Bioeconomy & Sustainable Fashion #1: The True Power of Fish Leather

Produced by Camille Duran / Published byGabriela Lemos Borba / Coordinated by Han Nguyen / Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Transcribed by Oanh Nguyen/ Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space. Photo by atlanticleather

This episode launches a new series dedicated to a growing trend that definitely deserves some attention: Producing textiles from bio-materials. The theme raises a lot of questions and as we are investigating the sector in-depth at the moment, we thought we would share our findings! We start with reviewing the potential of fish leather, its potential impact and discuss the implications we should anticipate when trying to make it mainstream.

This episode features views from Halldora Eydis (Fashion Designer, Iceland) & Geir Oddsson (Senior Advisor at the Nordic Council of Ministers).

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Transcript from the Episode

CAMILLE DURAN (CD): Today we start a new series!

Yes I know, we are still to complete our Circular Economy series, and our Bio-waste & Agriculture series, but it’s in the works don’t worry.

It’s just that it takes time for a discussion to wrap-up, and until we can move the right politicians and experts to truly advance the discussion, well… we may as well get started on new themes where things are happening – right now.

So – Get used to it, and if you really think about it, that’s exactly how you operate when you’re watching: One episode of Game of Thrones, and while waiting for the next season to be released, you watch Homeland, House of Cards, and then back to Game of Thrones.

We don’t have dragons on the Green Exchange yet. But here again, we’re working on it.

Everyone has heard of Sustainable Fashion.

I agree, Asian children are very skilled at making our sneakers in underground factories, but that’s not really the story we like to tell ourselves when shopping, right?

It’s like the car we drive, we have millions of excuses on why it’s OK.

Of course, what do you want? You want me to truly care? Really? Nah.

OK – So now sustainable fashion is the new buzzword and all the big brands have decided to do the right thing, clean up their mess and be 100% transparent about their practices. Great…

VOICE: Verbal irony is when someone says something and means the exact opposite of what they’re saying.

CD: …And since everything is about to be solved – we may as well talk about it.

All joking aside, there are people that are truly pushing the boundaries towards ‘more’ sustainable fashion. In this new series, we are going to study how bio-materials can be used in fashion. I’ll explain in a minute.

If you’re also interested in the bigger picture, and how Circular Economy applies to the textile industry in general, we are covering this in our Circular Economy series, soon.

So one more time, here it’s going to be about bio-materials – meaning:

“When will my jacket be made of pineapple leather?”

“What if my shoes were made of fish skin?”

“Can I eat my T – shirt?”

Those kinds of questions.

And it’s very serious because there are a lot of efforts geared towards activating what we call the ‘Bio-economy’. And this combined to the sustainable fashion trends is creating strong momentum, strong ambition, in Nordic countries and beyond.

Still, a lot of questions need to be answered. And that’s why we’re here.






CD: You’re listening to The Green Exchange, Episode 1 of our series on Bio-economy and Sustainable Fashion – What is the real potential of fish leather?

Yep, fish leather.

I know what you’re thinking: “Does it smell?”

Hmm, we’ll answer that later.

One fact that I would like to start with: The global demand for leathers is rising fast, very fast. More and more people have money so more and more people want to eat meat – and more and more people want leather.

And a far majority of leathers is made of cattle, and the environmental impact is quite bad.

Well, to start with, producing clothing is usually a nasty business.

Now when it comes to cow leather, we were looking for amount of C02 emissions per square meter produced and it’s quite difficult. The measurement methods are not harmonized and Life Cycle Analysis in the cattle industry is still very controversial. Everyone agrees to say that it’s a major driver of carbon emissions; the discussion is around how much exactly.

Now you add the water and energy intensity of leather tanning (the process of making leather), and you will never look at your shoes the same way ever again. Ever.


Also, we found out that cow leather is not always a by-product of the meat industry. We are featuring a few resources on this on the episode page.

Now, what if we were making leathers from other materials?

Some have very interesting properties like kangaroo leather – very solid and very flexible at same time, lamb and deer skins are very soft, I also like snake and crocodile. They are very exotic.

VOICE: It’s a joke! When you give me that look, it’s a joke!

CD: Well, without getting into controversy, I think this is a real discussion. When is it OK to turn animal into leather, for which species is it OK and for which is it not?

Well, maybe we’ll host the debate on this someday. For now we are going to focus on one type of leather where it seems to be quite OK, and maybe even sustainable.


I know what you’re thinking. It’s not possible because it’s fragile and it smells.

Sure, stay tuned, we’re just starting to talk about this.




“Hello, my name is Philissa Williams and I am a Fashion Designer and nameless consultant. The name of my company is Thembe Fashions. I make and designing everything. And I listen to The Green Exchange while I’m making my creative pieces for artists and creative people”.



CD: The fish industry is not glamour. You know that.

50% of the fish is considered to be food, and 50% of the fish is considered to be waste.

We process 80 billion kilos of fish every year, which means we produce 40 billion kgs of waste per year. This is serious. It’s a real problem.

Now, 30% of fish waste is turned into fish meal – animal feed. But 28 MT are still dumped every year, mostly at sea…

And, that is a real issue in Europe and in the Nordics in particular.

We’ve talked about this in our last LIVE talk show. It was in Sweden, hosted in partnership with the Nordic Council of Ministers and Malmö Cleantech City. It was fun!

We brought together people from different sectors, fashion designers, fishermen, investors, public sector, and a bunch of sustainability enthusiasts.

And we started a discussion: What is the real potential of fish leather?

