Geese and Chickens – Down Lowdown Part 2

Post by blogger | August 30, 2012      

[See part 1]

When is down insulation like ski boots? Answer: when they play the numbers game. Take ski boots. Companies come up with boot flex ratings like “130.” Dig into it, and you’ll find some companies seem to be picking their flex numbers out of somewhat thin air — no firm industry-wide standard exists.

Down insulation numbers are a bit better than boot ratings in that if you can at least send your bird fibers out for standardized testing at the IDFL. But how many companies throw numbers like “900 fill” out there, yet don’t actually get their down tested themselves, consistently? That’s where the whole thing is similar to boot flex ratings.

In other words, you’re shopping for a boot, the sales person says “That monster is a 140!.” How do you know for sure?

Mainly, if they say your jacket has 800 fill, just make sure it's not really filled with this stuff.

Mainly, if the sales gal says your jacket is puffed with 800-fill primo, just make sure it's not really filled with this stuff.

You buy the story about the boots, then the sales person catches your glance at a rack of expensive down-filled puff jackets. “Along with those 140 boots, how about a jacket with 900 fill!” says the bubbling clerk like you’ll achieve samadhi just by touching the thing, and if you buy it, well, off the charts bliss!

Again, how in the heck do you know that jacket is actually filled with that kind of down, or even 800 or 700 rated fill? Granted, truth in advertising laws apply, and a big brand has lots riding on not getting their PR story straying too much from reality. Also, laws pertaining to sleeping bag and jacket fill do exist, though it’s obvious by the lack of tags inside many jackets that such laws are rarely obeyed or enforced. More, such laws appear to define things in a somewhat broad fashion that isn’t helpful in, say, comparing one 800+ fill jacket to another that supossedly has the same fill. See an example of fill laws here.

As far as I can tell, laws regarding bedding (sleeping bag) fill are a bit stricter than you have to apply to a plumage filled jacket. Yet in both cases there seems to be a rather bogus minimal legal standard of what the word “down” means, as defined by the percentage of down vs feathers. For example see the Canadian plumage product standards. They define “down” as still allowing 25% feathers, such fill would be something like 500 or less on the Lorch test and totally unacceptable for a high performance “down” filled parka of the kind we expect to be sold for activities such as backcountry skiing.

As consumers, the question of exactly what quality down you’re paying hundreds of dollars for should be easier to answer. Mainly, if a manufacturer is making claims, in my opinion their down would have to be independently tested and somehow certified and communicated beyond what is required by law. The provenience of that test should be stated on a hang tag or at least in their catalog, not tested to be “900 fill” by the economically biased down supplier, and definitely not tested in-house by the manufacturer (other than to verify independent testing.)

A good example of “mystery certification” issue is Marmot’s web page about their down. They claim their down is “certified,” but go on to explain they test it themselves. Without some digging I could find no reference to who “certifies” Marmot’s down fill, then I hit upon product pages that mention they get their down tested by IDFL, so good, but is there some kind of certification certificate they need to be sharing, or at least a product hang tag? It’s all mysterious and vague.

I then looked at Western Mountaineering’s website. They’re known for their beautiful down-filled gear but I couldn’t find information about fill power certification or testing.

I emailed Western Mountaineering, and they replied that “It is a three part verification process. The supplier has the batches tested. We visually inspect each bag [of down] by hand and use our more than 40 years of experience with down to visually check it. We also send random samples to IDFL for testing.” Excellent, but why did I have to dig for the information, and how many random samples do they actually send to IDFL?

Outdoor Research makes some nice down filled goodies, but don’t provide much info about their down. It took some digging, but the following came back from their PR folks, sourced from R & D at at Outdoor Research:

“Outdoor Research uses the industry’s two foremost down suppliers. They have internal auditing processes as well as tracking methods that allow OR internally to trace the down supply back to each specific farm. In addition, OR uses independent testing labs, specifically IDFL, ITS, and SGS to verify down quality. At this point, OR is not making a public statement about this at the consumer level, but certainly they could (since all the mechanisms are in place) if that’s something consumers begin to demand/want to see.”

