Earlier this year, Emma Hakansson sat down at her computer and did a quick search on some of the world’s biggest retailers for feathery fashion products.
The founder of ethical fashion advocacy group Collective Fashion Justice was investigating how the industry, which has made dramatic shifts in recent years away from animal products like fur, was approaching plumage.
On sites like Net-a-Porter, Ssense, Selfridges and Asos she found options for faux feather products. But for Hakansson something was off. In many cases it appeared as though the feathers weren’t fake at all.
Subtle tells that wouldn’t be obvious to the average shopper — a keratin-based sheen on the shaft, a fine taper to the ends of feather barbules — jumped out at her.
Microscopy and chemical solubility testing on products sourced from The Iconic, Boohoo, Selfridges and Asos confirmed they had been mislabelled, according to a report launched Thursday by Collective Fashion Justice and animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection. The organisations did not test whether their observations from other retailers were accurate..
Boohoo, Asos and Selfridges said they had removed the products identified by the investigation from their websites. Asos’s own testing confirmed the results, while Selfridges found a factory had mislabelled a product containing both Turkey and faux feathers. All three companies already have policies governing the use of feathers, which they are looking to tighten in various ways. Net-a-Porter also removed and updated a listing after finding a technical error had led to mislabelling.
The Iconic has worked with World Animal Protection and Collective Fashion Justice to create its own policy prohibiting the use of decorative feathers in response to the report. Ssense did not provide comment.
Brands have fallen into this trap before, falsely labelling real fur products as fake. But while decades of campaigning have heightened sensitivity around the use of animal pelts, prompting many businesses to go fur-free and leading to heightened regulation of the sector, decorative feathers have attracted much less scrutiny. Their supply chains and impact mostly remain a mystery to both shoppers and many in the industry, despite efforts by campaigners to raise awareness of animal welfare risks, including live plucking and poor farm conditions.
“Consumers are at risk of buying something that’s not aligned with their values and contributing to an industry without being given a choice,” said Suzanne Milthorpe, head of campaigns at World Animal Protection. “It almost seems like feathers are starting to replace fur and we’re really concerned by that trend. It’s really important not to replace one cruelty with another.”
From Fur to Feathers
Since 2016, fur has disappeared from the collections of many of the world’s biggest brands and retailers. The material has been banned from the runways of Copenhagen — once one of the world’s fur capitals — and London; its sale is now illegal in places like Israel and California.
But as fur has fallen from fashion, the trend for feathers has grown, showing up on runways and red carpets.
Once companies decided to ditch fur, “feathers started to become a much more frequent thing to see because, as one [designer] told me, ‘we need that material that speaks of fantasy,’” said photographer Alexi Lubomirski, who has spent years campaigning to persuade creatives to refuse to feature fur, feathers and exotic skins in their work. The conversation around feathers is often the most difficult, with the links between the industry and cruel practices poorly understood, he said.
Most birds moult, which means unlike many other animal-based materials, harvesting their feathers doesn’t necessarily require slaughter. Often, exotic-looking feathers may in fact come from chickens or turkeys after being treated and dyed. Ostrich feathers, which may be harvested when a bird is still alive, are removed during the shedding cycle when the blood vessels and nerves detract from the shaft of the feather. Farmers say the entire sector is managed responsibly and the process is painless — a bit like cutting nails.
But animal welfare groups say it’s impossible to harvest feathers from live birds humanely. And unlike for down used in products like puffy jackets — the other place where feathers frequently turn up in fashion — there isn’t a certification the industry can turn to in order to get some level of assurance over the standards used in sourcing opulent feather trimmings.
“There’s been years and years of campaigning on fur and a parallel focus on skins. But there’s often not a focus on the fact there is a lot of cruelty in feathers,” said Milthorpe. “There’s a really interesting gulf between skins picked up in animal welfare policies and feathers being left out.”
While some brands have followed up fur bans with moves to ditch exotic skins, fewer have policies against decorative feathers. That means companies might have committed to no longer use ostrich skins, but still allow for products trimmed with ostrich plumes.
And even where policies do exist, they’re not necessarily well-enforced. Asos banned the sale of feathers that aren’t certified in 2019, while Boohoo and Selfridges both prohibit the sale of exotic feathers. But none of these retailers caught that feathers they were selling as fake were in fact real, according to World Animal Protection and Collective Fashion Justice’s investigation.
Just the Trimming
Decorative feathers make up an even smaller fraction of most brands’ material mix than fur did, serving as a frothy accent on products rather than driving a meaningful proportion of sales in the way exotic skins do for some businesses. But with scrutiny and criticism of the sector historically sounding at a lower octave, the incentive for companies to stop using the material has been limited. The small market size has also reduced material innovation in the space, compared to efforts to develop alternatives to fur and leather, which have larger addressable markets.
“People often say, ‘it’s not worth my focus … it’s just frill, it’s just edges,’” said Lubomirski.
But there are signs the mood music within the industry is gradually shifting.
SMCP, the owner of brands including Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot, confirmed plans to ban decorative feathers as well as down in January. Melbourne Fashion Week announced it will go feather free from 2024 on Thursday. And the Iconic’s feather ban will come into effect from next year, according to World Animal Protection and Collective Fashion Justice.
Campaigners argue there’s no downside for brands to move away from exotic feathers, particularly given how little consumers recognise the material.
“People don’t really know the difference and they support the sentiment of protecting animals,” said Hakansson. “It’s really a win-win.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 26 2023, to incorporate comment from The Iconic.