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H&M and Louis Vuitton Are Making Headlines for All the Wrong Reasons

Household-name brands are finding themselves on the “naughty” list this holiday season for their behavior toward both shoppers and animals, and given their past blunders, it may be tough to convince consumers that they still deserve the distinction of “nice.”

Louis Vuitton

French luxury stalwart Louis Vuitton is the latest brand to rankle the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), this time with statements about conditions at the exotic animal farms the brand partners with to provide skins for its high-end shoes, bags, accessories and garments.

On Monday, the animal rights group fired off a letter to the Paris-based label’s chair and CEO, Michael Burke, after the exec recently claimed, “with 100 percent hand on heart,” that Louis Vuitton’s animals are “humanely farmed” in a statement to British outlet The Telegraph.

In its open letter, PETA’s vice president and deputy general counsel for animal law, Jared Goodman, laid into Burke for the categorical denial of wrongdoing, detailing an affiliate organization’s damning investigation into the LVMH animal skin and fur supply chain.

LVMH did not respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

The expose revealed rampant abuses against crocodiles at Vietnam farms, wherein tens of thousands of reptiles were packed into small, concrete enclosures—some barely big enough to contain them—for over a year before slaughter. LVMH purchased a majority stake in the Heng Long crocodile leather tannery in 2011, and admitted that the body sourced its animal skins from these farms for a period of years.

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A PETA probe into “one of the largest ostrich slaughter companies in the world,” which currently supplies ostrich leather to Louis Vuitton, found that workers were forcing the animals into stun boxes, causing many to fall and sustain injuries, before slitting their throats in front of other animals. Workers were also seen striking the animals, PETA reported. Goodman wrote that the organizations has also detailed abuses at fur farms across the globe, where animals are electrocuted, bludgeoned, gassed, and frequently skinned alive.

PETA's expose details abusive treatment of animals like ostriches, which are farmed for their hides.
PETA’s expose details abusive treatment of animals like ostriches, which are farmed for their hides. Paul Zinken / AP Images

Despite Burke’s public assurances to shoppers, Goodman said, animals are “violently killed and skinned for Louis Vuitton product.” Taking aim at the CEO’s statement of confidence in the LVMH-owned brand’s animal supply chain, Goodman wrote, “Such representations are courting a consumer fraud action against your company.”

“We hope you will recognize your untenable position,” he continued, “and, at the least, immediately cease making this and any other false claims to misrepresent the suffering inherent in your company’s supply chain.”

Goodman insisted that such cruelty toward animals “is standard wherever animals are killed for human use,” pointing also to investigations into the wool, down and leather industries. These examinations “have revealed time and again that it is nothing but wishful thinking that certifications—which neither Louis Vuitton nor LVMH even require for all suppliers in their chain—somehow prevent egregious harm.”

The Louis Vuitton Capucines handbag made from genuine crocodile leather retails for $31,500.
The Louis Vuitton Capucines handbag made from genuine crocodile leather retails for $31,500. LouisVuitton.com

The PETA VP implored Louis Vuitton to follow in the footsteps of some of its industry peers in removing exotic skins from its offerings entirely. Global fashion players like Chanel, Calvin Klein, Victoria Beckham, Diane von Furstenberg, Vivienne Westwood and retailers like Nordstrom and Selfridges have made such commitments already, and the stance is quickly going mainstream in alignment with changing consumer appetites for these products.

Nordstrom’s chief merchandising officer, Teri Bariquit, explained in September that the decision to forego exotic skins is part of the retailer’s “ongoing product evolution.” The store’s private labels have eschewed exotic skins for years, she said, so extending the policy to all the brands it carries felt like a “natural next step for our business.”

“As a leading fashion retailer, we’re committed to delivering the best possible service and merchandise for our customers,” Bariquit said. “Delivering on that commitment means continually listening to customer feedback and evolving our product offering to ensure we’re meeting their needs.”

