In the animal world, the closest thing to gold may be the fluffy underfeathers of the eider duck. The down, which female eiders pluck from their breasts to line their nests, is typically only found in parts of Iceland, Greenland and islands in the St. Lawrence River, and its warmth, softness and rarity make it a coveted filling for duvets—so much so that it costs $1,000 per pound. It’s why, after showing off a clump of eiderdown, Michael de la Place, president of industry group Downmark, gingerly plucks tiny plumules from the air before they float away. And it shows what’s at stake as companies in Canada’s close-knit down industry fight an onslaught of fakes and knock-offs flooding retail stores.
Down, the layer of fine feathers next to a bird’s skin, is nature’s most efficient insulator. It’s also expensive, with duck and goose down duvets, pillows and coats running from several hundred dollars up to more than $5,000. Money like that has spurred Chinese manufacturers to crank out cheap copies filled with low-grade materials. And while fake down goods make up a tiny fraction of the multi-billion-dollar market for knock-offs, the experience of those in Canada’s down industry shows how hard it is to battle the onslaught of cheap fakes. “The fraud against consumers that’s going on is mind-blowing,” says De la Place.
Last year, Canada Goose, famous for its winter coats, went on the offensive against fakes. Its jackets sell for $500 and up, but the company said a plague of knock-offs—stuffed with “feather mulch”—selling for under $100 has seriously cut into its business.
Uncovering frauds is no easy task. Each day, Carolyn LaPorte, a researcher at Downmark, searches out suspicious ads. As a rule of thumb, if a queen-size duvet states it’s made from goose down and sells for under $200, alarm bells go off. She buys the item, then ships it to a lab in Salt Lake City that specializes in testing down and feather products. In one case, the material inside a duvet turned out to be neither goose nor duck feathers, but were in fact chicken feathers. Another time, LaPorte didn’t even need to send the sample to the lab for testing; when the team opened the bag, the stench from uncleaned feathers made them gag. Mostly, though, the fakes are just wildly overpriced. LaPorte has found duvets priced at $350 that contained barely $100 worth of down. “The consumer suffers, but so does the industry,” says De la Place.
Each report is sent to Industry Canada, which through the Competition Bureau governs the labelling of textiles. For instance, if a product doesn’t contain at least 75 per cent down, it can’t be labelled as such. Likewise, a goose down product must be made up of 90 per cent down from geese. But De la Place says the Competition Bureau has yet to pursue the evidence of fakery.
A spokesman for the Competition Bureau said the agency can’t comment on whether it is investigating any fake down cases, for confidentiality reasons, but that it takes any allegations of consumer fraud and misleading advertising “very seriously.” But with the bureau taking on just one case, in 2007, Downmark recently took up the fight itself with a “name and shame” campaign aimed at retailers. Downmark now posts “fraud alerts” on its website, which received more than one million hits last year. For instance, last year Downmark found Wal-Mart selling duvets labelled as goose down that contained no goose down whatsoever. Home Outfitters has been caught out, as have independent stores and sellers on eBay. The retailer highlighted most often for infractions is the Danish home furnishing chain Jysk. Since January, four separate tests have found products that don’t meet the legal requirements to be labelled down, with one duvet containing less than 19 per cent down. A Jysk spokeswoman says the company has spoken with its duvet buyer and that “this is being addressed with the supplier and they are complying.”
A little over a year ago, Downmark took the fight to Asia, opening an office in Japan. In the Japanese market, Bryan Pryde has seen the unnerving lengths to which Chinese manufacturers and exporters will go to fool consumers. Pryde’s company, Feather Industries, is Canada’s largest supplier of processed down, which he buys from Hutterite goose farmers on the Prairies. (Hutterite down fetches some of the highest prices in the industry and is a favourite target for fakes.) Since the office in Japan opened, he’s seen a flood of supposedly Hutterite down products imported from China that claim to originate from his company. Pryde has even seen his signature and that of his retired father forged on documents.
The upside is that Japan’s equivalent of the Competition Bureau is so feared that retailers quickly remove fake product. Not so in Canada. “If [retailers and suppliers] know the government will turn a blind eye, they’re going to take advantage of that and it’s going to tarnish the industry,” says Pryde. “This is what’s happening in Canada.”