Brand owners consistently search for new textile developments to differentiate themselves from competitors and offer sustainable options for evolving consumer demand. The leather market is no exception, and alternative leathers are on the rise, with a variety of options in technology, scalability, and performance. In this blog, we outline and evaluate the market for fish leather, a material that brands like Prada, Dior, Nike, and Jimmy Choo have already used.
How it works & market offering
Fish leather is a centuries-old traditional craft that indigenous groups from coastal regions used to produce tear-resistant and waterproof clothing. Now, tanneries partner with local fisheries and collect otherwise waste fish skins to create an alternative leather material. In general, these groups mechanically remove excess flesh, descale the skins, and then use vegetable tannins to stabilize the material and prevent putrefaction. During this process, the hydrogen in the tannins cross-links and bonds to the collagen in the skin; intermolecular Van der Waals forces also contribute to the bond strength. Companies then dye, stretch, dry, and optionally glaze the skin with a final wax or resin. The overall process can take two to six weeks, producing fish leather that is up to nine times stronger than cowhide of a similar thickness due to the intersecting fiber pattern.
Depending on the location, tanneries offer salmon, perch, cod, wolffish, sole, sturgeon, carp, or other fish leather in a variety of colors and finishes. Nordic Fish Leather (previously Atlantic Leather), a leader in the space, priced its salmon skin at €118/m2 in 2019, though prices vary by supplier. Global production is estimated to be 40 mt/yr to 70 mt/yr, with main providers after Nordic Fish Leather including Victorian Foods, Nanai, Ictyos, and Mermaid Leather. Designers like Oskar Metsavaht, Barbara della Rovere, Hanna Altmann, Kari Furre, and Batliner have partnered with these producers or, in most cases, established local supply chains to create their own fish leather. Elisa Palomino co-founded Fishskinlab to research and protect the fish leather craft; she also received Horizon 2020 funding to form the FishSkin Horizon consortium to develop sustainable processing methods, simulation tools, and a circular economy strategy for the European market.
Drivers for adoption
Sustainability advantages are the main incentives for fish leather adoption. The material's unique aesthetic also lends itself well to high-end brands that prioritize exclusive designs. Drivers include:
- Elimination of chrome tanning as producers opt for vegetable-based tanning instead. The chrome salts traditionally used in this process are harmful to worker safety and carcinogenic. They are often also converted to hexavalent chromium, which increases the toxicity of wastewater effluent in the environment.
- Creation of new business opportunities by converting existing fish waste into a more valuable resource, thereby also decreasing local water pollution from discarded skins.
- Reduction of harsh chemicals like sodium sulfide or cyanides used in the traditional liming process for dissolving fats and hairs from mammal hides.
- High performance that is comparable to or better than that of conventional leather.
- An exotic look that can help luxury brands differentiate themselves.
Barriers to adoption
Fish leather is a niche product, and its addressable market size will remain relatively low. Limitations include:
- Longer processing times (weeks instead of days), as fish leather requires lower temperatures to produce and is largely handmade.
- Lower shrinkage temperatures (80 °C to 85 °C instead of 100 °C to 120 °C) compared to chrome-tanned leathers.
- Inconsistent feedstock quality, where skins can vary in thickness, shape, and behavior.
- Capacity is tightly linked to geographical resource availability and the strength of partnerships within the supply chain.
- Global supply is restricted to a handful of key players procuring and producing fish leather.
- Resistance to mass market adoption due to the exotic or unfamiliar look.
Fish leather is a unique product that is building a niche within luxury goods and everyday accessories like watch straps, belts, wallets, purses, shoes, jewelry, decorative accents, and other consumer goods. While it is poised as a sustainable alternative to bovine leather, fish tanneries must ensure that their practice remains eco-friendly, using what would otherwise be discarded fish in combination with sustainable tannins without encouraging unethical aquafarming or fish handling. To be sustainable, the capacity of the fish leather market must remain linked to the availability of waste skins produced by active fisheries.
However, fish leather is unlikely to penetrate the mass market due to capacity constraints, the highly manual nature of the process, and its novelty as an emerging material. Those seeking alternative solutions should evaluate multiple options and spread their bets, partnering with near-term players while investing in disruptive long shots among different leather technologies, not just fish.