On Wednesday, The North Face announced the completion of its Responsible Down Standard (RDS), a tool that will provide a global standard through which the outdoor-gear retailer says any organization can evaluate and certify its full down supply chain.
The RDS was developed in partnership with Control Union Certifications, an accredited third-party certification body, and Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the textile industry. The RDS will allow The North Face to audit and ensure the ethical treatment of all animals in its down supply chain and validate all claims through an established chain of custody process.
“The down supply chain is extremely complex and has historically been challenged with limited transparency and traceability,” said Adam Mott, senior manager of sustainability at The North Face.
In early 2013 The North Face, its down suppliers and Control Union traveled to sourcing regions in Eastern Europe and Asia during the primary down-harvesting seasons to inspect hatcheries, farms, slaughterhouses, collectors, pre-processors, processing facilities and garment manufacturers to evaluate the possibility of creating and implementing an animal welfare and traceability standard. Through this research the team began to develop the RDS to provide a process to certify that down does not come from animals that have been subject to any unnecessary harm, such as force-feeding or live-plucking. It also requires a traceability system to validate the original source of down used in The North Face products. In late 2013, The North Face and Control Union organized a pre-pilot audit to confirm the application of these standards were feasible and to introduce the process to a select number of suppliers. This pre-pilot proved successful and the feedback was incorporated into the initial draft of the RDS.
“The North Face brand’s dedication to improving animal welfare and traceability by creating a credible, holistic standard was the driving force that made certain the RDS would be comprehensive and address the entire supply chain for down,” Said Gyorgyi Acs, program manager at Control Union Certifications. “Through its leadership and resources, our team was able to gain access to a number of facilities that previously had little visibility to help create the RDS and follow down as it travels from gosling to jacket.”
The North Face says it was critical to all parties involved that the RDS be developed and offered as a resource to the entire industry. To further develop the standard, a diverse set of organizations including supply chain members, farmers, animal welfare organizations, industry experts and other groups were invited to provide feedback through a formal stakeholder engagement process. This feedback was addressed or incorporated into the final RDS released Wednesday.
The North Face also announced its plan to gift the ownership of the RDS to Textile Exchange. Moving forward, Textile Exchange will have full rights to distribute and update the RDS as it sees fit. “We are giving the Responsible Down Standard to the public in order to provide a holistic tool for any organization seeking to source down more responsibly. Our hope is that the collective use of the RDS will effectively promote positive animal welfare conditions and traceability in the down supply chain at a much larger scale than we could accomplish alone,” said Adam Mott.
Once Textile Exchange takes ownership of the RDS, it will conduct a rapid-review process, where it will gather field data from users as well as feedback from additional industry partners with the goal to release the next version of the RDS within six to 12 months. Both Textile Exchange and The North Face hope that other companies will take part in using the RDS and contributing feedback.
“We applaud The North Face for its efforts and leadership in developing a comprehensive standard that can be applied to the global down supply chain,” said Anne Gillespie, Director of Industry Integrity at Textile Exchange. “We look forward to building on the foundation it has created in the coming months to continue to drive sustainable change in the outdoor and textiles industry.”
Later this year, The North Face will work with its down suppliers and Control Union to conduct the initial application of the RDS across its global supply chain. This will include onsite audits at every level of the supply chain from hatchery to garment manufacturing and will result in a percentage of down that is formally certified and traceable by the requirements of the RDS. This down will be available in its products starting Fall 2015.
Currently down is the lightest, warmest material available on the market that can provide the level of protection needed to survive extreme environments. In the last few years, many outdoor brands have made a push to develop synthetic materials that mimic the insulation properties of down with varying degrees of success. However, down still provides the best warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility that is available to consumers and remains an important part of product technology for many outdoor athletes.
Great companies think alike: Fellow socially conscious outdoor-apparel company Patagonia in November committed to featuring 100 percent Traceable Down across its entire collection of down-insulated products, starting this fall. Six years in the making, Patagonia says its Traceable Down standard provides a robust assurance of sound animal welfare: The company authenticates its down supply chain through a holistic traceability audit, which includes a physical inspection of the entire supply chain from farm to factory, performed by independent, third-party traceability experts.
Patagonia expressed the same hopes as The North Face in that it hopes its standard will inspire other companies to look closely at their own down supply chains and utilize the holistic model it has established for down traceability. The relative effectiveness of the two down standards remains to be seen, but making a variety of tools available to the industry at large can only accelerate wider adoption of more conscious approaches to down sourcing.