Will celebs be shamed into killing the cruellest It Bag? Fashion icon Jane Birkin is boycotting the bag named after her because crocodiles are tortured to make it. But will its A-list fans follow suit? 

  • Victoria Beckham allegedly owns more than 100 Birkins 'worth £1 million'
  • However, that bag may be harder to sell in future
  • Jane Birkin announced she's disassociating herself from the croc version
  • The 'Birkin Croco', she said, had been 'debaptised'
  • A Peta investigation has blown the lid on the crocodile and alligator farms
  • Covert filming has shown the animals suffering horrendously

The Birkin bag has everything you could desire in an exclusive product: timelessness, quality of manufacture, scarcity and, above all, a parade of glamorous celebrities falling over themselves to be photographed in its company.

Wealthy women pay several thousand pounds to own even the most basic version of the handbag, made by the French luxury goods house Hermes.

As they are purposefully in scarce supply, people go on waiting lists to buy them or spend thousands on different products in Hermes shops in the hope of persuading staff to part with a stashed-away bag as a reward.

Overnight, the bag - seen on the arm of Petra Ecclestone - has been transformed from a global must-have into something better confined to the darker recesses of your walk-in wardrobe

Overnight, the bag - seen on the arm of Petra Ecclestone - has been transformed from a global must-have into something better confined to the darker recesses of your walk-in wardrobe

Pop star-turned-fashion designer Victoria Beckham allegedly owns more than 100 Birkins - a collection that's apparently worth £1 million.

The daftness surrounding the handbag peaked in June, when a diamond-studded pink crocodile skin version sold for £140,000 at auction in Hong Kong, making it the most expensive handbag ever.

However, that bag may be harder to sell in future. Last week, the actress and singer Jane Birkin announced she was disassociating herself from the crocodile version of the design she inspired 34 years ago. The 'Birkin Croco', she said, had been 'debaptised'.

Overnight, the bag has been transformed from a global must-have into something better confined to the darker recesses of your walk-in wardrobe.

The reason is an investigation by the pressure group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which has blown the lid on the crocodile and alligator farms that supply Hermes with skins for its handbags, wallets and watch straps.

Covert filming by Peta investigators has shown the animals suffering horrendously as their spines are severed with box cutters and rods are inserted into their brains.

Others are seen crowded in shallow pools, clambering over each other to find space, separated from their natural environment at birth and condemned to brutishly short lives in factory farm conditions.

Hermes has mastered the ultimate marketing trick: making people think you're doing them a favour by selling them something outlandishly expensive.

But its advertising fails to mention the most notable ingredient in its crocodile skin bags and alligator skin watch straps: cruelty.

An investigation by the pressure group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has blown the lid on the crocodile and alligator farms that supply Hermes with skins for its handbags, wallets and watch straps

An investigation by the pressure group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has blown the lid on the crocodile and alligator farms that supply Hermes with skins for its handbags, wallets and watch straps

Appalled by the Peta video, Miss Birkin, 68, a leading exponent of the Sixties counterculture and a modern-day philanthropist, has insisted her boycott will endure until Hermes observes 'international norms' in regard to animal welfare.

This is a big blow. Birkin is intimately linked with the bag, the result of an impromptu conversation with Jean-Louis Dumas, chief executive of Hermes, during a Paris to London flight in 1981.

The contents of Birkin's hand luggage had spilled onto the cabin floor, and she explained it had been difficult to find a weekend bag she liked. Dumas set to work on the ideal design for her.

You can imagine the horrified reaction to Birkin's announcement at the Paris offices of Hermes. A hurried statement expressed shock at the Peta images and promised action would be taken.

But while some stages of crocodile skin production can be improved, the essentially unsavoury nature of the exotic skin industry cannot.

If animals are not to be slaughtered in the wild, and eventually wiped out, they must be farmed.

And even at its most efficient, farming involves depriving an animal of its natural habitat.

'These kinds of operation can never be humane,' says Yvonne Taylor of Peta. 'Bit by bit, as the process becomes bigger, the welfare of animals is eroded. It is impossible for luxury goods firms to police what is a widely dispersed, global supply chain.

'Animal welfare is often a tick-box process that ignores reality on the ground, and visits by inspectors are generally announced in advance, allowing farm owners to present themselves in the most favourable light.' 

Last week, the actress and singer Jane Birkin announced she was disassociating herself from the crocodile version of the design she inspired 34 years ago. The 'Birkin Croco', she said, had been 'debaptised'

Last week, the actress and singer Jane Birkin announced she was disassociating herself from the crocodile version of the design she inspired 34 years ago. The 'Birkin Croco', she said, had been 'debaptised'

So how does a 'Croco Birkin' make its way from a reptilian concentration camp in some obscure part of the world on to the arm of, for example, Victoria Beckham? 'It is a massive facility with pit after pit, some small for hatchlings and larger ones for three-year-olds reaching slaughter age,' says Rachel, an undercover investigator for Peta.

