Many people readily consume leather goods on the grounds that it’s a by-product of animals slaughtered for meat, thinking that no additional harm comes to the animals. But is it really? In fact, sought-after luxury brands are buying farms to hold a substantial amount of animals for exotic skins for leather, and the process of extracting these skins is gruesome.

In November 2020, the high-end French fashion brand Hermès proposed to build one of Australia’s largest crocodile farms in the Northern Territory. The plan has sparked massive public outrage – animal activists labelled the move “revolting” and “uncalled-for,” considering that many other luxury brands have in recent years started to move away from using fur and exotic leather on animal cruelty grounds. 

In Hermès’ 2020 corporate social responsibility report, it is stated that the company owns three crocodile farms and “two hide processing and inspection sites” in Australia. As for exotic leathers, such as crocodile, alligator, lizard and ostrich, Hermès is supplied by livestock farms in the United States, Zimbabwe and Australia. Despite stating that “a very strict animal welfare policy is put in place” and there is “a commitment to the fundamental principles of animal welfare,” as one of the most prestigious and sought-after high-fashion brands, their current expansion in crocodile farms irrefutably puts the ethics of luxury bags manufacturing into question. So, what are the problems with using exotic skins? 

The Northern Territory, home to several crocodile farms owned by major labels like Hermès and Louis Vuitton, is a major global supplier of crocodile skins. In fact, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), more than 25 000 crocodile skins were exported from the Australian state in 2018/2019. 

Hermès purchased its latest crocodile farm, a former melon and banana farm, for USD$7.25 million. It would be able to hold up to 50 000 saltwater crocodiles to be turned into luxury goods such as handbags and shoes. According to documents submitted to the NT Environment Protection Agency, the proposed farm would include an egg incubator laboratory, hatchery, grower pens, finishing pens, an open farm area and more. With approximately 30 employees hired for production, the controversial investment would increase the number of farmed crocodiles in the Northern Territory by 50%.

Though the companies involved say that strict animal welfare standards are complied with, it is difficult to know the real picture when there is little public knowledge about these farms. In order to ward off criticism, both Hermès and Louis Vuitton tend to keep their ownership of crocodile farms out of the spotlight by not mentioning it on their websites. Moreover, according to ABC News, crocodile farmers bought out by the luxury brands are often barred from speaking about the production process through non-disclosure agreements.

Responsibly sourced or not, there is no denying that in the exotic skin industry, behind every crocodile, ostrich, snake or lizard handbag is a violent death – products made from skins involve forcing highly intelligent, sensitive animals to endure lifelong imprisonment and a brutal process to death. 

From birth, farmed crocodiles are confined to small concrete pens, and are unable to swim freely. A documentary by animal rights organisation PETA exposes how the sensitive reptiles are crammed into filthy concrete pits for months or years before being slaughtered for Birkin bags, belts and watchbands in Zimbabwe and Texas. On average, three crocodiles’ lives are taken to make one Hermès handbag. Although various methods are used to stun and kill crocodiles before their skin is peeled off, none of them are humane: their snouts are bound and they’re either electrocuted or shot and then stabbed in the neck to sever the spinal cord. PETA’s investigators also captured moments of some crocodiles still being conscious, struggling and kicking, minutes after workers had shot them. In this case, the crocodile skins certainly aren’t the by-product of meat consumption, but a barbaric practice to satisfy human’s greed.

Ostriches are another victim of the growing luxury fashion industry: people’s obsession with the distinctive “polka dot pattern” of ostrich leather popularised the ostrich bags of leading brands like Prada, Hermès and LV.

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luxury leather

The “polka dot pattern” made from ostrich leather (Source: luxury-shops.com)

To make these goods, ostriches are violently killed when they turn 1 years old, while in the wild ostriches can live up to 40 years or more. 

PETA’s footage taped at Hermès’ Ostrich skin supplier Klein Karoo in the Western Cape of South Africa, shows how the juvenile birds are tightly packed into open-topped trucks for the journey to their slaughter. Workers forcibly restrain each bird, electrically stun them and then slit their throats. Moments later, the feathers are torn off the birds before they are skinned and dismembered. Often, the birds next in line are able to see their flockmates being killed.

Sadly, high-end bags are associated with high social class and the craze for them doesn’t seem to be vanishing. A diamond-encrusted crocodile skin Birkin once broke the world record for the most money ever paid for a handbag at an auction in Hong Kong at USD$380 000. 

Your money can definitely be spent better and wiser elsewhere. If you love the look and feel of leather, there are many alternatives available on the market. Vegan leather can be made with polyurethane, which poses some negative impacts to the environment, since plastic-based leather takes years to degrade and releases harmful micro-plastic into the environment during its production process. But they don’t involve the animal abuse or as much of the chemicals used in leather tanning – plus it’s highly versatile and durable.

Other eco-friendlier options you may consider include plant-based leather made from pineapple, apple skin, mushroom, recycled ocean plastics, recycled plastic bottles and bamboo! You can find out more about sustainable fashion brands here.

Owning luxury items at the expense of animals doesn’t elevate buyers to a higher social status, it’s solely a demonstration of support to the industries that abuse, enslave and slaughter animals. Forward-thinking brands like Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Mulberry and Victoria Beckham have already prohibited the use of crocodiles and other exotic skins in their collections. Let’s hope that one day the market can get over their exotic skin obsessions.

Featured image by: Flickr