By Courtney Yalen
While cow, sheep and goat leather is not a favorite commodity amongst vegans, there’s a new kind of leather that may just suit the ethical standards of animal lovers and environmentally conscious realists alike: fish leather.
Until the 19th century, fish leather was used by Icelandic people as a material for durable shoes and accessories – it is incredibly strong, yet light in weight. Nowadays, it is considered an eco-luxury leather alternative due to the fact that it is sourced as a by-product of the food industry that would have been discarded after commercial fishermen take the meat, and because of the luxuriousness, versatility and strength of the leather. Although it’s quite thin, the alignment of fish skin’s fibers runs in a criss-cross pattern as opposed to the parallel pattern in mammals, making fish leather much more durable.
The tanning and dyeing processes used for fish is also far less aggressive to the skin and environment than that used for mammal leathers, which require strong chemical products that release gases such as hydrogen sulfide (an explosive, corrosive, and flammable gas) to strip the hairs from the hide. Since fish have no hair, this step is unnecessary. The scales may be removed, but this is never through chemical processing.
So, fish skin can either be smooth, like animal leather, or if the scales are left on, there’s a beautiful snakeskin effect. And contrary to what you may think: no, it doesn’t smell fishy!
Make no mistake: this isn’t a fully cruelty-free product. But consider this: there are 19 billion farm animals on the planet, the vast majority of these being created by us for our consumption. They are not all here ‘naturally;’ male animals are normally killed and discarded like rubbish (because they can’t make milk or be used for reproduction like females). These animals need loads of food to eat, loads of water to drink, and create massive amounts of pollution through their excrement. But fish swim the oceans naturally; they don’t need us to farm food for their survival, and unlike farm animals, their presence isn’t polluting. And because more people around the world eat fish than they do beef or mutton, this industry is huge, meaning there’s a lot of potential in that wasted skin. Ultimately, given that fish skin can be dyed and tanned easily and naturally, we’d say this material is even more eco-friendly than vegan leather.
Here are four fashion-forward brands we love, using this sustainable material in their accessories.
Based in London, the fish leather that is used to create the bold, minimalist designs for this bag brand is also sourced from waste skins in Iceland. Using renewable hydro and geothermal energy to create the bags, all items are produced in the UK and Europe under fair working conditions. Each piece is handmade and unique; we especially love how the natural markings of the fish are highlighted as part of the chic clutch designs.
By sourcing their salmon leather from fishing industry byproducts in Iceland, all of the energy required for making the actual leather comes from renewable geothermal activity, and the natural tanning takes place nearby. The founders work with factories to ensure staff are treated fairly in the best conditions, and that the required environmental protection measures are respected. The result is a candy coloured collection of leather goods that are easy on the eye, and easy on the planet.
Different from Icelandic salmon, Real True from Brazil uses pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and the staple food for the people in the Amazon basin. Not only is the processing done in a fully sustainable manner and without harmful chemicals, but the making of these accessories provides locals with alternative sources of income to those that cause deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, such as logging and cattle ranching.
Sirpa Kalliola’s brand Viona Blu has specialised in luxurious fish leather accessories since 2012. Favoured by the First Lady of Finland herself, Kalliola’s exquisite designs have been featured at New York, Copenhagen and Hong Kong fashion weeks.
After studying fashion in Brussels and working for Louis Vuitton, the designer decided to follow her dream and launched her own fashion brand. She initially tried different types of hides at first but fell in love with fish leather for its sustainability and the character it brings to any accessory.
You can see how her experience at Louis Vuitton rubbed off: her accessories are made with an impeccable eye to detail, and a sophisticated, chic aesthetic.
Jana Keller’s conscious accessories brand is sustainable for many reasons: only natural tanning and dying methods are used here, and all packaging is recyclable, for example. Another way the label is green is because it uses salmon skin instead of leather for many of its jewellery and shoe designs. For over 10 years, the Swiss designer has been fully dedicated to combining sustainability with beautifully designed luxury goods – no wonder eco-minded celebrities like Jessica Alba and Eric Roberts are fans!
For more information on the different types of fish leather and tanning process which many of the mentioned brands use, please click here.