At this summer's Outdoor Retailer show, people couldn't stop talking about bird flu. No, they weren't worried about coming down with the disease it in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were lamenting the dramatic spike it's causing in duck and goose down prices. This got me excited. I was hoping to go huge: declare a down crisis, and scream "buy down gear now!" (I planned on begging my editor to keep the exclamation point.)
As usual, the research didn't exactly jibe with my expectations. While working on my zinger, I spoke with American Rec (Kelty/Sierra Designs), Brooks Range, Rab, and Mountain Hardwear. The truth wasn't simple, or that sensational—the result of down being a commodity with an extremely sophisticated supply chain. That said, I can comfortably suggest that you buy that down sleeping bag you've been eyeing now—and don't throw away your old down comforter.
It comes down to Econ 101: Demand for down has been steadily increasing for the past five years as down jackets have become fashion items. Supply was dramatically cut off when the duck and goose population was decimated in China by the bird flu about six-months ago. As a commodity, spikes in the price of down naturally happen, but they are usually followed by a sharp decrease. No one has seen this dramatic decrease yet.
So we understand what may cause the spike, but what does this mean for manufactures? The numbers varied, but I was told pretty consistently that the cost of 800-fill down, both goose and duck, has doubled in the past year. Some types of down have increased by 150 percent in that time.
"Being fully committed to down like we are is scary," said Sierra Designs Brand VP Michael Glavin. "The scariest part is supply, not demand, because it is a by-product of the food industry. The question is: Will people go back to eating duck or goose?" While Glavin admits being scared, he did secure enough premium duck down before bird flu to keep prices from skyrocketing in 2014—when you can expect to see a majority of the increase.
Brooks-Range sources their down from Europe, which was slammed with demand when China stopped producing, but General Manager Jeff Blakely did not show much worry. "We have to be price sensitive but we are small and niche and can be more expensive," Blakely said.
What this means for you: One company reported a 25 percent price increase in the same jacket between last spring and spring 2014. While that was the most dramatic spike a source shared with me, I can pretty much guarantee sticker shock on down sleeping bags and jackets for most outdoor brands between 2014 and 2015.
You can also expect to see more synthetics on the market. "We will put more effort into synthetics, but consumers are going to drive that," said Rab's Marketing Director Samantha Killgore. But she did go on to mention that they are not reducing their number of down products. "We aren't changing our formula," Killgore said.
While Mountain Hardwear's Head of Product Robert Fry also told me they would not decrease production of down products, he said Mountain Hardwear is aggressively pursuing an alternative to down. "Down has 600-million years of development that we have to catch up with," Fry said.
My advice: If you want to buy down gear, do it now now (no exclamation point).