The puffer jacket: the too-practical-to-resist staple that seems to be the only defence against the cold.

Emerging last year as the biggest outerwear trend – seen on runways from Stella McCartney to Balenciaga and Sydney’s P.E Nation – many of us own one filled with duck or goose down. But few understand the cruelty often involved with stuffing them.

Ever heard of live-plucking? It’s exactly as it sounds – a painful process used to gather down, which are the feathers closest to a bird's skin. The process is performed when the bird is alive and involves plucking feathers from its chest. The bird is then returned to the pen, often with skin injuries, until the feathers grow back and can be plucked again. Some farms have been found to live-pluck birds up to four times a year.

Despite claims from retailers that the practice is being phased out, a number of PETA investigations found it still occurs on many farms.

Marcus Müller, an expert from international animal protection charity Four Paws, says every year approximately one million geese are plucked alive for their feathers and down in Europe.

What’s a conscious consumer to do?

The first step is to look for a retailer that has been accredited by a respected anti-cruelty body, which ensures animals are only plucked after slaughter – such down is a by-product of the meat industry – and have not been force-fed.

Four Paws ranks various retailers’s own certifications and efforts to ensure cruelty-free down. Top-ranked is Swedish outdoor company Fjallraven, followed by Patagonia, Mountain Equipment, The North Face, Germany’s Deuter and New Zealand's Kathmandu. At the bottom? US label Marmot.

Australian label Mountain Designs has also had select puffer jackets approved by the RDS, which assures its down and feathers come from ducks and geese that were not plucked alive.

Uniqlo, the fast-fashion peddler of affordable puffer jackets, doesn’t specify how its down is collected and doesn’t have independent auditing of its down suppliers. But it did tell digital magazine Quartz that its suppliers are required to sign an agreement to not use down from live-plucked, force-fed birds.

Four Paws credits Patagonia’s Traceable Down Standard as one of the best assurances against live-plucking. Since early 2017, Patagonia’s products have also met a second standard – NSF’s Global Traceable Down Standard (NSF is an American product testing and certification company). The TDS includes unannounced audits on down suppliers.

The RDS (Responsible Down Standard) is a third-party certification that’s been adopted by companies including The North Face, Kathmandu, H&M, Levi’s and Macpac. But even RDS has faced criticism. In December 2016, PETA Australia called consumers to boycott Kathmandu’s down jackets, pointing to evidence of live-plucking at farms in China connected to RDS- certified companies.

RDS has released a public statement on behalf of the New Zealand company, labelling PETA’s claims as incorrect.

Kathmandu’s textile, R&D and responsible materials manager, Manu Rastogi, tells Broadsheet the company most recently visited its down farms and slaughterhouses in April this year. “Independent, third-party certification bodies inspect each part of our supply chain: farms, collectors, slaughterhouses, down processors and garment factories on an annual basis,” Rastogi says.

PETA Australia’s press officer Laura Weyman-Jones says the organisation stands by its claims against RDS, and advocates for animal-free stuffing alternatives.

“We appreciate that companies want to develop a more transparent down supply chain, but the reality is the down industry will never be rid of rampant cruelty, no matter what standards are put into place,” she says. “Birds who are not plucked alive still spend their entire lives in crowded, filthy conditions on factory farms.”

It’s worth noting that consistent heat from animal welfare groups is what got many companies scrambling for a down standard in the first place. Such was the case with Patagonia back in 2011. Even luxury Italian company Moncler (whose puffers sell for up to $2000) landed in hot water in 2014 after a TV programme accused it of using live-plucking. The company implemented its DIST (Down Integrity System and Traceability) in 2015 and called in independent inspectors to tighten anti-cruelty checks.

If you’re feeling confused about which labels to trust, we don’t blame you. Companies are still working towards improving the conditions of their convoluted down supply chain. The best option is to do away with down altogether next time you're in the market for some outerwear, and opt for a synthetic version. Otherwise, go with a brand that at minimum has an anti-cruelty standard on down sourcing.

Alternatively, if you have $10,000 EUR to spare, you can (make like Putin) and go for a custom-made puffer stuffed with the naturally shed down of the eider duck.

This article was updated on December 5, 2018.