Down Insulation as first choice for Outdoor Apparel Manufacturers

Synopsis

Since down became the insulation of choice for many outdoor apparel manufacturers, this avenue of their supply chains has come under increased public scrutiny (Milman, 2016; Stirling, 2017). Increased exposure of widespread use of down from live-plucked and force-fed geese and ducks paved the way for new Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices in the apparel industry to ensure that down was sourced from ethical suppliers. This report for the outdoor clothing and equipment industry highlights why the ethics of down supply chains are of importance and shows the advantage which stands to be gained from organisations participating in CSR practices, relevant to this issue. A case study of Mountain Equipment is utilised to demonstrate the arguments raised.

Introduction

The detrimental effect of unethical supply chains on organisations’ reputations and revenues is widely noted (Roberts, 2003; Eccles, Newquist, Schatz, 2007; Newing, 2012). The same holds true for the outdoor clothing and equipment industry (Harris, 2016). In an era of increased consumer scrutiny, it is critical that an organisation’s supply chains remain transparent, ethical and sustainable (New, 2010; Webb, 2015; Hancock, 2017). Once primarily for use in the harshest winter environments and by outdoor enthusiasts, the sale of down insulated jackets has taken off in a UK-wide trend (Cochrane, 2017). With the growing popularity of these jackets and the high prices demanded for them –costing as much as £500 (Mountain Equipment, 2018a; Rab, 2018) – it is of increasing importance that the consumer feels their garment has an ethical foundation (Hancock, 2017). In 2014, Patagonia released a short promotional video entitled ‘What the Pluck?’ exposing the inhumane treatment of waterfowl used for so-called ‘conventional down’ (i.e. unethically sourced). Drawing on a range of academic theory, news articles, and industry publications, this report will seek to explore the extent of the problem of unethically sourced down in the outdoor industry, and evaluate the steps being taken to mitigate this issue. Finally, this report will offer some insight into the benefits of CSR practices to the outdoor industry.

Unethical Down: What’s the Issue?

Its light weight, superior compacting ability, and warmth trapping capabilities make down more suited to a number of environments than synthetic materials (Rab, 2018). New technologies allow the down to be treated to retain water resistant tendencies, making it arguably more useful than synthetic alternatives (Rab, 2018). As technology appears to lag well behind nature in the case of insulating materials, there is a clear need to continue the use of down in specialist clothing. Therefore, it is critical to strive to improve transparency in this nuanced avenue of the industry, to promote good practice and ensure the sustainability of ethical supply chains.

International supply chains are infamously complex networks which prove difficult to navigate and assess (McBarnet & Kurkichiyan, 2009). Technological advances have improved the ability of the consumer, and the buying company, to track the input materials. However, it is increasingly difficult to trace products, especially from developing economies (New, 2010). This inability to fully trace products to their origins masks the extent of environmental, social and ethical issues within supply chains (Webb, 2015).

Most of the world’s down is produced in Asia, with China alone producing around 80% of world’s down (Stirling, 2017). The economic, political and geographical scale of China, makes regulating supply chains centred here, particularly difficult, especially for an industry based in Europe and the US (Stirling, 2017). However, it can be argued that it is the duty of all companies procuring down, to prevent the production of unethical down. A 2012 exposé by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the non-profit foundation set up to protect animal rights, found that even so-called ‘responsible down’ producers in Asia were live-plucking their birds. According to PETA’s survey, one farm was found to be responsible for an estimated 250,000 live-pluckings annually, despite ethical certification (PETA, 2018a). Live-plucking refers to the plucking of waterfowl’s feathers, without sedation or pain killers (PETA, 2018a) – a process done whilst the birds are alive due to their primary purpose for the food industry (Patagonia, 2018). This highlights the scale of the animal rights issue of the unethical treatment of waterfowl used for down.

