The problem with the alligator strap on your watch
A dress watch is often characterised by the use of a leather strap - and if it's a luxury brand, it's alligator skin that we're talking about. But as we casually proclaim these style rules and become consumed in this vortex of materialism, we often forget that leather is a by-product of a living animal. The use of calf leather is hotly debated for reasons spanning from environmental damage to animal cruelty and human exposure to toxins. But demand is still sky-high: in 2015, Bain & Company reported that the global leather accessories market was worth US$46 billion, while statistics suggest that by the year 2025, we will need to slaughter 430 million cows to meet the current rate of market consumption.
In fashion, brands such as Stella McCartney long banned the use of leather, while others such as Gucci, Michael Kors and Armani stepped up and stopped the use of fur. Following a similar ban by Diane von Furstenberg in October 2018, global powerhouse Chanel announced in December last year that it would ban fur and exotic skins (including alligator and snake) in its products. One of the reasons cited was that the house could no longer find the right suppliers that had both quality and ethics.
While the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals welfare group (Peta) commended the action, Business of Fashion published a surprisingly scathing op-ed co-authored by authorities from the IUCN Species Survival Commission's (SSC) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, the IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group and the IUCN SSC Boa and Python Specialist Group. They argued that Chanel's decision was counterproductive, as it represented a danger to the conservation of wildlife, especially if the move would prompt other companies to follow suit.
Their argument was based on the fact that the wildlife farms that produce exotic animal skins are crucial for several reasons: for one, they support communities and provide sustainable jobs. This commercial reason in turn urges people to protect these potentially endangered animals and create safe habitats for them.
Back in the 1970s, crocodile farms were introduced as a way to protect species on the verge of extinction because of indiscriminate hunting. These farms were (and still are) heavily regulated: eggs are harvested from the wild, as are hatchling and juveniles who have a low chance of survival. They're bred in captivity, and regulatory body CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) determines the numbers that can be slaughtered for their skin. Proponents of this system argue that this keeps our ecological system in check.
In 2015, a reported 1.5 million skins were exported, and we believe that demand has remained pretty much consistent over the past few years. Still, a report by the International Alligator and Crocodile Study (IACS) suggests discrepancies between official export and import numbers and the actual figures, which are much higher. It's no secret that when there is commercial demand, people will find ways to deliver. Illegal farming in places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Africa are rampant.
Luxury watch straps are usually made from the belly of a 36-month-old (that's the age of a toddler, in case you were thrown off guard by the number) alligator, as that's where the scales are the smoothest and flattest. It is also the most expensive, with an IACS report revealing that the US export price per alligator mississippiensis skin in 2015 was US$ 275.6, compared to US$78.4 for Caiman crocodilus fuscus skins, originating from Colombia and exported to the US.
It's big business, and while heavily regulated farms in Europe, the US and Australia practise the less cruel method of killing before skinning, leaked footage by Peta reveals that the practice of mistreatment and skinning alive is still prolific in many countries.
Remember that 2015 leaked video that showcased the cruel practice of alligators from Texas and Zimbabwe being skinned alive for Hermès? It led to the maison purchasing its own farms and controlling the manufacturing process, and others such as Gucci and LVMH followed suit.
This leads us to the ethical part of this equation. There is of course the broader question of whether killing animals for consumerism is a necessary evil or simple greed. But beyond that, if we do make a case for the conservation and commercial reasons for continuing this practice, we need to at least make sure that the animals are treated well.
When we reached out to luxury watchmakers for comments, only two responded, IWC Schaffhausen and Jaquet Droz. Both reported that they complies with CITES' regulations and worked only with approved farms, and IWC Schaffhausen said that it regularly vetted and audited the suppliers it works with. Interestingly, Jaquet Droz CEO Christian Lattmann even went as far as to say, "We are thinking about it because we are very sensitive to the animal cause and respect for the environment. For the moment our search for alternatives has not been successful to replace the alligator."
The truth of the matter is that as long as there's demand, there will always be a reason for farmers to find shortcuts and sometimes illegal means to make a quick buck. The solution is not as simple as completely stopping production as it has real consequences on the environment and the economy. But pressure from discerning consumers who ask the right questions will prompt companies to take a closer look at their supply chain, and ensure that they're working with those farms that place ethics and governance in the forefront.
Otherwise, there are always other options such as satin, fabric, metal, or even cork and cotton.