Consumer Market Researcher, Pamela N. Danziger, writes on Forbes web site that five years ago two scientists had a mad idea: recycle leather scraps and turn them back into a useable leather product.
Tom Tymon and Frank Fox with chemistry and engineering backgrounds had the know-how, after working for years in new product development for Armstrong World Industries. They had the entrepreneurial experience as well, having taken the reins of a company that Armstrong spun off and that they eventually sold in 2012.
But retirement didn’t sit well with these two, so they started working in Tymon’s basement to figure out the processes required to make new leather from scraps. “Mother nature doesn’t give up her secrets easily,” Fox shared with me from his Sustainable Composites office in Lancaster County, PA.
“We had to figure out how to break the bonds in leather to release the fibers and then turn them into a slurry that can be poured into a paper machine and formed into sheets. It was quite a job,” he continues.
Just grinding the leather up didn’t work so they had to use chemistry. They discovered a unique combination of benign and common chemicals could produce the needed magic. The result is a manufacturing process that is environmentally friendly as well.
After investing some $3.2 million in development so far and with three patents registered and a fourth expected any day, Enspire Leather is finally ready for market. They used the ‘E’ in the product name to emphasize the environmentally-positive aspect of the product.
Enspire Leather looks, feels and can be used just like natural hide leather, but it’s even better because it comes rolled in sheets. That means less waste on the cutting room floor.
“It’s cheaper than hide leather because it comes in perfectly rectangular dimensions with no holes or imperfections. You get better yield as a result and you can send any leftover material back to us to recycle so you can become a zero-loss company,” Fox says. He estimates cost savings up to 20% for its recycled leather over traditional leather.
The raw material for Sustainable Composites has come from the Wilson football factory in Ada, OH. That material used to be sent landfills or incinerated. Now it is trucked to Sustainable Composites’s warehouse to be turned into cottonlike leather pulp. Tens of thousands of pounds of waste has been repurposed as a result.
From there the pulp is shipped to several upstate New York paper plants to be mixed into a slurry and rolled out on their paper-making machines. Right now Sustainable Composites is evaluating new scrap leather sources and plans to have three-to-five primary sources online soon.
The finished recycled leather can be finished in a tannery just like regular leather and customized by color, texture or thickness.
After introducing Enspire Leather at the recent High Point Furniture Market, La-Z-Boy signed on. It will add to La-Z-Boy’s commitment to the American Home Furnishing Alliance’s environmental management guidelines. La-Z-Boy expects its new Enspire Leather products to be introduced in 2020.
Besides the home furnishings industry, Sustainable Composites is setting its sights on the $91.2 billion global fashion leather goods market. That industry is looking for environmentally-friendly and sustainable sources and VF Corporation’s Timberland company immediately recognized the appeal of Enspire Leather’s sustainable option.
“At the heart of the Timberland brand is the belief that a greener future is a better future. This includes an unwavering commitment to minimize the environmental impact of our products, in terms of the materials we use as well as how they are made,” Timberland global brand president Jim Pisani shared in a statement.
“Leather is a hallmark of the Timberland brand, and a key area of focus when it comes to responsible innovation. We’re incredibly excited at the prospect of recycled leather as we work toward a more sustainable supply chain and look forward to introducing our first footwear collection made from recycled leather in fall 2020,” Pisani continued.
In closing, Fox says Enspire Leather hits a sweet spot for companies looking for a better alternative to traditional leather. “I’ve worked in B2B industries for years and we offer a lot of rewards to people working in different sectors of these companies,” he says.
“We offer an advantage to the purchasing agent because our prices are lower. We offer an advantage for the manufacturing manager because it gives better yield and saves money. And for the marketing manager, it gives them a new story to tell,” Fox continues.
While artificial leather is available, Enspire Leather is real leather just processed in a new way. “We’ve taken it to tanneries and they think it is leather. It smells like leather. It has the same physical properties as leather. It finishes like leather. Maybe I can tell the difference, but nobody else can,” Fox says and I agree.