- Frank Fox and Tom Tymon used their textile engineering backgrounds to develop a recycled leather.
- Through their company Sustainable Composites, they partner with major brands like Timberland.
- They’ve found they work best with partners who genuinely want to be sustainable, not just cut costs.
- This article is part of a series called “Partners for a Sustainable Future,” profiling innovative alliances that are driving real progress in sustainability.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization estimated in 2003 that some 3.5 billion pounds of leather waste is sent to landfills or incinerators every year, and between 25% and 60% of leather used to make small leather goods is discarded as scrap.
Retired scientists Frank Fox and Tom Tymon decided they wanted to use their backgrounds in chemistry and textile engineering to do something good for the planet and developed a process to recycle leather.
Their Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based firm Sustainable Composites, founded in 2012, developed Enspire Leather, a recycled leather product that replicates the look, feel, smell, and performance of tanned hide at half the cost. Today, they partner with manufacturers like Timberland to improve sustainability and reduce costs along the way.
- 1 Enspire Leather. Courtesy of Sustainable Composites
- 2 Manufacturers want to become more sustainable
- 3 Leather scraps. Courtesy of Sustainable Composites
- 4 Making as many winners as possible is the key to success
- 5 Enspire Leather products. Courtesy of Sustainable Composites Companies can’t simply focus on cost
Manufacturers want to become more sustainable
Frank Fox told Insider that in the research and development stage of the product, they found that growing numbers of manufacturers are getting serious about their environmental responsibility.
“We found it very easy to make partnerships because people are eager to work with us. What we do is attempt to solve their particular problem and start a program to help them do that,” he said.
Problems they’re generally asked to solve include recycling surplus final products, such as shoes and bags, to reuse the material or taking leather scraps from the manufacturing process.
“What’s emerged is that companies generate large quantities of waste, and they want to work with us to recycle that waste back into a product that they can use in their portfolio,” Fox said.
The process begins with Sustainable Composites gathering samples of a company’s leather and then applying their patented technology to break the bonds in the leather, releasing the fibers.
From there, the product is turned into a slurry — a ground-down mixture of the fibers in water — and poured into sheets to be used like a regular material.
Making as many winners as possible is the key to success
Fox said that they’ve been fortunate in finding a lot of their partners through word of mouth in the industry, but they still need to sell their idea.
“One important thing we learned is that companies have a lot of decision-makers involved. The more winners you can create, the better off you are,” he said.
Fox and Tymon ensure that their pitch speaks directly to different areas of the company.
“Our product is basically less expensive leather, and the purchasing agent likes that. The manufacturing person gets a much better yield and improvements in throughput. The marketing manager has a new product, so they’re a winner, too,” he said.
Fox said they think of themselves as an innovative company similar to Coca-Cola.
“We have all the magic ingredients that we use, we prepare them all. Then we will take them to manufacturing sites to make the product and teach our partners how to make it,” he said.
An advantage of this business model is they have almost unlimited capacity to produce the product.
“Because we’re not bound by a certain chain of manufacturing facilities, it allows us to go global without a lot of effort. Our business plan is to be the innovators with the material and to transport it to places to do manufacturing,” he said.
Companies can’t simply focus on cost
Tymon added that they prefer to work with companies interested in recycling rather than simply cutting costs — though he notes that a uniform roll of their recycled leather can provide cost savings of between 30% and 60%.
“We believe we will have the greatest potential for success with companies that are really serious about sustainability — the companies that are going to do whatever it takes to get a new material into their supply chain,” he said.
One such company was outdoor retailer Timberland, who was one of the first manufacturers to see the potential for recycled leather after the Sustainable Composites sales team contacted the brand about how they could create a recycled product for them.
Global brand president Jim Pisani told Insider that the partnership was part of its commitment to minimize the environmental impact of its products.
“Leather is a hallmark of the Timberland brand and a key area of focus when it comes to responsible innovation,” he said.
“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,” he added.