Hermes vs. Birkin

Following the release of a PETA video in late June containing footage of crocodile skin supply centers associated with Hermès, the response has been swift and harshly critical.  Hosting graphic clips of crocodiles’ spines being removed, box cutters being used to sever cervical vertebrae, and the bodies twitching in bloody ice boxes, the response can come as no surprise.  Jane Birkin, the bag’s namesake, joined the public outcry as she requested that Hermès remove her name from the signature crocodile skin purse.  Though the brand has her name trademarked for leather goods, Birkin did her best to distance herself from the alleged mistreatment, publicly announcing, “I have asked Hermès to debaptise the Birkin croco until better practices in line with international norms can be put in place.”

As a luxury brand, an elite even among that highest echelons of society, Hermès holds a uniquely stringent set of standards.  With consumers willing to pay upwards of $40,000 for the famed Birkin bag, some overpaying by 100% to jump waiting lists, quality is of the utmost importance.  Yet how can Hermès continue to claim a standard of excellence when a major supplier is currently being investigated in accordance with recent claims that its practices breach state laws?  As with any good, the ethics of product sourcing are a key component of meeting these standards.  

Statements from the company following the video’s release assert that, “For more than 10 years, we have organized monthly visits to our suppliers” and that a partnership with Zimbabwe locations had not existed at the time that the videos were taken.  As is clearly evident from the videos, however, mistreatment of the animals occurred on a scale that the purportedly regular inspections would have discovered several health and safety violations.  The term “isolated incidents” is used to describe the footage obtained by PETA, yet the idea of an incident on this grand of a scale being isolated is hard to accept.  Additionally, if the alleged monthly investigations had taken place and the violations been discovered, the partnership with the Zimbabwe locations, owned by the umbrella organization Padenga as well, would never have been opened.   As statements from Hermès and PETA are directly at odds, consumers are left with the decision of who to believe, struggling between shocking footage and the words of a well respected high end brand.  Moving on, Hermès needs to ensure that the ethics of their sourcing locations are airtight, leaving no room for further questioning.  While this proposition may seem extreme, the waiting lists of women eager to spend $40,000 on a Birkin bag will more than cover the costs.  Such a move would only benefit the brand, to combat public disapproval and to serve as insurance against future recurrences of such an incident. Regardless of the extent to which PETA’s allegations are true, firmer regulations over supply centers would have helped Hermès avoid this controversy to their 24-carat gold reputation.  

Grace Dixon is a contributing writer. Email her at violet vision@nyunews.com.

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