Pennsylvania’s Sustainable Composites Aims to Make Leather Industry Green
by Michael Machosky
November 1, 2023
In the past decade or so, most of the materials that we use to build our world, from silks to metals, have gotten newer, greener competition.
Leather is a tough nut to crack, though. We’ve had imitation leathers for a long time, but most of them are pretty obviously imitations, and not very good.
Donald Morrison, Pittsburgh-based CEO of Sustainable Composites, thinks he has an answer – a material that has the toughness, flexibility and rich texture of leather.
It’s also leather.
Enspire Leather is upcycled from the scraps left over in the leather-cutting process.
Yes, there’s a lot of leather scraps to work with – about 3.5 billion pounds a year. That’s 3.5 billion pounds of waste scrap that has to be incinerated or dumped in a landfill, with predictably terrible downstream consequences for the environment.
Enspire Leather, to put it in Western PA terms – “is remarkably the same color as unfinished footballs,” says Morrison. And their original supply of leather scraps came from a Wilson football factory in Ohio.
“But the magic about our process is that any finish you can put on new leather, you can put on our material,” notes Morrison. “The magic of leather does not come off the cow, it comes at the tannery. So essentially any finish you can put on new leather you can put on our material.”
One of Sustainable Composites’ most important customers right now is the athletic shoe giant New Balance. “We’ll be taking their scrap leather, processing it and selling it back to them. They're going to start using it on trims on their footwear and then eventually replace the whole all the materials in their in their shoe uppers. They have a huge quantity of leather that they work with every year so it's a huge, huge opportunity for us.”
Morrison is based in Pittsburgh, and the factory and headquarters are in Lancaster, PA. The process – “We take shredded leather that coming back from cutting rooms, we grind it into a very fine fiber, and we create a slurry.” If you look at it with a microscope, it’s remarkably similar to “real” leather. “We figured out how to how to grind this up in such a way that the integrity of the rigid leather fibers stays intact,” notes Morrison.
Bonded leather products, by comparison, look totally different under a microscope — and to the naked eye — if you look closely. “I characterize that as leather dust glued to a piece of plastic,” says Morrison. “It's got some recycled leather fiber, but it's got a lot of polyester in it, too. So, it’s not very sustainable, because you know the only way to get durability is to add a lot of plastic to it.”
Morrison notes that Enspire leather creates 75 percent less C02 than new leather. Another product entirely is Enspire Post-Consumer Upcycling, working with post-consumer leather from shoes and other leather products.
Timberland launched several footwear products with Enspire leather, marketed as “TimberCycle” boots. “We’ve got about 40 major companies in our pipeline, including major tanneries in Asia,” says Morrison. “We've got four tanneries we're talking to, plus a host of major US brands — you name a brand, and we probably are in conversations with them.”
For more, visit Sustainable Composites’ website.