by Linsi Deyo and Nichole Chigoy

Many people have wondered what kapok is and why Carolina Morning uses it as a stuffing for so many of our products. Some wonder if down or feathers might be a better alternative. In society at large, it seems like feathers are considered the premium filling. However, there are many reasons kapok excels as the best choice. “Kapok” comes from the seedpod of the kapok tree and is similar to the milkweed pod: a hard shell outside and feathery seeds inside. It is one of the few sustainable crops grown in the rainforests and is found in Asia as well as in South America. It does not require pesticides or herbicides.  Among many of its benefits, it is hypoallergenic, resistant to mold, forms to the shape of one’s body while simultaneously bounding back when not being used. Kapok even floats and is often used as the stuffing in airplane seats.

At Carolina Morning, we choose kapok because we love knowing that it comes from a tree and that it has so many healing qualities. The tree isn’t harmed by the harvesting process.

One of the common alternatives to kapok is duck and goose down.  The down we see in so many of the common products sold in the marketplace – from jackets, to comforters and pillows comes from water fowl, or duck and geese. Feather pillows are far more popular than kapok pillows, although this is slowly changing.  At Carolina Morning we like offering products filled with kapok as an option to feathers and down. While kapok is a stuffing that is eco friendly and cruelty-free, feathers and down can’t make the same claim. It’s sad to report about this issue. So many of us aren’t aware of it, and by sharing this information we hope to reduce the suffering of our beloved bird friends.

Birds are a symbol of spirit and of freedom. Keeping them in captivity to take their feathers is harsh, but there’s more to it. The subject is a complex and controversial one. If you continue to read this article, you’ll learn about nature and human nature. It’s not totally pretty in that it shows the shadow side of human nature. We encourage you to read it to educate yourself, and to–when shopping — choose kapok stuffing over feathers. Click here to continue reading and to see a 5 minute TV news report video which summarizes the issue.

Here is a short video of a news broadcast on the subject,(it has some harsh scenes).

Some areas of the world have made efforts to protect the birds in various ways. Live plucking is the most common way to gather the feathers and is very cruel. In the USA and Europe this practice is outlawed. Since more than 80 percent of down and feathers come from China and other places, that makes a small difference world wide. And unfortunately that doesn’t insure that that the materials (down and feathers) are cruelty-free. There are ways around the laws, and enforcement is difficult and sometimes absent. If the birds were killed and used for meat, and then feathers taken off the dead bird, it would actually be a more humane way of collecting them. The reason live plucking is so rampant relates to water bird feathers being the feathers of choice.

Nature protected water birds with two kinds of covering: feathers, which allow the bird to fly, and down, which insulates and keeps the bird warm. Down grows beneath the feathers, close to the skin, and mostly on the chest and underbelly.  Because ducks and geese live partly in the water, both the feathers and down are coated with an oil produced by the birds and applied during preening. This waterproofing enables the feathers and the down to stay dry even when the birds are in the water.

Due to the waterproof nature of ducks and geese, removing feathers after slaughter, by scalding (as is the typical route for poultry), doesn’t work as well for waterfowl. It’s a slower process and requires more attention compared to poultry.  For this reason, along with the production of fois gras, a French delicacy requiring the force feeding by metal tube inserted into the esophagus, live plucking has become a common choice for many down suppliers.

In 2009, the Swedish news program Kalla Fakta released a documentary uncovering the hidden secrets of the industry.  The report revealed that in the three largest down producing countries, Hungry, Poland, and China, live plucking has been widespread.  The expose included footage of live plucking and the trauma endured by the geese. These birds endure repeated plucking, as often as every six weeks,  throughout their lifetimes. The plucking often leave the birds with open wounds which are sewn up hastily without anesthesia. It is a traumatizing existence for the birds.

The Swedish documentary  gained lots of attention at the time of its release and forced well known companies such as The North Face, Patagonia, and Ikea to address the issue of where they source the raw materials for their products. As a result, two major organizations were formed, Responsible Sourced Down and Globally Traceable Down Standard, in an attempt to provide certifications to companies who pledge to support safe and humane practices of down harvests.

Still, the controversy lingers.  Even though well-known companies are pledging to source cruelty free down under the standards of the mentioned organizations, there have been reports uncovering more unethical behaviors:

Some reported issues remain:

  • Certified non-live plucking farms are still buying down from live pluck farms who then resell the down masked as humanely sourced.
  • There are loopholes that allow farms to divide there facility into two sections: one area that abides by non-live plucking standards and another area that does not. Once down is plucked (live or after slaughter) there is no way to determine if it came from a live plucking situation. Therefore, these ‘responsible farms” maybe operating more irresponsibly than not.

As you might realize, navigating the industry of down filling can be a daunting process if one is seeking 100% cruelty free options.  At Carolina Morning, our goal is to lessen suffering, both physically and mentally and we feel that kapok is one choice we can make to support that goal.  Harvesting kapok causes no injury to the tree, other plants, or living creatures. In addition, kapok is not a synthetic-petroleum based product. It is truly an earth-friendly stuffing option for our pillows, cushions, and futons.  We hope this article helps to raise your awareness to the controversy of down so that we can continue to grow as mindful consumers.  

Sources: (for information on kapok)