Are down pillows ethical? Find out how this luxury filling is sourced

Down pillows are a comfortable choice, but the way they can be produced might disturb your sleep. Discover the inside story

bedroom with blue and white bedding
(Image credit: Future PLC)

Down pillows are prized for their comfort. The lightweight filling compresses under the weight of the sleeper’s head to create a soft but supportive surface that springs back after use, making them durable, too. 

But choosing the best pillows if you are concerned about animal welfare isn’t just about the way they feel. How the birds whose down becomes your pillow filling are treated is going to be crucial to whether you pick them – or give them a miss and opt for a pillow with a different filling instead.

To help you decide whether you team the best mattress with down pillows, we’re taking a look at how the down is obtained and whether they can be an ethical choice.

Are down pillows ethical?

Down is an attractive choice as a filling for everything from cold weather jackets and sleeping bags to comforters and, of course, pillows. And qualities such as warmth, lightness and the way in which it compresses then springs back make down a popular choice in all these products. You might also like the idea of pillows with down because you’ll be sleeping in proximity to a natural rather than synthetic filling.

But whether down can be sourced in a way that is ethical is the crucial question for many people. It’s an issue because much commercial down comes from birds which are live-plucked, or those that are kept to standards you may not think are adequate as part of the meat industry, which encompasses birds force fed so their livers can be used for foie gras. 

So can you avoid down that’s produced in these ways if you want to? And what are the alternatives if you’d rather skip it entirely? 

Luxury bedding - pillows

(Image credit: Future)

Ethical down certifications

There are ethical down certifications, and products with these accreditations mean birds have not been live-plucked nor force fed. 

‘There is a Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and a Global Traceable Down Standard (GTDS), which both confirm farms are producing down from birds without harm,’ explains Louise Oliphant, bedding and mattress expert at Homes & Gardens

‘They also comply with the five freedoms of animal welfare,’ Louise continues. These are freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

The two standards aren’t quite the same, though. ‘The difference between these two certifications is with a GTDS stamp, you’ll be able to find out where the down was sourced, making the manufacturing processes as transparent as possible,’ says Louise.

Look out, too, for the standard Downpass, which also requires that down does not come from live-plucked or force-fed birds.

What to do before buying

If you want to avoid down pillows that may have fillings which have been live-plucked or taken from birds that are force fed, then check before you buy.

‘Most, if not all, pillows will come with a care label,’ says Louise. ‘Either here or on the brand’s website you’ll find whether the down pillow you are interested in has the relevant ethical certifications listed above.’

What if you want to avoid down pillows?

While ethical certification may provide you with adequate reassurance, you might still be concerned about using down because it involves farming of birds with all the attendant welfare considerations. However, there are alternatives that can create the same feel with no birds necessary. And there can be other benefits to bypassing the down option in store or online.

‘After trying feather-filled pillows for myself, I found I suffered from home-fever – think hayfever but all year round, and only at night when you’re trying to sleep,’ says Louise Oliphant, bedding and mattress expert at Homes & Gardens

‘But I loved how comfortable they were to sleep on. The solution? Down-alternative or “just like down” pillows. They’re made of synthetic fibers like polyester or microfiber and honestly feel just as plush. They’re also relatively cheap compared to natural pillows and can be washed in the washing machine.’

Do vegans use down pillows?

A down pillow definitely wouldn’t be a suitable choice for a bed for those who are vegan. The down is an animal product (birds obviously count as ‘animals’ for vegans), which they avoid not just in what they eat, but also what they wear, and the products they select for their homes amongst other things. 

For vegans, pillows made with synthetic fillings can meet the need for a soft yet comfortable and supportive option.

Are feather pillows ethical?

The feathers for pillows are typically from ducks and geese, just like down for pillows. The difference between feather and down is where on the bird it’s gathered from. Feathers come from the wings and back of the bird while down is found below these feathers and closer to the skin.

Feather pillows come with the same ethical questions as down pillows in that commercial supplies from the meat industry may be the result of live-plucking or from birds that are force fed. 

To avoid pillows made with the feathers of ducks and geese that have suffered this treatment choose those certified under the Responsible Down Standard, the Global Traceable Down Standard, or the Downpass label.

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.