Maximising the Value of Luxury Leather

Few materials are more closely associated with luxury than leather, but at its end-of-life this premium material is often recycled or re-purposed into lower-value items. With support from Future Fashion Factory, sustainable manufacturing innovation consultancy HSSMI has built on its commitment to the circular economy and discovered a second life for automotive leather in the fashion industry. 

On average, eight cow hides are used to produce a single luxury car interior, but there is no established model for making use of the waste. A small error in the stitching can mean that the produced seat is not fitted into a vehicle and is discarded. Otherwise fine leather seats in end-of-life vehicles also end up in the landfill.

This means that the automotive sector produces a valuable resource, for which it does not have another use, though a different manufacturer may be able to maximise its value.

Samples of luxury textured leather in a variety of different colours.
Leather is a key material in luxury fashion and accessories, as well as in automotive interiors. Image: Kon – Adobe Stock

To find a new life for these luxury resources, HSSMI adopted a cross-industry approach.  

The project, funded by Future Fashion Factory, brought together sustainable engineering experts Miretur, a global car seat manufacturer, and the wealth of fashion and design expertise at luxury fashion house Burberry. Supply chain researchers Dr Samir Dani and Dr Nicoleta Tipi from the University of Huddersfield completed the project team. 

The Technical Textiles Research Centre at the University of Huddersfield is one of Future Fashion Factory’s three research centres

Together the partners were tasked with identifying different use cases for luxury leather from the automotive sector in high-value fashion products. Tristan Coats, Project Lead and Technical Specialist at HSSMI, says the project was designed to understand the challenge from a variety of different angles. 

“In the first phase of the project, we asked participants about the characteristics that are useful for different products and put together a use case matrix, which gave us insight into the product line to compare against existing automotive industry by-products,” he explains.  

“It completely changed our assumptions about leather as a material and the processes it goes through. It was vital in giving us a real, physical understanding of the challenge at hand.” 

Armed with this information, each project participant received a variety of automotive leather samples. Despite working from home and often with limited equipment, the project partners set to work on the creative challenge of making a new product prototype from the leather they were given as part of the project Hackathon. 

Originally the Hackathon was meant to bring partners together to work collaboratively on physical samples in person. Despite the travel restrictions that made this impossible, the act of engaging creatively with the challenge enabled each participant to gain a new understanding of the problem and bring these perspectives to a virtual workshop where they presented their new product prototypes. 

Coin purses, pick cases, jigsaws, and decorative features were all among their creations, while others had even tried weaving together strips of leather to make larger pieces. With physical prototypes of fashion products at their fingertips, the participants demonstrated the cross-industry potential to find a new life for automotive leather. 

Collage of leather coin purse, handbag, keyring, pocketbook, mousemat, weaving
A sample of some of the products created from automotive leather at the project Hackathon. Image: HSSMI

“It was fantastic to share so many ideas and find common ground,” adds Nicoleta Tipi. “Understanding the full potential for re-using leather from perspectives in design, the supply chain and even disposal and end-of-life really demonstrated the potential of collaborative, cross-sector research.” 

From this consensus, the conversation has evolved to explore numerous avenues for further research and development, addressing questions such as how to maximise the value of luxury materials through design, as well as applications for re-use. 

Miretur is pursuing a project to bring a new re-use product to market in partnership with a car manufacturer, a fashion house and their suppliers. At the same time, other partners have been inspired to consider new ways of designing for manufacture across industries. 

“At the moment, there is no established process for collaborative design, which would allow us all to benefit from shared resources,” explains Francesco Pianca, Senior Manager (Sustainable Manufacturing) at Burberry. “If you could co-design products, for example a car seat and a coin purse, the cutting process could achieve a greater yield and minimise the waste from every hide.” 

For HSSMI, the project highlighted the benefits of working across sectors to drive the shift toward a circular economy. 

“It has been an incredible stepping-stone for us,” adds Tristan. “Having a dedicated circular economy team means we can transfer our knowledge and skills across industries, and we are keen to develop more projects that support UK manufacturers in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.”