Insulated jackets – more ethical than Down feather?

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Synthetic insulated jackets are overtaking Down feather – right?

A colleague at work was enthusiastically telling me about a blog that she had read recently. It basically said that the technological advances in synthetic insulation for clothing, such as 3M Thinsulate Featherless®, Primaloft Thermoball™ and Primaloft ThermoPlume synthetic insulation which imitate the structure of down, mean they provide the same warmth to weight ratio as feather but without the negative effects, namely wetting out.

What is jacket insulation?

The goal of insulated is to trap warm air between two layers of fabric, thus providing a warm layer of air which acts as a barrier against heat loss from the body to the atmosphere. At the same time it still allows the body to ‘breath’, so that they do not create too much moisture and end up soaking wet.

So far, the best way to do this without making a jacket too heavy, is to use nature’s own very effective insulating material, duck or goose down feather. Down feather is the special feather closest to the bird’s body which are especially designed to provide warmth for the bird. The down is protected by the longer ‘waterproof’ outer feathers.

Unfortunately, until recently manufacturers have had problems finding a method of substituting those waterproof outer feathers with a fully waterproof fabric. If you wear a down jacket in the rain, the down will become soaked, will compact, and looses it’s ability to hold the warm air.

Step up to the line synthetic insulation. Synthetic materials will not compact when wet. They are not waterproof as such, but the synthetically insulated jacket will still keep you “warm when wet”. However, synthetic insulation is slightly heavier than down, and it will not fold up as compactly in your bag as a down jacket or possibly last as long.

Down feather vs synthetic jacket trade-off

Wearers typically either go for light and compact down jackets that cannot be worn in the rain, or slightly heavier synthetic insulated jackets that are less packable in a bag, but will keep you warm if you get caught out on a wet day.

As in most things in life though, the goal is to achieve the best of both worlds. The lightest, warmest jacket possible that will keep you warm even if it gets wet, and take up as little room as possible in your bag.

Loose fill synthetic insulation vs Hydrophobic DownI

Hydrophobic Down or HydroDown is natural goose or duck down that has been treated with a durable water repellent substance, which stops the down from compacting when it becomes wet so it does not lose its thermal insulation ability. Even better, a fully waterproof, breathable fabric has been developed, so you can have a fully waterproof jacket that is warm, light and packable.

Loose fill synthetic insulation such as 3M Featherless® or thermoball®, is a synthetic insulation that mimics the structure of down. So it is light, packable and will maintain its structure when wet. Again, with a waterproof outer fabric, you get a fully waterproof, warm, breathable jacket.

Spot the difference? – no, me neither.

Will synthetic insulation become an ethical choice over Down feather?

What will become the deciding factor when looking for an insulated jacket? Well it might be the colour or the style, but my question is, “Will it be an ethical choice?”.

Down is a natural material taken from birds. Most leading clothing manufacturers now sign up to the ‘Responsible Down Standard’. This is an independent, voluntary, global standard that ensures that the birds are treated well. Developed three years ago by animal welfare groups, industry experts, brands and retailers, members of the RDS uphold the five freedoms of the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

These are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress.

Feathers are not taken from live birds or birds that have been force fed. There is also a chain of custody enforced that follows the the down from farm to product.

This is all very impressive you might say, but animals are still being killed for our benefit. Many people such as vegetarians have strong views on such matters which are to be respected. I assume that the birds are initially farmed and killed for their meat and that the down is a by-product, does this make it is a natural resource?

On those grounds many will chose a synthetic jacket, but lets think about this. Synthetic insulation is made from polyester. Polyester is formed by a chemical process from the base product of oil (very crudely!). In a world of diminishing resources and increasing pollution, maybe it is better to choose a natural product for your insulated jacket, than one that comes as a by-product from a process.

I am not trying to influence your opinion one way or the other, I simply thought that it is an interesting ethical question when deciding which type of insulated jacket to chose.

Being outdoors is being human, unfortunately we do not naturally have feathers or fur, so we need some form of insulated covering to keep us warm, the choice is yours.


Read two reviews on a synthetically insulated jacket and a hydrophobic down jacket.

Rab Nimbus Insulated Jacket Review

What are the best down jackets from Mountain Equipment?

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Content Writer

I have loved walking in the in the great outdoors as long as I can remember, weather is not an issue and any landscape is a new adventure. Personal details:- Height 5'10"(1.78m), Wt 12st10oz(81kg) Chest 41"(104cm) Trouser size 32"W,32"L, Baselayer/midlayer size medium. Hardshell layer size large.