This article was written by Sam Gaskin and originally published in Jing Daily
China’s economic rise has helped drive an unprecedented boom in luxury leather goods.
That is leaving many fashion and accessories brands scrambling – either for products to meet the seemingly insatiable demand, or for ethical alternatives to leather.
Hermès, the French high-end, luxury goods maker, is just one of the brands that is having trouble sourcing quality hides.
There are few animals coddled enough to produce the high-quality leather that luxury brands require, according to a Bloomberg report.
The shortage raises questions about whether luxury brands can maintain their standards, and at what cost to the environment and to animal welfare.
In 2016, Chinese imports of finished leather products – driven by increased consumption of luxury brands – surpassed imports of raw leather materials in value for the first time.
Leather, which is used in high-end handbags, watch straps, wallets, shoes and apparel, is widely regarded as a luxury material.
These types of leather goods constituted almost 30 per cent of the personal luxury market in 2014 – up from 18 per cent in 2003.
Management consultancy Bain & Company reports that in 2015 the global market for leather accessories was worth €43 billion (US$46 billion).
The luxury leather goods market has become so lucrative that brands that historically did not produce any leather items have rushed into the market.
The investment company Exane BNP Paribas says that 10 to 15 years ago Louis Vuitton and Gucci were the only accessories-focused luxury brands.
Today almost every brand owned by LVMH, Kering, and Richemont sells leather goods among their products.
To keep up with demand, luxury brands have worked hard to tie up access to the best hides.
The Business of Fashion, a website focused on the fashion industry, reports that in recent years LVMH has entered into a partnership with Tannerie Masure in Belgium and taken control of Singapore crocodile skin supplier Heng Long and Les Tanneries Roux in France.
Elsewhere, Hermès has acquired Tanneries d’Annonay in France, Kering has taken over exotic leather specialist France Croco and Chanel has acquired the French lambskin business Bodin Joyeux.
China’s appetite for fur and its growing demand for luxury leather is a concern for many environmentalists and animal rights activists.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American animal rights organisation widely known as PETA, reports that each year the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides.
That figure is a little misleading because leather is largely a by-product of the meat industry.
The flagship “box” leather used by Hermès comes from calves raised in France and slaughtered for veal.
The luxury brand famous for its Birkin handbag says that its cattle and sheep leather “comes exclusively from animals raised for their meat”.
Yet, Hermès also uses exotic leathers that may not be the by-products of meat consumption, including crocodile, alligator, lizard and ostrich.
Su Pei, CEO of activist group AsiaACT, says: “While animals continue to be farmed, whether for food or their fibre, their welfare must be addressed, including cattle for leather and sheep for wool.”
The harm caused by leather production has prompted some luxury brands to explore alternatives made from materials such as pineapple waste, apple peel, mushrooms, kombucha (fermented green tea) and wine.
The American company Modern Meadow is also experimenting with lab-grown leather.
The prevailing strategy among luxury brands is not to stop using leather but to reassure consumers that it has come from sustainable, ethical sources.
Kering provided Jing Daily with its “Standards for Raw Materials: Hides and Skins for Leather”, which includes “full traceability”, zero involvement in the “deforestation in the Amazon biome” and Kering’s animal welfare standards.
The company’s standards for “precious skins”, including crocodilians, snakes, lizards, birds, fish and deer, include not using endangered species or illegally trafficked species.
Similarly, Hermès says: “All leather used for Hermès manufacturing needs are directly purchased from tanneries, with no intermediaries.
“The vast majority of the needs are covered by in-house tanneries, and by French, Italian, German and Spanish tanneries, all of which must adhere to European standards, which are some of the highest in the world for the industry.”
The company also cites the quality of its leather as evidence that the animals have been treated humanely.
“Hermès uses only full-grain leather, the top part of the skin, in an unadulterated condition,” it says.
“To maintain consistency in the finished product it also only uses entire hides.”
It is believed you get good hides only from animals that are well treated.
This is a sentiment shared by New Zealand Light Leathers, which produces finished deer nappa for global luxury brands, as well as Chinese brands.
Barry Parsons, the company’s international luxury sales manager, says: “A lot of the brands now want to know where the skins have come from and I see that as such a positive for New Zealand-farmed deer as the animals are farmed to a very high standard of care.
Consumers like to know that animals have been well farmed. It’s a big benefit.”
However, that is not good enough for some.
British fashion designer Stella McCartney, who is proud to run a “vegetarian” brand, uses neither fur nor leather in her products.
She has even teamed up with Bolt Threads, a San Francisco-based biotech company that produces vegan-friendly silk using yeast.