From what I’ve learned, the only totally accurate way to verify the fill power for a batch of down is to independently test every batch, or even several parts of a batch. Otherwise, if you claim an actual fill power number you are guessing to at least some degree or are using in-house testing that could have serious bias issues. In the case of no independent testing, it would be fair to call the stuff something like “premium fill power down,” but to actually place a number on it when it hasn’t been tested third-party independently is perhaps disingenuous.

Moving along, we have the example of Mountain Equipment, who due to what they say is consumer demand in Europe are using their Down Codex as a big part of their marketing story. ME’s Down Codex gives you a serial number that allows you to track down-fill from the source to the exact jacket or sleeping bag you buy. That includes fill testing and how the source birds are treated. That’s pretty extreme in my opinion, but it shows you how far this could go and is perhaps where it should be. After all, plumage products involve everything from animal welfare to truth-in-advertising, so something that truly cuts through any bull could be the way things should go.

At least Marmot, Western Mountaineering and Outdoor Research say they use IDFL to some degree (others probably do as well, but that’s as far as my informal survey went). But the landscape is still a bit bleak when it comes to information. You can google like a maniac, and in the case of most companies making plumage products for backcountry skiers you’ll find nearly zilch about any sort of independent testing for down fill power. And again, you won’t find anything specific on the jacket hang tags or internal sewn labels.

The question is, will we North American consumers of down filled products open our wallets to companies who tout certifications or even complete supply chain documentation such as Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex? Or will we just glance at a jacket or sleeping bag, figure it looks puffy enough to be the so called “XXX” power fill, figure that geese are just geese, and buy it? Time will tell.

One last thing for my down rant. All the down experts I spoke with told me the practical limit for fill power is best termed as “850+,” meaning the down shows at least an 850 on the Lorch test, and perhaps more. I was told that claiming down as “900 fill” is perhaps in many cases disingenuous, since it’s actually fairly rare for down to consistently perform to 900 in the Lorch cylinder. An example of claiming 900 fill can be found at Marmot, with no explanation on how or where their down is “certified” to be 900 fill.

The issue with 850+ vs 900 arises because of the way down is “manufactured.” Creating various fill powers of down is done by starting with a pile of feathers and down that were removed en mass from the birds (usually geese slaughtered for food, of which down is actually a byproduct). The mix is placed in a large machine that produces an air current and “blows” the various grades of down to different levels or distances. The fluffiest stuff flies the farthest. That’s the 850+ down, some of which perhaps goes to 900, but calling it 850+ is much more fair to the consumer. So like the amplifier that goes to 11 but works pretty much the same at 10, 850+ down is the same thing as 900. Industry wide, I’ve noticed that the term 850+ is frequently used. Good. But marketing is marketing, and numbers are numbers, so you can bet it’s very tempting to eek out a 900 on a Lorch Test then be able to shout about your 900 fill down.

Get ready for winter and shop for it!


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8 Responses to “Geese and Chickens – Down Lowdown Part 2”

  1. Mark Worley August 30th, 2012 11:35 am

    Word on the (retail) street is that Euros and Chinese are scarcely eating geese now, and with an uptick in everyone needing a wildly-baffled, sculpted puffy jacket, the price of goose down is going to continue to go up. Solution, perhaps, is that duck down may be entering the picture more and more.

  2. Lou Dawson August 30th, 2012 1:50 pm

    Mark, according to guys at IDFL, goose and duck down can essentially provide the same insulation per unit weight, but the duck down is a bit less compressible. Mainly, duck down has a consumer stigma and is hard to sell, even in high quality versions. Interestingly, duck down has smaller down clusters that actually work better in applications where the down needs to creep in and fill smaller voids, such as in a sewn-through narrow-tube type of jacket.

