Down & feathers

Down and feathers are used commercially in the garment and household linen industries. Down, which is a more valued product, is the very soft feathers from the breasts of geese and ducks (6). Both down and feathers may be obtained through plucking but the majority (90%) is obtained when the birds are slaughtered (most of these birds are intensively reared). China produces around 70% of the world’s down (7). A regular process is to scald the dead bird in hot water for a few minutes after which the course feathers of the wing and tail are removed by hand. The remainder of the feathers and down are removed by hand or a machine. Feathers are then dried. The harvesting of feathers from live geese is seen as an important income from geese being bred for meat or fatty liver (foie gras) production. These birds have to endure plucking at the age of 9-10 weeks, and then every six weeks until they are killed. The yield of feathers and down from each plucking amounts to 80-120 grams.

Eiderdown is the world’s most expensive down and is from the Eider Sea Duck, found principally in Iceland. The wild Eider Sea Duck is protected so to obtain down from these birds only small amounts are removed from their nests while the bird is moulting (7).

Ostriches are farmed for their meat, leather and feathers (1). In the wild ostriches live as long as humans but tend to be slaughtered for their meat at around 13 months (8). There are currently 100 producers in the UK and up to 25 young birds can be kept in 2 hectares (1). They can run up to 40 miles per hour. Ostrich feathers are used for cleaning fine machinery and equipment, creating decorations or use in the fashion industry. Each ostrich produces just over 1kg of feathers each year (8).


Felted fabric is produced from matted and compressed fibers such as wool or sometimes fur. Beaver fur was a popular choice for making felt hats until the mid 1800s. They were gradually replaced by the silk hat, followed by fur and wool felt hats. Rabbit skin is often the source of fur for felt hats (9). Felt is also used for arts, crafts and musical instruments.


Each year more than 40 million animals are killed for their fur worldwide (10). Around 85% of fur comes from farmed animals and the remaining from wild caught animals. The most commonly bred animals are mink and fox (arctic and red), along with racoon dogs and rex rabbits. Farmed animals are kept imprisoned in small cages for their entire lives and are denied both their natural biological and behavioural needs (4). Rex rabbits, for example, are one of the main breeds of rabbits reared and killed for their fur. They have very thin coverings of fur on their feet so the wire flooring of the mesh cages causes pain, injury and suffering (11).

Fur farming was banned in the UK in 2003 (4, 5) and from the 31st December 2008 a European Union (EU) law was introduced to ban the trade of cat and dog fur,  including production, marketing, importing and exporting within the EU. 85% of fur comes from China comprising 25-30% fur from wild caught and 70-75% from captive animals. China is one of the few countries without any legal provisions for animal welfare. Canada, USA and Russia are the main nations which trap wild animals (4). Steel-jawed leg hold traps are most commonly used to trap the animal (this device is banned throughout Europe). These traps cause extreme suffering and some animals go to desperate lengths to escape often gnawing off part of their own leg or paw. As the traps do not discriminate, other animals may also be destroyed or maimed, including some domestic animals (4).

The biggest slaughter of marine mammals for their fur happens in Canada. In 2006 the numberof marine animals killed was 325,000. The primary concern when killing the animals is to preserve their fur. Methods of killing include gassing, lethal injection, electrocution, clubbing, breaking the neck, smashing the skull, slitting the throat, choking or skinning to death (4).


Leather is a material used for a variety of products such as shoes, bags, wallets/purses and furniture. It is created when an animal’s skin/hide is treated with chemicals to prevent it from rotting or degrading.

Some people believe it is acceptable to wear leather because it is a by-product of the meat industry where the animals weren't killed just for their skins. Whilst others believe that there is a strong chance the animal died naturally. However, very few farm animals ever reach the natural end of their lifespan as most are killed when they are adolescents (12). Remaining animals go for slaughter because they are worn out by continuous breeding and/or lactation. About 10% of the value of the animal at the abattoir is from its skin, so buying leather could be regarded as helping to support the meat industry.

The UK produces 2.6 million cattle hides, 16.5 million sheep skins and about 100 million square feet of leather. In 2006, the UK exported £117 million pounds worth of raw hide and skins and £145 million pounds worth of leather, representing two-thirds of total production. This trade amounts to over £100million (13).

Some people believe leather is a natural, eco-friendly product but the leather industry is a major source of pollution. Tanneries are often sited near rivers as the process requires a plentiful supply of water. The waste - including hair, salt, lime, sludge, acids and chrome - is discharged into the river. It takes 8,000 litres of water to produce a pair of leather shoes. This includes the amount of water required to grow, feed, and support a cow as well as the processing stage (14). Animals other than domesticated animals are used for leather production such as deer, alligators, crocodile, toads, ostriches, kangaroos, lizards, snakes and seals. Many of these are already endangered species but the high prices commanded by their skins encourages poaching. Wild species killed for leather have no protection at all, they may be clubbed to death or caught in cruel traps.

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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