Sustainability Leader’s: Dr Warren Bowden, Muirhead

Continuing our series of Sustainability Leader Q&A’s, Design Insider is joined by Dr Warren Brown, Head of Sustainability and Innovation at Muirhead. We discover how the worlds lowest carbon leather is manufactured, the benefits of food and production waste and their cutting edge Thermal Energy Plant, converting end of life leather into heat.

[Find Muirhead on the BCFA Product Finder]

Please can you introduce us to Muirhead and your role within the company

Privately owned, Scottish Leather Group, the parent company of Muirhead,  is the leading manufacturer of leather in the UK with 180 years’ history. We are established as the leading experts in creating the most natural, sustainable, lowest carbon, high-performance leather; sought after by market-leading, luxury brands across the globe.

Muirhead makes the lowest carbon intensity leather in the world for the interior design, fashion and consumer electronics market, at only 1.1kg CO2e per hide. It’s a beautiful, natural and sustainable material, trusted by brands like Mulberry, British Airways, Rolls Royce, and Princess Yachts.

No greenwashing, just the facts. Leathermaking is the original upcycling industry and Muirhead’s 180-year heritage of innovation proves that they are serious about sustainability.

Muirhead’s journey to zero carbon impact leads the leather industry worldwide. It’s detailed in Scottish Leather Group’s Annual Sustainability Report. Muirhead are committed to transparent reporting e.g. the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), ensuring that all sustainability data is clearly explained and independently verified according to rigorous Life Cycle Analysis.

I am a Chartered Environmentalist & the Scottish Leather Group’s Head of Sustainability and Innovation. A Fellow of the Society of Leather Chemists and Inventor of the pioneering and patented Thermal Energy Plant, I have spent the past 18 years of my 25 year career within the sector leading the multi award winning Sustainability agenda through circularising leather manufacture, to net zero, as presented at COP26. Additionally, I am a circular “ambassador” and Director of Leather UK.

When did you first begin to address sustainability at Muirhead?

We are committed to giving more to the environment than we take – continually raising standards in quality, sustainability, ethics, and traceability.

It takes time to create a sustainable business, we’ve spent centuries building a company full of exceptional people, innovating every day to bring the finest, sustainable leather to some of the world’s most-loved companies. 

Can you tell us about your manufacturing process?

We lead the world in the manufacture of “low carbon leather”;  we have a Patented, Circular platform; an industrial epiphany – being able to use or create our own renewable energy from our own waste to produce a “low carbon Muirhead leather’ with almost no carbon intensity; by making full use of the raw material. This impact is measured independently using Life Cycle Analysis. Sustainable manufacture is critical within the supply chain and (I believe) this sets us apart in our sector.

Additionally, this unique, cutting-edge patented circular process for leather manufacture, incorporates key metrics of energy recovery, water recycling, renewable energy and locally sourced traceable raw materials. The water we use is “borrowed” – we make use our own natural water source, treat it, recycle it or discharge the treated water back to the same watershed, without impact.

We use an ISO accredited Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) technique to account for the product’s carbon footprint. It is an established published technique that quantifies the GWP100 (and other) impacts of all direct activities, including the influence of upstream farming, and avoids any “greenwashing”. Muirhead’s product LCA data is the lowest published; it is typically 30-50% of the impact stated by other leather manufacturers and significantly lower than the industry standard, and an order of magnitude lower than the generic data published for leather. Life Cycle Analysis is more broadly a technique for “responsible innovation” by identifying “hot-spots” and opportunities for informed decision making and is adopted to identify best practices and quantify the carbon impact of products or components. Our unique circular operations and local sourcing directly contribute to Muirhead’s “lowest carbon “claims. All of our data is independently audited by several regulatory bodies.

How do you tackle waste through production?

The hides or skins used to make leather are entirely a by-product of the food industry that would otherwise go to waste and sourced from the UK & Ireland food sector which has the highest standard of animal welfare, as verified by the Animal Protection Index.

No part of the raw hide is wasted. Raw materials are reclaimed for the food industry (collagen, etc.) or as fuel for our thermal energy plant. Our patented thermal energy plant generates heat from our waste to power our tannery. We reclaim enough energy through our waste to heat 2,250 households. Oil is also extracted which is used in biofuel production. 100% of our electricity is from certified renewable sources.

What are the benefits of food waste materials?

Hides are a by-product of the meat industry. Being able to upcycle a natural, biobased raw material from a local grass fed source is critical to the provision of a net zero Muirhead leather, & potentially a supply chain to our customers which could be carbon positive? Apart from low transport impacts from local sourcing, Scottish Leather Group are really privileged to be able to source from a responsible agricultural system which is revered globally as having the highest standards of traceability and transparency subject to the requirements of the Cattle Tracing Scheme-giving the hides the same degree of traceability as for food; Scottish Agriculture already claims to be Net Zero, and by 2030, all UK agriculture will be net zero (according to UKCCC and BVA).

Can you tell us about your ‘take back’ scheme?

Our cutting-edge Thermal Energy Plant, unique in the leather industry, enables us to convert end of life leather into heat, circularising the life of leather.

The energy from Muirhead’s waste and our customers’ end of life/non-repairable goods allows energy to be recovered (i.e. not disposed of) and the circular production of a new, low carbon intensity leather for new leather goods. It is a “circular supply chain” with net zero/zero waste.

Reclassifying wastes as a resource for both recycling and the recovery of heat represents a step change in the leather industry’s approach to disposal practice.

The Patent extract reads:

“The present invention relates to methods or processes for utilising the waste streams from leather processing to produce energy by pyrolising or gasifying the waste. It also relates to a system, in the form of a thermal energy plant which converts a portion of tannery waste to heat energy. In a preferred embodiment, the invention relates to a cyclical process whereby a portion of the waste effluent from, leather manufacturing is converted to energy which can then be used in the leather making process. The thermal energy plant is closely associated with, and located near to, leather processing plants. This reduces the amount of carbon fuel required in the leather manufacturing process resulting in the production of leather which has used less carbon/fossil fuel in its manufacture than is used currently in leather production.”

What’s next for Muirhead?

We have set a the goal for our carbon footprint to be net zero by 2025 as part of our Journey to Zero Strategy. We believe we could exceed this and aspire to become carbon positive.

We are continuously researching new and pioneering innovations, like Bio and plant-based chemistry systems, novel tanning systems, alternative applications of collagen and for the recycling of leather. The demands on leather as a premium material are constantly changing and we intend to remain at the forefront of these innovations.

Contact Muirhead through BCFA Product Finder

To read the 2021 Sustainability Report, please visit: https://www.scottishleathergroup.com/sustainability-report

The BCFA Product Finder is a unique search engine created especially for interior designers to source contract furnishing companies. Utilising this platform will support your findings for upcoming projects, with over 200 members profiles showcasing the latest product launches, new materials available, industry news, nd design trends.

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About Phoebe Train

Phoebe is a Marketing and Events Executive, who joined the BCFA as an English graduate in 2021. Working closely with designers and BCFA members, Phoebe has published an array of content for Design Insider.
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