some cases, no amount of research can lead you to all the correct answers of where those materials come from and how they got onto your back. So it’s encouraging to see producers liked Allied giving us the level of transparency we need to make intelligent choices. If we can translate this level of transparency into what we eat, how we travel, and everything else we wear—we might be headed in the right direction after all. —ML