Considerations about pricing and animal cruelty have diminished the attractiveness of natural down as an insulation material in the U.S. to the advantage of synthetic insulation systems for outerwear, sleeping bags and other outdoor products. A survey of outdoor enthusiasts aged 18 to 45 conducted by Harris Interactive in the U.S. shows that 80 percent of consumers tend to avoid shopping at stores that sell down-filled items.

In a recent reaction to this trend, the Coleman Company announced its decision never to use down again in its products, after being contacted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The North Face has recorded strong demand for Thermoball, which is said to offer a high warmth-to-weight ratio through a synthetic insulation made of small high-loft clusters. Halogen, a 100 percent synthetic jacket by Outdoor Research, got a Gear of the Year award from Outside magazine.

In reality, natural down and synthetic insulation systems have both advantages and disadvantages. Down offers a very high warmth-to-weight ratio and is extremely packable, explaining why Patagonia announced a few weeks ago its ongoing support for down in spite of its well-known environmentalist attitude. The company said that it has been able for the first time to ensure animal welfare standards throughout the supply chain, down to the farm.

Synthetic insulation doesn't heat up or loft as well as down, but it's less expensive and works better than down in wet conditions. Thus, the ideal solution would seem to be a compromise between natural and artificial materials. As with hybrid engines, this could well be the next wave in the insulation of outdoor products.

As reported in the previous issue of The Compass, Columbia Sportswear is introducing Turbo Down, whose patent-pending construction technique allows it to combine a layer of down with one or two layers of its Omni-Heat thermal insulation product. PrimaLoft is now expected to unveil shortly a different hybrid insulation technology. It would not be surprising to see other interesting compromises. Stay tuned!