Pioneering sustainable leather for over 180 years!
A Q&A with Dr Warren Bowden, Head of Innovation and Sustainability
With a storied history spanning over 180 years, Muirhead stands as the foremost manufacturer of high-performance leather in the United Kingdom. Our legacy is steeped in forward-looking engineering, modern craftsmanship and innovation, and our commitment to sustainability is at the forefront of our operations. In this article, we invite you to explore Muirhead's remarkable journey in producing the world's lowest carbon intensity leather, trusted and sought after by leading luxury brands worldwide.
Could you kindly introduce Muirhead and let us know about your role in the company?
Leaders in Sustainability
Muirhead has earned its reputation as the leading expert in engineering the world's most natural, sustainable, and low-carbon leather. We take pride in producing leather with an astonishingly low carbon footprint, measuring just 8kg CO2e/m2. This achievement positions us as pioneers in the industry, setting a benchmark for others to follow.
Trusted by Prestigious Brands
Our commitment to sustainability has made us a trusted partner for market-leading luxury brands across the globe. Names like Mulberry, British Airways, Rolls Royce, and Princess Yachts turn to Muirhead for our beautiful, sustainable, natural leather. This trust is a testament to our craftsmanship and our unwavering dedication to environmentally responsible practices.
We do not engage in greenwashing - our sustainability commitment is deeply ingrained in our heritage. Leathermaking is an original upcycling industry, and our 180-year legacy of innovation exemplifies our genuine dedication to sustainable practices. We prioritise transparency and uphold the highest standards in reporting with independently verified and collated data according to published standards.
Journey to Zero Carbon Impact
Muirhead's journey towards a zero-carbon impact is leading the global leather industry. Detailed insights into our sustainable initiatives and progress can be found in the Scottish Leather Group's Annual Environmental, Social & Governance Report. .
We are steadfast in our commitment to transparent reporting, adhering to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), and ensuring that all sustainability data undergoes rigorous independent verification, including Life Cycle Analysis.
About Dr Warren Bowden
I am a Chartered Environmentalist & the Scottish Leather Group's Head of Innovation and Sustainability. A Fellow of the Society of Leather Chemists and Inventor of the pioneering and patented Thermal Energy Plant. I have spent the past 20 years of my 27-year career within the sector, leading the multi-award-winning sustainability agenda through circularising leather manufacture to net zero, as presented at COP26.
Could you clarify when Muirhead began addressing sustainability?
We are fully committed to making a positive impact on the environment and always strive to exceed industry standards in quality, sustainability, ethics, and traceability. Building a truly sustainable business is a continuous effort, and we have devoted centuries to perfecting it. Within our company, we have cultivated a community of exceptional individuals dedicated to daily innovation, ensuring that we consistently provide the finest and most sustainable leather to some of the world's most beloved companies.
What sets your manufacturing process apart from others in the industry?
Sustainability is integral to our supply chain, setting us apart from others in our sector. Our patented circular process is unique and advanced, not only reducing carbon but also incorporating key metrics such as energy recovery, water recycling, renewable energy adoption, and using locally sourced, traceable raw materials. We prioritise responsible water usage by sourcing water from our natural source and treating it meticulously. We either recycle it or return it to the same watershed without any environmental impact.
We are against 'greenwashing' and use ISO-accredited Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to account for the carbon footprint of our products transparently. This technique measures various impacts, including the GWP100, and considers upstream farming influences. Our LCA data represents a new standard, measuring at just 30-50% of the impact reported by other leather manufacturers and significantly lower than the industry standard. Our approach to Life Cycle Analysis extends beyond carbon reduction; it aids us in responsible innovation, identifying 'hot spots' and making informed decisions to minimise our products' environmental impact.
How can we effectively reduce waste during the production process?
Our leather is made only from raw materials that are by-products of the food industry. These materials would otherwise be discarded and go to landfill. We source hides from the UK and Ireland's food industry, which has the highest standards for animal welfare, according to the Animal Protection Index.
We believe in a 'zero-waste' philosophy. We use every part of the rawhide, repurposing it in multiple ways. We reclaim collagen and other valuable components for the food industry, while the rest is used as fuel for our thermal energy plant. Our patented waste-to-energy system not only reduces waste but also generates heat to power our tannery. It is so efficient that it produces enough energy to heat 5,000 households. We even extract oil from the process for biofuel production.
We are proud to say that we source 100% of our electricity from certified renewable sources, demonstrating our dedication to minimising our environmental impact. Our environment-friendly practices go beyond leather production, including responsible resource utilisation, energy efficiency, and an unwavering commitment to ethical and renewable energy sources.
Could you clarify the advantages of utilising food waste materials?
The use of hides as a by-product of the meat industry is a crucial part of our mission to upcycle natural, biobased materials sourced locally from grass-fed cattle. This practice plays a pivotal role in our efforts to achieve a 'net zero' Muirhead leather and potentially contribute positively to carbon reduction in the supply chain. Our local sourcing minimises transport impact, and we obtain hides from a responsible agricultural system globally renowned for its exceptional traceability and transparency standards. Upcycling these by-products closes the supply chain loop for these biomaterials.
Our commitment to traceability aligns with the Cattle Tracing Scheme, ensuring that our hides' origin is meticulously accounted for. Scottish Agriculture is already 'Net Zero,' the UK Climate Change Committee (UKCCC) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) predict that all UK agriculture will achieve 'net zero' status by 2030.
By adhering to these rigorous standards and practices, we create exceptional leather products and contribute to a more sustainable, transparent, and ethically responsible supply chain. We are proud to play a role in this transformative journey towards a greener and more sustainable future.
What is the plan for Muirhead going forward?
As part of our Journey to Zero Strategy, we have set the goal to achieve a net zero carbon footprint on Scope 1 & 2 by the year 2025. We are committed to continuous research and development of new and innovative techniques, such as bio and plant-based chemistry systems, novel tanning systems, alternative applications of collagen and the recycling of leather. With the evolving demands on leather as a premium material, we aim to stay ahead of the curve through these innovations.
In September 2023, we opened our £14 million, hyper-efficient Super Tannery. The landmark project, which has taken seven years to deliver, will build on Muirhead’s world-leading sustainability standards and further enhance the production of the world’s lowest-carbon leather for aviation and passenger transport.
Setting new standards for leather manufacture, the new facility is the result of the latest round of multi-million-pound investments by Scottish Leather Group in its world-class facilities and forms part of the group’s 20-year strategy and commitment to continuous improvements in sustainability.
Tanning is a crucial part of the leather production process, whereby the raw hides are treated in drums filled with water and tanning agents to transform them into Muirhead’s durable, high-performance leather material. The 14 new ‘super’ drums replace 30 conventional hide drums, enabling Muirhead to process greater batches while unlocking significant improvements in environmental performance. The tannery’s innovative hide processing technology brings about a further step change in energy and water use, with a reduction of 82% in energy use and 42% in water use compared to the group’s previous equipment.
In the upcoming year, we will prioritise incorporating more biobased or harmless elements in our leather production methods through C14 analysis. Additionally, we are set to launch a bisphenol-free product seven years before it becomes mandatory by regulatory deadlines. This will result in creating sustainable seating, representing the next generation of environment-friendly products we will offer our customers.