Mountain Equipment: A Case Study

Though there is no specific government legislation in the UK preventing the use of unethically sourced down from other countries; a host of soft law (non-legally binding) has come into play in the outdoor industry over the past decade – in the form of voluntary codes of conduct (Mountain Equipment, 2018b; Patagonia, 2018; The North Face, 2018). Mountain Equipment are a valid selection for this case study due their extensive range of down products (Mountain Equipment 2018a). Their position as a national favourite (GoOutdoors, 2017) has forced Mountain Equipment to remain at the forefront of a proactive campaign to regulate the industry’s down supply chains – starting with their own (Stirling, 2017). It is generally accepted that organisations with most customers within a market are expected to use their influence to combat humanitarian, environmental, social and ethical issues (Millington, 2008; Hancock, 2017). Therefore, Mountain Equipment’s own code of ethics, DOWN CODEX, established in 2009, can be taken as exemplarily of the industry (Mountain Equipment, 2018b) DOWN CODEX presents a code of ethics which suppliers must agree to comply with in order to continue to supply Mountain Equipment (Mountain Equipment, 2018c). The code bans the unethical treatment of waterfowl, such as live-plucking and force-feeding (Mountain Equipment, 2018c). Although this code, like that of Patagonia’s Traceable Down Standard, the industry Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and Global Traceable Down Standard, evokes a contractual relationship between two parties (NSF, 2017; Patagonia, 2018; The North Face, 2018). The DOWN CODEX presents a legally binding contract between Mountain Equipment and their suppliers (Mountain Equipment, 2018c). However, the ability to impose sanctions for breaking this contracts is limited to the two parties, significantly limiting the incentive to abide by the contract due to a lack of criminal prosecution (McBarnet & Kurkichiyan, 2009). With primarily a threat of contract termination by one buyer, it might be argued by some suppliers that this is not enough incentive to operate in line with the outlined rules of said codes due to the ease in defrauding buyers – particularly in such poorly regulated emerging markets (Egels-Zandén, 2007; PETA, 2018a).

Mountain Equipment, like many other outdoor apparel and equipment companies, carry out audits of their supply chain through an intermediary body (Mountain Equipment, 2018c). The International Down and Feather Testing Laboratory (IDFL) or The Control Union are the two bodies commissioned to carry out audits on Mountain Equipment’s supply chains by visiting the supplying farms and slaughterhouses on a triennial basis (Mountain Equipment, 2018c). However, it must be noted that much of the audit information, and the information on the ongoing updates of the DOWN CODEX process is from 2016 (Mountain Equipment, 2016), therefore the information may be significantly out of date. Therefore, the consumer must view available information critically. To the credit of their integrity, Mountain Equipment’s board of directors acknowledge that audits and codes do not provide unequivocal accuracy or certainty (Stirling, 2017). The acknowledgement that this voluntary code may not be effective to the level it was intended may be a sure sign that, in line with Legitimacy Theory, organisations are driven by the need to be seen to satisfy their most influential stakeholders (Deegan, 2014). This strategic alteration to the perceptions of stakeholders is thought to lead to enhanced favour with the consumer (Deegan, 2014). An organisation is thought to seek to “gain, maintain or repair their legitimacy” by improving their reporting practices (Mousa & Hassan, 2015: 41). This practice can be seen across the outdoor industry with a self-proclaimed increase in transparency of their down supply chains (Mountain Equipment, 2018b; Patagonia, 2018; The North Face, 2018).

The outdoor industry believe they have found the answer to this issue of transparency in the form of the traceability of their down (Stirling, 2017). Mountain Equipment’s Trace Your Down function allows the customer to track their down, back to its origins, gain access to audit records and access reports on most stages of the relevant supply chain (Mountain Equipment, 2018b). The wealth of information provided by this one-step function from Mountain Equipment shows the brand’s commitment to transparency in this avenue of CSR practice (Mountain Equipment, 2018d). The candid presentation of the pitfalls of farms and slaughterhouses in the supply chain, such as the requirement to take corrective actions to ensure full compliance with DOWN CODEX (Mountain Equipment, 2018d) may lead to a sense of trust from the consumer. This is because one might argue it suspicious if only positive information was presented. The industry might benefit from presenting this information more visibly in order to encourage consumer engagement.

Despite the popularity within the industry for associating with the Responsible Down Standard, the RDS only allows the tracking of down used by a limited number of manufactures through Allied Feather & Down’s Track My Down feature – a slightly more complex and daunting version of DOWN CODEX’s Trace Your Down (Allied, 2018a). More disturbingly, Patagonia does not offer the function of tracing your down product, despite being a worldwide purveyor of these items (Patagonia, 2018). This shows that although attempts are being made to improve transparency, many of these amount to little more than token efforts in an attempt to satisfy the consumer’s expectation. These superficial attempts, however, do prove valuable in the short run due their bolstering of reputations (Turker, 2015).

Self-Regulation: An Evaluation

Due to the dispersed nature of the outdoor equipment and apparel manufacturing companies and the down producers, it is unlikely specific governmental laws will be implemented in order to tackle unethical down (Milman, 2016; Mountain Equipment, 2018c). This is due to the difficulties in enforcing laws, particularly in the emerging markets where much of the down is produced (PETA, 2018a). Therefore, it falls to the industry as well as the individual companies to regulate and mitigate this issue. However, there are a number of issues which arise from self-regulation. Prominently, the use of third party auditors poses some potential risks. IDFL carry out audits on behalf of the parent companies, in accordance with the specified standard – such as DOWN CODEX (IDFL, 2018). However, the oligopoly which IDFL and the National Sanitation Foundation appear to hold in the audit of down supply chains (NSF, 2017; IDFL, 2018; Mountain Equipment, 2018c; Patagonia, 2018) raises some concerns. Most notably, any failure in rigor by these organisations could lead to wide scale repercussions of the procurement of unethical down by an array of companies. Therefore, to ensure the audits are sound, a procedure of a secondary audit of the primary audit carried out by an external provider, may be appropriate.

