Canadians are about to face the coldest months of the season, which means it’s time to break out the serious winter gear. From giant parkas to lined boots, staying warm in the bitter cold is necessary as we shuffle from place to place and try to go about our regularly scheduled lives.

But while that down-filled jacket may be warm and cozy, it’s not the most ethical of choices for animal lovers. If you avoid animal-tested products, refuse to wear fur, leather, or silk, and you aren’t cool with eating meat, then chances are you haven’t been down with down for a while either.

However for the rest of us who maybe aren’t so savvy when it comes to the dark underbelly of the warm winter fashion industry, let’s break it down, shall we?

Gearing up with down

Down is the soft layer of feathers that sits closest to a bird’s skin, usually in the chest region. Down from geese and ducks is a popular lining for coats, sleeping bags, comforters, and clothing because it’s lightweight, warm, and it doesn’t contain prickly quills. Furthermore it creates high-loft clusters that trap air and body heat while still being breathable and resilient to aging (well-cared-for down can last years).

However, down feathers don’t mix well with water. Wet down loses most of its insulating properties as it clumps and loses toft. It is also slow to dry, which can create a potential mold situation.

The argument against down

Most down is sourced from geese and ducks already being slaughtered for food, but over the past few years the practice of live-plucking birds in breeding flocks or birds being raised for meat and foie gras has come to light.

According to PETA the live-plucking process involves holding the bird by its neck or wings while its legs are physically restrained and their feathers are ripped out of their skin. Often an animal’s skin is torn open during the process and workers will have to sew them up without painkillers. Live-plucking typically starts when the bird is about 10 weeks old, and is repeated in six-week intervals until the animal is sent to slaughter.

The organization also notes that buying down can inadvertently lead a person to support the foie gras industry, in which feeding tubes are crammed down birds’ throats and they’re force-fed so much that their livers swell to roughly 10 times their normal size. Often, foie gras producers boost their profits through live-plucking practices.

Quelling public concern

These days many companies, including Canada Goose, claim to use only ethically sourced down—as in down from poultry by-products. (Canada Goose also claims its fur use is in accordance with the Agreement of International Humane Trapping Standards in Canada.)

So who ensures down is ethically sourced? The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is an independent, voluntary global standard that helps to ensure down feathers come “from animals that have not been subjected to unnecessary harm.” The RDS seal is given to farmers, brands, and supply chain members that don’t practice live-plucking and don’t force-feed their animals, that have “holistic respect” for the welfare of birds from hatching to slaughter, that properly identify its down, and that only carry products with 100 per cent certified down.

A (Canadian) synthetic alternative

Of course some people prefer to avoid down altogether, which is where synthetically produced materials come in handy. These days polyester-fibre-based, synthetic insulation mimics the properties of down but is also effective when wet–and it dries faster. Sure it’s heavier than down and isn’t quite as warm, but it’s also friendlier on the wallet and is naturally hypoallergenic.

An increasing number of companies are now offering vegan winter jackets, including Quartz Co, which works in conjunction with Altitude Sports and Monark Cooperative to offer milkweed parkas. Not only do the innovative parkas offer a down-free alternative, but they also help to develop the milkweed industry—an important tool for the survival of the Monarch butterfly.

Meanwhile other Canadian companies, from Patagonia and Noize to Wuxley Movement and Frank and Oak, now offer entire lines of vegan outdoor gear. That’s good news for animals lovers, because it means going cruelty free is easier (and more stylish) than ever.