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  • George Kingston

Sustainability Series: Down vs. Synthetic

There are many factors to take into consideration when choosing sleeping bag or winter jacket. Just about everyone on the hunt for a sleeping bag—whether you’re brand new or have owned a few—has perused a pros and cons list of down vs. synthetic insulating materials. When making decisions on which of the two best suits our style of adventure, we often consider things like: price tag, warmth, water-resistance, compressibility, and longevity. While these elements are essential to choosing the right gear, we sometimes forget a key question in our assessment of the two materials. Which one is more sustainable on the whole?

Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano.

Down vs. Synthetic Insulation: What’s the Difference?

Down insulation consists of soft, wispy fibers from the plumage of ducks and geese. It is all-natural, light-weight, and highly compressible (i.e. it packs down small, which is ideal for lightweight sleeping bags). Down is very durable and can maintain its ability to insulate for decades. As a result, down tends to be more expensive than synthetic. On the downside, down materials tend to clump up and lose their insulating abilities when wet.

Synthetic insulation on the other hand is made up of polyester fibers that replicate the qualities of down. Lab tested, synthetic is water-resistant—it continues to insulate even when wet. It is heavier than down, slightly less durable, and typically does not pack down as small. Synthetic is the more affordable option, about half the price of down when it comes to sleeping bags.

Now that these basic facts are squared away, let’s get to the question at hand…

The Case Against Down

The major knock against down as a sustainable material is its unethical treatment of ducks and geese. Down is traditionally produced one of two ways, either by live plucking or after slaughter. Live plucking, the more painful and cruel method, entails restraining and plucking geese and ducks while they are still alive multiple times over their lifetime. The more common form of harvesting down is plucking waterfowl after they have been slaughtered for meat, which involves dropping them into scalding water after they are killed to easen the plucking process. And while companies like The North Face have implemented industry-shifting requirements for ethically sourced down, the majority of global down production still takes place in China where animal cruelty standards are less stringent.

Depending on your views on animal ethics, these practices are at best cruel and at worst immoral. In any case, we as sustainably-minded consumers must take into account the impact of our retail purchases on the animals from which these products are derived.

Of course, the carbon footprint of raising, feeding, and transporting waterfowl also has an impact on down’s case for sustainability, albeit a smaller one compared to synthetic. Unfortunately though, even so-called ethically sourced down licenses the down industry to write off the negative sustainability effects (e.g. carbon footprint) as a byproduct of the global meat industry (i.e. the animals would be raised for slaughter anyway). Personally, I find that argument to be about as lame as a lame duck, but it is nonetheless what down sourcers say when questioned about the sustainability of their (exploitative) practices.

The Case Against Synthetic

The other side of the coin isn’t much prettier—buying brand new synthetic insulated products won’t boost your sustainability points. What it will do is increase your carbon footprint. After all, synthetic materials are just that… synthetic! They are derived from petroleum, meaning they require crude oil to be extracted from the earth, refined, and then further processed before it can be manufactured into the synthetics we know and (kind of) love. Each step along this cycle requires energy, most of which is also still derived from fossil fuels. Pretty much every step synthetics take, every move they make…requires CO2 combustion.

A proper life cycle analysis of any product takes into account the energy footprint associated with the extraction, refinement, manufacturing, and transportation of said product. So, the overall sustainability of your synthetic insulation sleeping bag is measured not only by the contents of the bag but also by the process of getting it to you, from the raw material extraction phase all the way up to your purchase. In this case, that’s a knock against synthetic insulation, because it requires more energy-intensive extraction and refinement than its down counterpart, especially if you buy the argument from before that down harvesting is a tangential byproduct of the much-more-massive meat industry.

So, all things considered, which is better, down or synthetic?

Given the ethical and environmental concerns with buying brand new down and synthetic insulation, the most sustainable alternative is Pre-loved Down.

Pre-loved down is categorized as gently-used, well-taken-care-of down insulated products, such as previously-owned sleeping bags and jackets. Down products are made to last for decades, especially when well cared for, which in this case means: storing them uncompressed (i.e. hung up rather than stuffed down), washing only when needed, and drying on air with a few tennis balls inside the machine (to prevent the down from clumping up). The same goes for down jackets!

Many outdoor adventurists have taken great care of their down, and as a result there is a plethora of well-kept responsibly-used down gear out there waiting to find a new home and be put to good use. Buying pre-loved down is a great compromise between upgrading to a new insulated sleeping bag or jacket—it’ll be new to you!—and ensuring your purchase is as sustainable as can be.

The Major Takeaway

As environmentally-conscious consumers, it is important to remember that most times purchasing new gear is not the most sustainable option, even when it’s marketed as such. If you currently own a synthetic insulated sleeping bag (like I do), hold onto it. Love it. Take good care of it for as long as you can. And when the time comes to retire it, consider passing it on to a loved one who’s looking to get into camping/backpacking or to someone in need.

If you’re looking to re-up your sleeping bag or jacket, pre-loved down is the most sustainable place to look. If you already own a fully functional sleeping bag that meets your needs, the absolute most sustainable thing to do is to take good care of it and keep it in use for as long as it still serves its purpose.

Who knows, perhaps you—yes, you reading this right now!—will develop the next best super-sustainable insulation material that helps the outdoor gear market transition to a greener future.

About the Author

George Kingston is an all-out outdoorsperson. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Sustainability Science & Practice from Stanford University. His training has motivated him to advocate for greater sustainability and accessibility within outdoor activities. These days, George is working as an actor and screenwriter to depict our relationships with the natural world.

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