Saturday, January 25, 2020

Get Down: "How the feather trade took flight"

From 1843 Magazine:

Down is nature’s most successful insulator and the global trade in feathers is thriving. Simon Rabinovitch goes in search of the marvellous matter inside your winter coat
In the summer of 1922 two men called George took part in the first attempted ascent of Mount Everest. George Mallory was an establishment man. A Cambridge graduate and son of a Church of England rector, he dressed in the respectable climbing gear of the time, a jacket and tough, cotton plus-fours. George Finch, his fellow explorer, was an outsider, a moustachioed Australian with chiselled good looks and an independent streak who liked experimenting with new contraptions: he took bottled oxygen to use at high altitude, and wore a specially commissioned coat made from bright green hot-air balloon fabric stuffed with the down of eider ducks.

Though climbers were already using sleeping bags filled with down, Finch’s fellow climbers initially mocked his bulky coat. That changed as they approached Everest. “Today has been bitterly cold with a gale of a wind to liven things up,” Finch wrote in his diary. “Everybody now envies my eiderdown coat and it is no longer laughed at.”

The two Georges turned back after their third failed attempt on the summit. Two years later Mallory joined another expedition to Everest, but went missing close to the top; his climbing feats were then romanticised by a hero-hungry public. Finch never tried again and pursued a considerably less romantic career as a chemistry professor. Yet ultimately he had a greater impact than that of the better-known George. Today, climbers at high altitude routinely carry oxygen. His other innovation has been even more influential, extending far beyond mountaineering circles: on the 1922 expedition George Finch invented the puffer jacket.

The new coat quickly caught on. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally made it to the top of Everest in 1953, they wore down snowsuits. No mountaineer today would do without one (as one climber put it a few years ago, “the main problem with climbing Everest nowadays is pissing through a six-inch suit with a three-inch penis”).

As well as scaling the highest peak, the down coat has travelled far more widely. The first commercial down-filled jacket was patented in 1940 by Eddie Bauer, intended for outdoor enthusiasts. Today, a coat invented for mountain explorers is more often used to protect the metropolitan masses from the elements. From Tokyo to Toronto we face the winter dressed in down, even if our main activity is to scurry a few city blocks. Duvet-coats are now sold by high street and designer brands alike. And fortunes have been made off the back of them: Canada Goose, which specialises in “extreme weather” wear, has built a multi-billion-dollar brand from its puffer coats; so has Moncler.

Feather stuffing, once the height of luxury, has become ubiquitous. Over the past quarter-century, our global demand for warmth – even on a short shopping trip – has led to a tripling of the global trade in feathers by volume. Never mind being light as a feather, the raw plumage that drifts across borders each year is equal to the weight of nearly 90,000 cars. And 80% of those feathers come from one country: China.

The trade in feathers is not a simple case of supply meeting demand. The down in our coats is, in fact, a by-product of the ducks and geese that end up on dinner tables. In terms of price per weight, down feathers – the soft, fuzzy ones on the bird’s breast – are the most valuable part of a duck, worth $25-50 per kg, roughly ten times as much as the meat. But a typical bird yields some 2.5kg of meat compared with just 15 grams of down, so a duck’s value lies mostly in its flesh. The soft feathers account for just 3% of its value, so abattoirs see those fluffy hairs not as a treasured commodity but detritus.

Most of those abattoirs are in just one country: thank the vast and still rising Chinese appetite for duck and goose for your warm coat. These birds – roasted, steamed or salted – have long been part of China’s cuisine. In the north, restaurants carve up crispy Peking duck. In the south, people like the succulent roasted version. In Nanjing in the east, duck banquets use every inch from beak to wing. During the economic boom of recent decades meat, which was once a rare delicacy, has become a regular indulgence. Fast-food stalls selling braised duck necks are a staple of Chinese railway stations. China has two multi-billion-dollar firms that specialise in shrink-wrapped, ready-to-eat duck snacks.

In 1978, when China began to rebuild its economy after Mao’s disastrous rule, the average citizen ate just 270g of duck a year. Today, they consume eight times that amount, over 2kg. The Chinese account for most of the global demand too: two out of every three ducks eaten worldwide are in China. On the goose side of the ledger, China accounts for a startling 95% of the world’s geese slaughtered each year. The more waterfowl the Chinese eat, the more feathers there are. If the insatiable appetite for duck in China today is a metaphor for the country’s rise over the past 30 years, then the down feathers in your coat are the surprising flourish....

We have to assume a short-term glut of down, what with the African swine fever killing off the Chinese pig herd and creating huge demand for duck.
And headlines like these from the SCMP:
July 2019
China’s duck farmers are cashing in as African swine fever outbreak puts Chinese consumers off the nation’s favourite meat
December 2019
Chinese former duck farmer buys big in Vancouver: first a US$39m home, then a US$3.9m car, now a downtown hotel