When Sustainable Composites introduced its recycled leather product Enspire Leather in 2019, the fashion industry stepped up to adopt the new material, leading to deals with Timberland and its parent company, VF. But co-founder Frank Fox always had the home furnishings sector in mind as he and business partner Tom Tymon developed their product made with repurposed leather scraps.
The duo, who previously worked together in the paper industry, has long been proponents of recycling. And after Fox couldn’t find a rocking chair he liked, he began working on a way to make comfortable leather upholstery made from recycled materials. After years of trial and error, he developed a process to create recycled leather. And this fall, the company will finally make the move into the home space, with at least two home furnishings brands slated to debut products upholstered in Enspire Leather.
“Up until now, the furnishings industry hasn’t been interested in recycling as much as the shoe, glove, and fashion industry—they’ve been on top of that for a while,” Fox said. “But now it’s picking up a bit, and furniture companies are more interested in recycled products.”
And that interest is in part driven by growing consumer demand for eco-conscious and sustainable products.
According to a recent consumer survey by the Sustainable Furnishings Council, 97 percent of respondents said they were interested in buying environmentally friendly home furnishings if the cost and style were comparable to other products on the market. And 87 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly furnishings.
While a natural material, leather produces a significant amount of waste, according to Fox. He said up to 60 percent of cow hides can end up in scrap, and around 3.5 million pounds of leather waste are discarded each year.
Sustainable Composites aims to offset some of that waste with Enspire Leather. The company takes leather scraps—primarily sourced from Wilson Sporting Goods’ football production—and separates the fibers to create a cotton-like fluff. The fluff is then treated with chemicals that Fox said are similar to those used in cosmetics—gentle and designed to interact with proteins—to create a fiber slurry. The material is then pressed through a paper-making machine into smooth sheets that resemble natural leather with a range of thicknesses possible, from a half a millimeter to two millimeters.
“We make the leather and actually finish it to the exact texture and color,” Fox said. “And we sell sheets of leather, so instead of using hides, we can send them a sheet of material that’s 50 inches wide by six-to-eight feet long.”
With the capability for such significant output, Enspire Leather offers furniture manufacturers a more cost-effective alternative to traditional leather.
“Considering the yield improvement resulting from using Enspire Leather, the total cost of use should be about 30 percent below that of hide leather,” Fox said.
And unlike natural leather hide—which can have blemishes and come in non-uniform shapes—Enspire is totally smooth and cut to order. For furniture applications that generally require a larger piece of material, that’s a major plus.
“The advantage to the customer is that while a hide almost always has some scrap associated with it because of the configurations and holes, our products are defect-free,” Fox said.
That makes it easier for Sustainable Composites to apply different finishes and colors to Enspire. Traditional leather used in furniture upholstery generally comes in two types. Aniline is soaked with a translucent dye during the tanning process to permeate the surface of the hide to give color without covering natural markings and variations. Pigmented leather is embossed to give a uniform grain and then dyed, with the color sealed in with a protective coating.
Fox said Sustainable Composites can replicate both finishes with Enspire Leather.
“We use processes that are very similar to traditional leather,” he said. “When we finish it, we can create any texture, and we can add finishes that the industry is familiar with.”
At this point, the company has a limited selection of in-stock colors available for next-day shipment, but accepts custom orders with a longer lead time.
“If you want a special color or a certain texture, that would take us about two-to-three weeks to get that to you because we have the same kind of stock material, we just have to finish it differently,” Fox said.
While the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted Enspire Leather’s initial rollout, Fox said the company has made up for lost time this year. And while he can’t yet name Sustainable Composites’ furniture partners, Fox said along with those two companies, nearly 30 fashion brands have expressed interest in Enspire.
“We believe we are progressive in looking for ways to use leftover materials and scraps in environmentally friendly ways,” one of the furniture makers told Sourcing Journal. “Sustainable Composites’ Enspire Leather stood out because our consumers don’t want to sacrifice the look, feel, or quality of traditional leather.”
Business is starting to take off. “Since this past January we have really been introducing it into the marketplace, and we’re getting a lot of success,” Fox said.