Fashion Surf and Turf: Why Fish Skins Are a Better Clothing Choice Than Leather

Those scaly shoes come at a lower environmental cost than boots made from cows.

(Photos: Flickr)

Jul 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Lucy Siegle is a London-based journalist, broadcaster, and film maker 'obsessed' with sustainable style and highly skeptical about the value of mass-market fashion.
Nothing lasts forever. Even if you eke the life span out of your clothes and accessories for as long as you can, there will always be the dearly departed pieces that leave a gap in your wardrobe. So it was, last year, that after many years of good service, my beautifully muted yet iridescent fish-skin shoes shuffled off their mortal coil.
In effect, they were just summer slip-on pumps, but boy, did they have a scaly side. Their provenance was highly sustainable too: They were a byproduct of the salmon farming industry in the Faroe Islands.
The islands below Greenland represent the best in tidal, sustainably managed fish farming, and an enterprising local designer had developed the shoes. I enjoyed them, but now they are gone. I couldn’t even recycle them as, strangely enough, there is no designated bin for fish-skin products (perhaps I should’ve composted?).
But my main beef is that I’m unlikely to replace them. Not because they weren’t great—they were—but because there is a scarcity of fish-skin products in fashion.
Fish leather remains on the sidelines, alongside other innovative but weird fibers such as spider silk and Pinetex (pineapple leather). This is surely not the right place for a ubiquitous byproduct (I read that one in three salmon globally is now farmed, so there are a lot of wasted skins).

It’s true that there are challenges with fish skin. A salmon skin is relatively small and narrow (three to five inches at its widest), so you need rather a lot to make a tote bag. Far easier (and probably cheaper) would be to revert to cow leather as usual.

Creating fish leather is not especially glamorous either. It takes buckets of water to stop the fish from decomposing (so maybe this wouldn’t work in California), the fat must be removed with spoons, and then the skins have to be tumble-dried into submission. In any case, I’d rather scrub fish skins than be responsible for skinning a python, where the animal is pumped full of water until the skin explodes off.
On the plus side, fish skins take dyes particularly well, and even prosaic non-endangered species (that’s important) such as carp and salmon grown for the table have beautiful skins that catch and play with light. Besides, as anybody who has seen the conventional leather industry up close will testify, it is gory and can be incredibly polluting, and we should be looking for alternatives to cheap cow leather.
So, Why Should You Care? In 2009, the Greenpeace report Slaughtering the Amazon found that the leather industry was driving deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It also takes a lot of water and chemicals to tan leather for the perfect bag or pair of shoes. Breaking the stranglehold of traditional leather will not be easy: The global industry is worth nearly $50 billion, according to the International Council of Tanners. But the cost of producing regular leather is high too.
Aside from cost and practicality, we need to develop new clothing fibers because we can’t wear polyester and cotton blends (which comprise 70 percent of the average wardrobe) forever without scrutinizing their impact. Equally, we cannot produce increasing global piles of accessories from mass-produced cow leather. It would make sense to have other options.
So hats off to the designers who are taking fish skin seriously as a viable, attractive, and sustainable material. They include Rose & Willard in the U.K., luxury accessories brand Heidi and Adele, and Brazilian brand TNG, the darlings of São Paulo Fashion Week. The latter is particularly interesting because recent collections incorporate pieces from the skins of Amazonian river fish; their size overcomes the issue of patchworking together small skins.
Meanwhile, the Danish Fashion Institute has added fish skin to its library, and the Higg Index, which forms a centerpiece of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, is working on ratings for different fish skins. Given the major brands that form the SAC, this could mean fish leather is about to become huge. The trick will be keeping the supply chain sustainable. Whichever way it goes, I maintain that I was an early adopter.