The desire to treat geese humanely is dividing the outdoor industry and driving up costs for down suppliers in a far cry from what some envisioned three years ago.
The division came into sharp focus last week, as backers of two dueling standards faced off at Outdoor Retailer Winter Marketplace (ORWM). On one side was the Textile Exchange, which since January, 2014 has been promoting the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) developed primarily by The North Face and its supplier Allied Feather & Down. On the other side is NSF International, which on Jan. 12 began offering to certify down to the Global Traceable Down Standard (GTDS) established by Patagonia Inc. Both groups developed the standard in response to a campaign by Four Paws, a European animal rights group that embarrassed Patagonia and The North Face in 2010 and 2011 by reporting down from live-plucked geese had entered their supply chains despite the brands' assurances to the contrary.
While Textile Exchange and NSF applaud eachother's work publicly, they are competing ferociously to sign up outdoor brands for their third-party audit and certification services. Such third-party validation services has become an increasing cost of business for brands making sustainability claims, whether that be reducing their carbon footprint through the use of organic cotton and recycled polyester (See related story on Unifi Inc.) or protecting the welfare of sheep and geese harvested for wool and down.
“There is a lot of jockeying for position which is a little unfortunate because when we started out on this whole adventure three years ago I'm not sure this is what we envisioned,” said Chad Altbaier, VP of sales and business development for the Ohio-based down processor Downlite. “A single harmonized standard was the objective three years ago.”
Adding to frustration is the sense that suppliers and brands are rushing to embrace standards without understanding their full costs or consumer demand. As a result, prices for RDS-certified down are in flux.
“When we quoted last summer for fall 15 we were quoting $1 per pound premium” said Altbaier. “Now that is going up to $2 per pound will continue to rise depending on how supply chain reacts.”
On Jan. 19, The North Face led coalition muddied the waters by releasing a draft of a second version of RDS with an optional “Parent Farm Module” for companies looking to go a step deeper into their supply chain and eliminate parallel production of certified and non-certified waterfowl at the farm level. If approved, RDS 2.0 would also strengthen animal welfare criteria and auditing requirements and forbid down blends that are not 100 percent compliant from being labeled as RDS products. The revisions, which had been sought by Four Paws, would help RDS adherents neutralize Patagonia and NSF's claims that their standard is stronger.
What remains clear is that the RDS coalition has outmaneuvered Patagonia in the race to sign on brands in North America. On Jan. 21, Textile Exchange announced that Adidas Group, Black Diamond, Kathmandu (NZ), Nau, REI and Timberland had joined Down & Feather Co., DownLinens, Eddie Bauer, H&M, Helly Hansen, Mammut, Marmot, and Outdoor Research in adopting the RDS.
As of last week, only one brand and four suppliers had committed to the GTDS standard. That one brand was Patagonia.
“NSF International is in discussions with 12 brands at the moment as well as another 3 suppliers, all interested in the Global Traceable Down Standard,” Tom Bruursema, general manager of NSF International’s Sustainability Division, wrote in an email responding to questions from The B.O.S.S. Report.
The RDS marketing was particularly unrelenting at ORWM, where Allied Feather debuted “Track My Down,” a new tool that will allow consumers to track the origin and quality of the down inside their garment or sleeping bag, from gosling to finished garment. Montane, Peak Performance and Vaude have already committed to adopt the technology for their Fall 2015 collections.
“The first year of the RDS was a tremendous success and we are proud to have contributed to the improvement of the lives of so many animals in the down supply chain,” said Adam Mott, director of sustainability, The North Face. “We are excited to see such rapid adoption of the standard through the commitment of brands and suppliers inside and outside of our industry. The update of the RDS will strengthen an already effective, successful standard and we commend Textile Exchange for their tireless work in leading the way.”
RDS 2.0 remains open for a 30-day public comment period until Feb. 19.