  3. BG August 30th, 2012 3:52 pm

    Are people finding this lack of clear disclosure to be a problem? I mean, are many people buying a $800 -40deg down sleeping bag from any established outdoor gear company (TNF, Mtn Hardware, Marmot, Western Mountaineering…..) coming back and claiming their bag wasn’t as warm as advertised?
    Seems to me when at the highest end of the scale, a company is likely to deliver. Where we might see more abuse of the numbers would more likely be in the mid levels when the difference between, say, 200 – 500 fill power could be a little more vague and cutting some corners might add to the bottom line. But at the same time, might not be that crucial, either.
    I’m not convinced that this is really that big of a problem, that’s all. And as Lou found out through his digging, the three names he mentioned are actually getting third-party verification anyways, even if they’re not overtly advertising it. That tells me two things – one, their products, when used for their intended activities, deliver as promised, and because of this, there hasn’t been a real need for companies to order up the neon sign.

  4. Lou Dawson August 30th, 2012 4:50 pm

    BG, that’s exactly the question I ended up asking. Does this matter? But there is definitely room for abuse.

    As for the third party verification, in most cases you’re simply taking the manufacturers word for it, that’s another point I was trying to make. If you believe them, fine, but anyone knows that in the world of manufacturing you can’t believe everything, that’s why we have standards laws and enforcement (and yes, I’m not a fan of too much government, but I’m a realist and see the need for regulation to a certain degree.)

    Yeah, perhaps this is a non-issue and I’m just bringing up a bunch of possibly (or marginally) interesting details about our gear. On the other hand, what if someone in China decided to start a brand of down gear that was essentially a knock-of of say, Western Mountaineering, and claimed all their gear had “800+” down that was “independently verified by IDFL?” Would you believe them, even though they could be getting one out of every 100 batches of down “verified,” then buying 700 fill the other 99 times and using it in their jackets? See the potential problem?

  5. BG August 31st, 2012 10:35 am

    Good points, Lou. And I think we’re probably mostly in agreement. I’ll add two points. First, in relation to your point about some unscrupulous knock-off sneaking 700 into an “800” marked garment, I’d like to believe something would give it away – either the price would be too low, weight would be off or performance wouldn’t match up to similarly marked gear. In any of those cases, gear heads like you and me and a lot of folks who visit this website are likely to sniff it out and get the word out (blogs, forums, gear reviews, customer reviews on retail websites…) And in cases like that, a company would end up self-selecting themselves out of the “reputable brand” club and become known for their exaggerated claims. At least I’d like to believe that. Further, for the people who wouldn’t be as nerdy about such things as us, I just don’t think it would matter that much, and it would hit a price-point. People who are demanding of their gear simply wouldn’t buy it.

    And that brings me to my other point, which I’m really glad you touched on, which is government regulation. Seems to me that we’re talking about a perfect example of a situation where the unregulated system actually already works. I mean, let’s face it – the only thing outdoor gear companies have to go on is their reputation. Would you, or any demanding user, buy a “Brand X, Gov Certified” jacket over something from OR, simply because it had that sticker on it? I’m more likely to buy something that says Patagonia than Certified simply because I have grown to trust their gear, the performance, quality and service. A product from “Brand X” may have a gov certified 800 fill, but be built like junk and in the same way as above, the word would get out that it’s a garbage product. Sure, it may have official status for fill power, but if it’s not built to the standards that the competition is building, they’re not going to last. And if it’s a good quality product anyways, then they shouldn’t need the “certified” sticker – the gear, their quality and service should speak for itself.
    All if this is just to say that in this case, (and I’d argue the same for countless other examples in our over-regulated world), regulation would seem to be an unnecessary expense and hassle for the companies who are already putting out a quality product, and wouldn’t add benefit to the consumer. Any situation where the consumer ends up “regulating” products, as you are currently doing with your research and diligence into this issue, is in my mind, the best kind of regulation. Have a great weekend!

  6. gillesleskieur September 6th, 2012 3:00 am

    I think i remember somthing very specific about down and stuff on the Valandre web site…

  7. stephen September 10th, 2012 6:41 pm

    “Our down is proudly tested and certified by Nigel Tufnel.” 🙂

  8. Lou Dawson September 10th, 2012 7:01 pm

    BG, there might of been a bit of devil’s advocate going on with my presentation. I’m not a big fan of government regulations, though I do see the need for such things in any civilization. Perhaps our civilization can continue without more government regulations pertaining to feathers (grin). Lou

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