In August, Louis Vuitton’s luxury competitor Valentino earned PETA’s praise when it became the first haute couture brand to drop alpaca wool from its material list. The animal rights organization released footage showing animals being roughly handled—and sometimes left bleeding—at Mallkini, the world’s largest privately owned alpaca farm, based in Peru.

“Valentino’s compassionate decision will go a long way in helping to prevent vulnerable alpacas from being abused and shorn bloody for their fleece,” PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said in a statement at the time. “Kind shoppers can do their part by steering clear of alpaca fleece and opting for chic, PETA-approved vegan clothing that no animal had to suffer for.”

H&M Group

Meanwhile, new allegations of discrimination by H&M have landed the Swedish fast-fashion retailer in hot water with the country’s Equality Ombudsman (DO), an agency which investigates instances of discrimination based on sexual identity and expression, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, disability or age.

The trouble stems from a video released in November by Swedish news outlet Aftonbladet that shows a white, female journalist returning items at one of H&M’s stores without a receipt—after a non-white woman of foreign descent was denied the opportunity to return her items under the same circumstances.

The DO decided to initiate an inspection of the company after seeing the footage of last month’s incident, Aftonbladet reported Wednesday. H&M’s return policy allows shoppers to bring back in-season items still carried in store without receipts, the retailer told Aftonbladet at the time of the video release.

According to the DO, the background for the investigation stems from “the media information that claims that the company treats people with an ethnic affiliation other than Swedish and disadvantages them, among other things, by demanding a receipt when changing goods in violation of the company’s policy.”

“The purpose of the inspection is to clarify whether there has been a violation of the prohibition of discrimination for which the company is responsible,” it said.

An H&M spokesperson told Reuters the same day that the company was also investigating the incident internally, and that it would respond to the agency’s questions by the deadline of Dec. 22. “It is a matter of course that all customers be treated equally and we take this type of accusation very seriously,” they said.

While the DO cannot impose sanctions on a company like H&M, it is able to bring a court case against it based on its findings.

The in-store blunder comes just months after a disturbing internal incident by H&M Group’s & Other Stories brand. In August, the label’s design team sent out a product line sheet via its internal overview system to a number of employees depicting hats for its upcoming line. One of the brand’s beanie styles bore the n-word as part of its name.

Following the incident, H&M Group issued an apology, decrying the action as “totally unacceptable.” While it is unclear how the word was incorporated into the document in the first place, the team and managers responsible for that area of the business were suspended.

H&M Group implemented company-wide training on conscious and unconscious bias immediately following the beanie imbroglio, mandating education across brands and teams. It promised that by year’s end, management teams in major markets would publish new targets and timetables for improving representation, and that by the end of 2021, the company would announce its global plan for promoting inclusion.

The company has mostly contained the impact of the & Other Stories design team’s deeply inappropriate conduct this summer, as it took part behind closed doors and is being dealt with largely out of public view. But the discriminatory treatment of a shopper in one of its stores last month—caught on camera by a journalist, no less—raises new questions about whether the company’s stated inclusivity goals have been communicated effectively throughout its ranks, or whether its anti-bias training is working.

In late November, after refusing a request for comment from Aftonbladet, H&M CEO Helena Helmersson sat down with another Swedish publication, Dagens Nyheter, to speak out on behalf of the global fashion titan and acknowledge both recent incidents.

Helmersson said that racism and discrimination are a part of the society in which the company operates, but that any evidence that H&M is contributing to those issues should be examined.

“It is clear that as a company it is not possible to guarantee that a societal problem will be solved,” she said, “but on the other hand, we must take our responsibility and do everything in our power to push for a positive change.”

H&M has “taken great strides” when it comes to addressing discrimination over the course of the past year, she said, “but we must be humble.”

“If there is any signal that customers or employees do not feel listened to or welcomed, then we have a responsibility to take it seriously and see what more we can do,” she said.

Part of that solution is an open dialogue with employees, she said, insisting that in recent years, “thousands” of H&M’s staff have received training to combat racism and discrimination.

H&M Group did not respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.