Fish VS Cow Leather: 3 Questions to Ask in Assessing Environmental Impact & Sustainability

Our case for using the Planetary Boundaries Framework for a comprehensive life-cycle assessment. — By Lucie Venard.

Colorful Old Fez Morocco Tannery Moroccan Leather.

You may have noticed how the price of leather shoes has increased in the past years. It is a direct effect of the imbalance between a fast-rising demand for leather and a steady supply of hides and skin — cattle growth being restrained by limited land and water resources. And as the demand for leather is set to continue its dramatic increase, producers’ and users’ eyes are now turning toward alternative offers. Fish leather is one of them.

Have you heard about fish leather? This leather made from fish skin is presented as an eco-friendly solution to replace polluting cow leather. Totally smell-free, its wide variety of colour, tones and texture attracts more and more fashion designers and luxury brands, from Prada to Nike.

But is fish leather really a more eco-friendly alternative to cow leather? How can we accurately assess and compare their environmental impact and sustainability?

Well, let’s start with asking the right questions, and focus on the right approach.

1). How is it actually made? And how to assess impact?

Fish leather can only be “greener” than cow leather if its production process is less polluting and resource-intensive. We need to quantify and put numbers on both processes to allow for comparison. We also need to consider the whole supply chain and include emissions coming from transportation, for instance. Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool that can help us draw a larger picture of the environmental impact of fish VS cow leather, from cradle to grave.

2). Assess impact within the scope of our planetary resources, not just within the scope of one process or one industry.

Traditionally, LCAs are limited to the environmental impact of the product chain. It is not a tool that puts the product in the frame of the global ecosystem, where the product interacts with different markets, behaviours and global challenges.

For instance, the LCA in its standard form would not reflect the impact of a large scale fish leather industry on the prices and use of fish meat. And how would this new market impact the existing issue of overfishing?

This is where using the Planetary Boundaries framework can bring a deeper perspective and overall more correct picture.

The Planetary Boundaries (PB) framework, developed in 2009 by a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists, lead by Johan Rockström, defines a « safe operating space » for human societies to develop within. It identifies nine biophysical boundaries of the Earth system that must be respected to avoid risks of functional collapses in ecosystems. As a side note, already four have been crossed.

Rather than just looking at the product-scale, the PB framework addresses the environmental impact of a product at a global scale: on biodiversity, climate change, etc. This framework takes into account the limited resources and the capacity of the Earth system, giving us a more comprehensive, sustainability-minded life-cycle assessment.

Research and studies are now under way to operationalise the Planetary Boundary framework as an evaluation tool of Life-Cycle Assessment results. Aligning the PB framework with LCA tools would allow us to connect the product-scale perspective of LCA with global-scale challenges and priorities, and thus aid in evaluating interventions for impact reduction.

And now, the last question is:

3). How can we invest to make the Planetary boundaries framework standard in LCA and make sure that fish leather’s potential is approached with those key questions in mind?

This key question is raised in episode #1 of the Green Exchange podcast series about Bioeconomy & Sustainable Fashion — which focuses on fish leather.

And, by the way, the Planetary Boundary framework is probably the way we should go about assessing the sustainability of every product, industry and sector. We’ve got only one planet, after all.


Our first guest blog is by Lucie Venard. Lucie Venard contributes as a freelance writer and volunteer worker for human and environmental causes she believes in — with Oxfam in Chad, Yalla! Pour les Enfants, Makesense in Lebanon, andThe Green Exchange. She is a master graduate in International Development from the Paris School of Foreign Affairs.