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Meet the fish leather pioneers

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Steinunn Gunnsteinsdóttir admits that it took her family more than a few attempts to be able to make leather from fish skins.

“The first 200 times we just made smelly fish soups,” she says.

Ms Gunnsteinsdóttir is the sales manager of Icelandic company Atlantic Leather, which owns the only fish tannery in Europe.

Overlooking a fjord on Iceland’s remote north coast, since 1994 it has been processing the skins of salmon, perch, cod and wolffish.

The tanning process takes between three and four weeks, and 19 employees now produce 10,000 skins, or nearly a tonne, of fish leather a month.

“The fish smell disappears in the early stages, then it smells like any other leather,” adds Ms Gunnsteinsdóttir, who is the daughter of the founders.

The company gets all its fish from sustainable stocks, via Icelandic, Norwegian and Faroe Island fishing fleets, and unlike the worst examples in the global cow leather industry its tanning process is as environmentally friendly as possible.

Model holds a green fish skin clutchImage copyrightFAO/LUIS TATO
Image captionFish leather is being increasingly used by makers of handbags – such as this example by Italian designer Barbara della Rovere

The operation runs off geothermal energy, which is prevalent in Iceland, and the firm has equipment that enables it to re-use every drop of water between eight and nine times in the production process.

Atlantic Leather also uses natural, non-polluting dyes. The price of its leather varies depending on the fish, but the salmon skins sell for $12 (£9) a square foot.

Now supplying top European fashion houses Jimmy Choo, Dior and Ferragamo, Ms Gunnsteinsdóttir says it is a misconception that fish leather must be delicate and easy to tear.

“Fish leather’s actually nine times stronger than lamb or cow leather of similar thickness,” she says.

“This is because the fibres in fish skin criss-cross rather than just up and down… it makes it much more durable leather for products that have to be really strong like shoes, belts and bags.”

Brown dotted Wolfish leather purseImage copyrightCAMILLE THIEBAUT
Image captionIt is a misconception that fish leather is not as strong as cow hide

While fish leather currently accounts for less than 1% of total global leather sales, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is promoting its increasing production as a means to boost the incomes of fishing communities around the world.

“We think fish leather is a way to improve people’s livelihoods in fishing communities without compromising their food security,” says Jackie Alder, who is a senior fisheries industry officer at the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.

Increased availability of fish leather could also reduce demand for snake and alligator skins, which may come from endangered species.

A rise in the use of fish skins may, in the longer term, also see less need for cow leather.

However, the cow leather industry is intrinsically linked to continuing demand for beef. With the current rate of the world’s beef consumption, hides not turned into leather would instead become an estimated 10 million tonne waste problem per year.

Outside of the environmental costs of land clearance and methane emissions involved in cow leather, the industry says it has made efforts in recent years to improve production processes around the world.

Workers at Victorian Foods clean Nile perch fish ahead of removing the skinImage copyrightFAO/LUIS TATO
Image captionWorkers at Victorian Foods in Kenya make leather from the skins of giant Nile perch

Since 2005, the Leather Working Group trade association – whose members include Adidas, Nike and Primark – says it has been promoting environmentally responsible practices. This includes better standards of waste water discharge.

Some 8,500km (5,280 miles) away from Iceland, another company now making fish leather is Kenya’s Victorian Foods.

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