She is describing a crocodile farm on the shore of Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe, run by a company called Padenga.

Listed on the stock exchange in Harare, it is one of the world's biggest suppliers of crocodile skin, aiming to supply 43,000 pelts a year. The farm supplies only Hermes, according to its manager.

Cruelty can take different forms. Just placing animals in an artificial environment, as is the case at the Padenga farm, can cause suffering.

'Crocodiles are highly intelligent animals - they hunt co-operatively and store food for the future - yet the only decision they can make in the farm is whether to get in or out of the water,' says Rachel.

Crocodiles can survive in circumstances others cannot. So, if you cut the arteries to their brain, they can live for almost two hours

Dr Clifford Warwick, a biologist who has studied reptiles, says: 'Crocodile biology and behaviour do not lend themselves to a captive life.

'To a casual observer, the animals may seem peaceful and relaxed. But an animal behaviourist can see that they are stressed.'

But the suffering has gone deeper than that. Secretly filmed by Peta investigators, the manager at the farm admitted the slaughter process often resulted in 'pandemonium'. 'These animals can survive in circumstances others cannot,' says Rachel. 'So, if you cut the arteries to their brain, they can live for almost two hours.'

The manager at Padenga claimed crocodiles are stunned with electricity once or twice in the slaughter process, but no stun guns were observed by investigators. In any case, stunning does not guarantee a painless death.

To ensure a crocodile is dead, you must scramble its brain with a rod inserted through its neck. A second rod is inserted down the spine in an operation that is sickening to watch. 'Scrambling the brain is pretty much the only way to kill a crocodile. To do it humanely, you would have to make sure it was totally insensible to pain,' says Rachel.

'You can stun an animal to make it more co-operative, but it doesn't make it insensible to pain.' Security of the supply chain is a big concern in the realm of exotic skins. Major luxury leather goods firms - Hermes, Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Gucci - have bought up crocodile farms and tanneries to control the production process from animal to accessory.

Some 1.3 million crocodile and alligator skins are traded globally each year, with France accounting for nearly a third of world imports. Demand has been driven in great part by China, where the hunger for designer accessories is insatiable.

Kim Kardashian with her Birkin
Victoria Beckham

Kim Kardashian and Victoria Beckham pictured with their Birkin handbags

A Birkin crocodile bag requires three or four skins, and the hides must be free of flaws.

The belly is the valuable part and is used in handbags. The feet go to the Chinese, who regard them as a culinary delicacy. The backs go to Japan to be turned into belts and boots and the meat is sold in Africa.

Hermes has bought a farm for salt-water crocodiles in Australia to control its supply chain and, though it does not own Padenga, it exercises enormous influence over the farm due to its status as its dominant customer.

Skins seen at Padenga and destined for Hermes were stamped 'TCIM': the initials of Tanneries des Cuirs d'Indochine et de Madagascar.

TCIM is one of a number of tanneries owned by Hermes in France and the U.S. through its processing subsidiary Hermes Cuirs Precieux.

After being treated and dyed at the tanneries, skins are passed on to Hermes workshops in France.

Skins are also produced in the U.S. at the Lone Star alligator farm in Texas, which is 50 per cent owned by Padenga, supplying Hermes with watch straps.

A Peta investigator spent a month working undercover at the Texas farm, witnessing first-hand the cruelty of the alligator trade.

He filmed animals confined to stinking, overcrowded water tanks contaminated with excrement, with few dry areas on which they could bask.

Before death by scrambling of the brain, the alligators were meant to be stunned.

But when this failed to work, they were killed anyway. And all for the sake of a watch strap.

Hermes says it imposes the highest ethical standards on its suppliers, is investigating the matter and will impose sanctions if any of its rules have been breached.

While crocodile skin products are yet to be spurned by the rich and famous, investigations such as Peta's must chip away at their desirability.

However, the public has a short memory when it comes to animal welfare. Who can forget the campaign against the fur trade in the Eighties and Nineties with the slogan: 'It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it.'

Today, having recast itself as 'ethical', the fur coat industry is back in rude health, and mink are being slaughtered in their millions.

'Ultimately, the buying public lead the way,' says Peta's Yvonne Taylor.

Mrs Beckham - that most conspicuous of Birkin bag collectors - is saying nothing.

'There is no comment on this,' says her publicist, when asked if her client will be adding to, or deleting, her Birkin collection in future.

 

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