Though the contracts are binding between parties and may incur financial sanctions for breaching, any parties found in breach of contract cannot be held accountable to a third party (McBarnet & Kurkichiyan, 2009). Therefore, the incentive to follow these contracts and codes are limited. Due to the extent of supply chains (Mountain Equipment, 2018d), codes such as the DOWN CODEX are likely to have an uneven impact across the supply chain (McBarnet & Kurkichiyan, 2009). Though there are often power imbalances within contractual control, one might argue that the outdoor manufacturers hold more power than the suppliers due to the number of substitute suppliers available (Mountain Equipment, 2018d; Allied, 2018b). Thus, the outdoor industry have the ability to utilise this power imbalance to reduce the amount of unethical down entering their supply chains, and thereby pass on further mitigation to other industries such as those producing down-filled bedding. In the meantime, the use and regular audit of voluntary codes, such the DOWN CODEX, may serve to build the legitimacy of the industry in the eyes of the consumer by taking action to improve welfare standards to the level expected by Western consumers (Suchmann, 1995; Deegan, 2014).

CSR Practices: The Economic Benefits

Ultimately, regardless of the moral philosophies underlying an organisation’s choice to engage in CSR, the economic benefits of doing so are evident and long-established (Garriga & Melé, 2004). Long-term investment in CSR practices can be self-fulfilling, as the number of practices engaged in by organisations and the subsequent economic value produced by these (Turker, 2015). Therefore, the corporate engagement in social responsibility can be seen to positively impact the environment, society and the organisation (Turker, 2015). As engagement in CSR is found to be favoured by the consumer (Mintzberg, 1983), companies stand to gain a short-term boost in image and reputation, as well as a long-term increase in revenues from sustained CSR practices (Turker, 2015). As animal welfare appears to becoming of increased importance to consumers (Hancock, 2017), it makes financial sense for the outdoor industry to engage in conversations on this issue with stakeholders, as well as actively implement CSR practices which are proven to make real change in this area (Garriga & Melé, 2004; Seele & Locke, 2015). Reporting is a particularly effective way of communicating these changes with the consumer (Castelló, Morsing & Schultz, 2013). In the case of the manufacture of consumer goods, one might argue that the consumer is the key stakeholder due to their buying power and their influence over revenues. Therefore, to promote their CSR practices in order to influence buyer behaviour, the outdoor industry must be increasingly forthcoming and transparent with their reporting of their supply chain and its audits, as well as to encouraging consumer engagement (Castelló et al., 2013). On an industry level, all companies stand to gain from any communicative action taken to improve the consumer’s understanding of the issue of unethical down and the measures taken to mitigate this (Seele & Locke, 2015). One of the simplest ways to engage with the consumer to better their understanding is through platforms such as social media (Seele & Locke, 2015). Social media allows a wide audience to be reached immediately; a quality reporting lacks (Seele & Locke, 2015).

Concluding Remarks

It is clear from the scale and nature of down production that a centralised law cannot be implemented for the ethical treatment of waterfowl (Milman, 2016). Therefore, it can be argued to be the duty of the industry, with its ability to span borders, to self-regulate this on a national or global scale. Though it can be argued that “ethical” and “unethical” are subjective terms (Crane & Matten, 2010), growing public interests in such CSR issues is undeniable (Hancock, 2017). It is clear that it will reward, financially, to invest in CSR practices which show a real and active step towards the mitigation of unethical down entering the outdoor industry’s supply chain (Caroll, 1991).

Mountain Equipment are just one of a number of major outdoor equipment manufacturers, including The North Face, who only use ducks from small-scale farms (Stirling, 2017; The North Face 2018). Therefore, when considering the organisations with the greatest ability to invoke real change in this area, those who carry the most influence are not necessarily the brands we immediately think of when we see down products. Therefore, there is a real need for the major players in each industry must acknowledge the issue and proactively attempt to combat the effects of their own consumption. Whilst many brands are ceasing to use down in their products (PETA, 2018b), it can be argued that the outdoor industry does not yet have a viable alternative due to the effectiveness of down’s unique properties (Rab, 2018). Therefore, until a suitable replacement is found, efforts must continue to be made to survey and ensure the ethical integrity of the industry’s down supply chains.

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