A few interesting points were brought to the table.

First of all, we know how to make it. There are a number of tanneries that have been working on perfecting the process now and a growing number of designers are getting in the game. It is made from waste, in other words, we don’t go and hunt fish for its skin.
All the largest luxury brands have experimented with it and it is a very attractive material. It does not smell.


HALLDORA EYDIS (HE): I love working with fish skin. It is my favourite material to work with, and people love it.

CD: This is Halldora Eydis, an Icelandic designer that is working with this material.

HE: Also it looks amazing. I have a lot of people coming to our store and they think first it’s snake skin. They are like, “that’s disgusting!”

And I say, “No, it’s not. It’s not from animals; it’s a by-product from fishery industry. It will be a waste if it’s not used.”

And then they actually say, “Wow, that’s pretty fantastic!”



CD: The next take-away from the discussion: It is high value.


Do we really solve a waste problem with making fish leather?

No we don’t!

First, because it’s not made in large quantities today.

We asked the leading tannery, a facility where they make fish leather, and they produce around 10,000m2 per year which seems like a lot but it’s actually only around 3 tons of material.

Second, because much of the fish skin is already recovered and turned into animal feed, fish meal. Of course, we could recover even more than what’s being done today, but that’s not really the point here.

What is interesting with fish leather is that the market value you create for each piece of fish skin recovered is very high. In other words, one ton of fish leather is much, much, much, much more valuable than one ton of fish meal. And this was the main talking point.


GEIR ODDSSON (GO): Here we are seeing examples creating a lot of values from a resource that used to be thrown away.

CD: This is one of our guests at the talk show, Geir Oddsson, Senior Adviser at the Nordic Council of Ministers, also working with the Working Group of Fishery and Bio-economy.

GO: This is encouraging to see in action. But I think fish skin is only a part of the solution. Fish skin is also the need of the high fashion industry and accessories. Expensive stuff. What about the rest of the fashion industry, the clothes we wear every day?


CD: OK, so what did we learn so far?

One, we know how to make it. It doesn’t smell and it is very robust and attractive material to work with.
Two, the market is rather small right now; fish leather is mostly used for luxury fashion.
Three, it does not solve a waste problem, and it will not until the market is very large scale, which is not going to happen anytime soon.
And four, the demand for leathers is growing rapidly.
Now a couple of objections and reminders, just so we don’t drift away.




We should be a little bit careful about where we are going to spend our energy, time, and public money.

We have our colleague Eleen on the line and coming with a couple of insights for us.

Let’s put a little bit coffee shop atmosphere, shall we? There you go.


CD:  Hi, Eleen How are you?

ELEEN MURPHY (EM): Hi Camille, I’m good. How are you?

CD: Dynamite. During the research phase, you told me that there was an important point to be made.

EM: Yeah, well the main point I have to say is that to understand how sustainable a product is, you have to look at the whole cycle not just one part of it. For example, the contribution of fibres or whether you use fish skin or cow skin or wood or anything, it doesn’t drastically change the carbon emissions coming from the textile sector anyway. The real emissions are coming from the use of water in textile sector, and the fact is that it’s a global supply chain – those kinds of things. So you have to look at the big picture.

CD: OK, so energy and water intensity are the main drivers of the carbon emissions.

EM: Exactly.

CD: One strong argument for seeking material alternatives is when your first option is too resource intensive, and/or reaching its limit, like in the case of cotton for instance, which I suppose is the reason why there is a lot of hype around finding new materials and fibres. And sometimes it feels like we are solving a problem by looking somewhere else, but really, we were not.

And that is something I think we should address in more detail in this series, making sure we’re fighting the right battle.

EM: Yeah.

CD: That’s being said that the case of fish leather is interesting because demand for leather is rising fast in general, fish skin is a by-product of the fishery industry, so it’s there.

EM: Yeah. It is, definitely!

CD: So if we can replace cow skin by fish skin in the mix of leather, then that could become interesting from a sustainability standpoint.

EM: Yeah, definitely does. And one thing that should be studied with numbers, and a Life Cycle Assessment and so on: is the process of making fish leather substantially greener than the process for making cow leather, and if it is, let’s quantify.

CD: Right. So again, looking at the process of making it as much as looking at the source of material.

EM: Yeah.

CD: When it comes to life cycle assessments, there are also different ways of doing this and if we are responsible inhabitants of Planet Earth, we should really use the Planetary Boundaries Framework which gets the deeper perspective than just the system in question, by looking at impact on biodiversity, on the climate overall, etc.

So in short, in the world where leather is made of the fish skin, what is the correlation between overfishing, as well as all the other fish industry problems, and the supplies of fish skin for a so-to-say sustainable fashion industry?

Eleen, I’m wondering, would you wear fish leather?

EM: Yeah, I would. It looks lovely.

CD: Actually I’m looking the fish leather shoes right now. I just haven’t found anything comfortable enough but I asked our guest designer Halldora that we heard the earlier in the show. And she’s working on it, so fingers crossed!

EM: That’s exciting!

CD: Yeah. Alright … Thanks for passing by!

EM: Thanks, Camille.





CD: Did you take notes? The question we should be asking is: how can we phase out cow leather, and introduce new types of leather that,

One: come from more sustainable sources (like fish skin)?
Two: are produced with substantially less carbon emissions than cow leather tanning?
We’ll keep investigating in the following episodes of this series on sustainable fashion and bio-economy. We probably need to inject a bit of research and innovation money here, don’t you think?

We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration and entertainment.

Keep up the good work in the meantime!


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