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Sustainability Talks

Inside Leather Recycling with Sustainable Composites

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When an individual begins to research the amount of waste generated from the fashion industry, it’s sometimes enough to “Enspire” that person to find ways to reduce it.

Lancaster, Pa.-based Sustainable Composites LLC has developed a solution called Enspire leather, which is earning more cowbell among apparel and shoe companies that are looking to improve brand clout in a world driven by environmentally focused consumers.

Co-founder Frank Fox explains, “The ‘e’ denotes the environmentally positive aspect of the product while recognizing the endless inspiration the product can deliver to designers, manufacturers and consumers.”

The journey to move toward a new, innovative leather product begins when Fox along with Tom Tymon were coworkers with an idea, a basement and a common goal.  

From the Pasture

The words “recycling” and “profitable” often don’t come in pairs, just like some might say about steak sauce and a prime cut of beef. Fox and Tymon set out to change that in 2012.

The duo started as CEO and senior vice president at a specialty products paper company.

“We thought that leather has not been recycled to the same degree as we think we can do it. We started working on it, and then we sold the company,” Fox says. “And Tom and I left and took with us this concept of being able to recycle leather.”

The cofounders of Sustainable Composites began conducting experiments in Tymon’s basement, setting their sights “pretty high.”

“And so here were two old innovators from with a passion, because I really believe in recycling products and he did too,” Fox says. “There are a lot of products that are supposedly substitutes for leather. But we didn't find any that could feel like leather, smell like leather, perform like leather and look like leather.”

And it took a while for the two with textile engineering and science backgrounds to create the final product - Enspire leather.

Fox explains, “Mother Nature didn't really give up her secrets very easily. Because to accomplish that, we had to learn a lot about how Mother Nature put fibers together. So, we had to learn how to take scrap leather and take the fibers apart, not destroy them, but actually take them apart so they can float in aqueous solution ready to do something with.”

First, the two had to develop a method to grind leather scraps without destroying them. Fox says they then had to solve how to put the scrap back together using chemistry and a manufacturing process that would replicate that. The end result: five patents.

“It created five patents because we use really different technologies, different chemistry and different mechanical processes to do that. But that took us a few years to develop that,” he says.

Joining the Herd

Along the way, Sustainable Composites was approached by VF Corporation, the global footwear and apparel conglomerate behind brands such as Vans, The North Face and Timberland. It was then Fox and Tymon knew they had some skin in the game.

“They believed in our mission, and they had the same mission as they wanted to put in a different kind of a leather. So, we started that journey together,” Fox says.

Sustainable Composites is now in the final stages of the leather collaboration which will be used in VF’s Timberland line of boots.

While COVID has affected the company’s ability to get products from the manufacturer, Fox says there has been significant interest from automobile manufacturers and other fashion giants.

Getting to the Belly

Leather manufacturing is often portrayed as a wasteful process. About 25% of the hide is utilized at the end of the production process while the rest goes unused. However, the industry purchases cowhides from the U.S. meat industry, which equates to more than 2 billion pounds or $40 million saved annually from landfills, according to the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA).

Sustainable Composites sources its raw materials directly from the leather manufacturing process, which will reduce waste an additional 50%.

“Right now, we're sourcing from one source which is Wilson Leather products. And they generally come from a series of herds. And we have traceability back to the cow,” Fox says. “We're also working with other leather sources and qualifying them to continue.”

In some ways, the startup is an “interrupter” in the supply chain, he says, because it takes scraps as various board parts during the manufacturing process and brings it back to the finisher at the end.

“We are sort of doing a loop around the process,” Fox explains. “And it's probably more efficient. And it's a different route. We depend on that process. We just take it from its early part and bring it in to the end part of that issue. So, we're very compatible with finishing processes and leather processes.”

No Need to Hide

With the need for companies to offer products that are sustainably sourced, Fox sees an opportunity for Sustainable Composites to revolutionize the fashion industry as consumer demand more value from their purchases than the season’s latest apparel.

“They'll be able to offer products that are sustainable, that have been developed from taking waste products – scrap – and go through a product process that's very environmentally sound and safe and offer a new category of products,” Fox says. “It would be very cost effective for them, and the prices may be lower. Plus, they have much better yields. So, they can change their processing and making styles to gain better yields and eliminate scrap more completely.”

Innovation is key, and it takes a consensus of open minds and studies to round up data about a customer’s wants and needs. Fox says a thorough process of elimination in the design process as well as unwavering passion has resulted in the final iteration of the Enspire leather product.

“You have to do it with an open mind. And you have to do it with a lot of risk involved. You've got to have your blood in it,” he says. “You have to have that degree of passion to follow and solve all problems and unless you want to do that, the startup is going to be very painful for you.”

Fox concludes, “We are a company that's going to continue along this journey and look at other ways to recycle materials. We believe that recycling is going to have a strong need in the future. We know it's getting more and more profound in Europe. And we will be here. So, our efforts will focus on recycling materials, in some way, as a benefit to consumers.”

 

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