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Marine materials make waves in the fashion industry

Sustainability, innovation and style from the water

Blue fashion is an emerging sector in the blue economy and it focuses on the use of marine raw materials and by-products; Photo ©FAO/Luis Tato

28 November 2018, Nairobi—Rippling delicately against the glaring lights of the runway, the fabric of the models’ clothes displayed the familiar look of leather, yet striated with an iridescent scaly pattern. Fish skin is now in.

A side event at the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference held yesterday in Nairobi, the Blue Fashion for Blue Growth brought together Kenyan and international designers, and champions of the innovative use of marine materials in the fashion industry.

Co-organized by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Fashion Council, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation (NORA), the event started with an engaging discussion on the sustainability of the fashion industry. The Blue Fashion Showcase featuring materials from marine resources and by-products immediately followed the panel discussion.

As the models stood in formation at the platform made from reclaimed wood and crafted by local artisans, the Blue Fashion exemplified how sustainability can play a key role in an ever-changing and demanding sector.

Marine-based sustainability in fashion industry

The fashion industry is the second major polluting sector in the world. Increasing demand for cow leather means an upward increase of CO2 emissions with the tanning process further contributing to the release of pollutants. Water consumption, use of pesticides, chemicals, and petroleum in the production of textiles all adversely affect the environment.

Additionally, synthetic fibers release significant amounts of micro plastic in the water systems, affecting the entire food chains, debilitating communities and livelihoods, and contaminating crops.

These worrisome environmental practices in the fashion industry pushed a number of fashion innovators to look into more sustainable supply of alternative leather.

According to FAO, the world needs 50 percent more food by 2050 to meet the demand of the population. Fish supplies account for about 17 percent of animal protein and according to fisheries experts, one ton of fish fillets produce an estimated 40 kilos of discarded skin.

While fish leftovers become fishmeal for animals or simply thrown away, the old practice of turning fish skin into leather has taken a popular turn. Fish skins have delicate layered patterns that are unique in the natural world, they are also flexible, and can be sustainable sources and alternatives to cow and other types of leather.

Blue fashion is an emerging sector in the blue economy and it focuses on the use of marine raw materials and by-products to develop sustainable bio-alternatives for the fashion industry.

As production techniques get more sophisticated, and as consumers become more aware of the sustainability of fish skin leather, the fashion industry is now looking at adopting fish skin production as a priority. This development will lead into more job creation, and propel the sector to work with sustainable materials and methods.

“Fish skins are interesting to work with. They are quite soft and they come in a wide range of beautiful shades and sizes. It is inspiring working on this material as you feel its delicacy and brings out the creative things from your imagination on how you can incorporate the skin in the design. I find myself looking into the material first and then doing the design,” noted Deepa Dosaja, a well-known Kenyan designer in the Blue Fashion event.

Blue Fashion featured the designs of Deepa Dosaja, Jamil Walji, and Rift Africa. Additional fashion products included shoes and handbags by Victorian Foods, and bags and accessories by Barbara della Rovere from Brazil. The show also featured three outfits from the Blue Fashion Challenge.

Fashion from Lake Turkana

FAO estimates that in Africa, around 10 to 12 million people join the workforce every year, crowding the already strained job market.

However, there are areas that create employment and generate livelihood possibilities through blue fashion. For example in Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world in the Kenyan-Ethiopian borders, nomadic people living in the area fish for Nile perch. Fish processing company Victoria Foods employs 300 locals to catch and process the fish. The unused fish skin become fish leather.

“The Nile perch is a big fish, larger than most freshwater fish, and the adults can grow up to six feet long. What this means, we have more intact fish skin to work on. It is strong and has several layers, and each piece has a unique pattern,” said James Ambani, owner of Victorian Foods. Mr. Ambani further added that the fish skin industry provides livelihoods to the fishermen, the communities, the women, and the youth in Lake Turkana as well as the factory in Kitale (Kenya).

Marine materials in the fashion industry

A panel session before the Blue Fashion event explored the use of these materials in the sector. Moderated by Morten Stemre of the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation, panellists reflected on harnessing potential partnerships between governments, industry leaders and designers.

Panelists included Gabriel Rugalema of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Daniel Hatton, Founding Director of the Commonwealth Fashion Council; Jákup Søresen of the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation and project manager for the Blue Fashion Challenge; James Ambani and Ira Kideum of of Victorian Foods; and Ana Silva of Tintex Textiles of Portugal.

The session looked into ways of reducing environmental impact of the fashion industry, and engaging sustainably in the blue economy. In a world of fleeting fashion trends, sustainability is the runway to the future.

About FAO

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Its goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. With over 194 member states, FAO works in over 130 countries worldwide.

About the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states. It is home to 2.4 billion citizens, of whom 60 per cent are under the age of 30. The Commonwealth includes some of the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries, spanning five regions. Thirty-one of its members are small states, many of them island nations.

About Commonwealth Fashion Council

Commonwealth Fashion Council (CFC) is a not for-profit Commonwealth-accredited organisation dedicated to developing and promoting the Commonwealth Fashion Industries.  The CFC works with over 20 fashion weeks and council in order to develop programmes which focus on sustainable development, education, trade, youth and gender empowerment.

Blue Economy
Blue economy encompasses sustainable development of aquatic-based industries, including fisheries (capture and culture), fish processing, transport, tourism, energy, etc. Similar to the concept of green economy, the blue economy looks into maximizing the socioeconomic benefits of aquatic industries while minimizing environmental degradation. 

The Sustainable Blue Economy Conference 2018

The Government of Kenya is hosting the world’s first Global High-Level Conference on the Sustainable Blue Economy, November 26-28, 2018, at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  The Governments of Canada and Japan are co-hosts with a number of other countries and organizations. The event is a preparatory exercise to the UN Ocean's Conference, which Kenya will be co-hosting with Portugal in 2020.

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