Leather maker’s genuine green thinking

It’s not quite a fifteen minutes drive from Glasgow airport, but those six-odd miles east, takes you to a vast industrial complex, which seems completely incongruent with its beautiful rural setting.

These grey and soulless buildings should be a horrible blot on an otherwise idyllic landscape but they aren’t – they actually appear to be no more out of place than a huddle of huge modern agricultural buildings erected by a go-getting farmer. What’s more, the company that occupies the entire site is probably more in tune with its surroundings than many of the neighbouring farms and small holdings.

This is the headquarters to Bridge of Weir, one of the worlds leading suppliers of leather to the automotive industry. It is still privately owned and can trace its roots back to 1870, when Andrew Muirhead, a Glaswegian leather manufacturer, first purchased the tannery and so began its progress from cottage industry to what it is today.

Way back then, it mainly supplied pigskins and horse hides to the local saddleries. It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth-century, and with the advent of the car, that it made the transition into producing upholstery – grade leathers to meet the demands of fledging motor trade.

In fact, it was probably the young American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, who really set BoW on its automotive course. In 1911, he gave the firm a commission for leather seat covers for his Model T, and rest, as they say, is history.

BoW still supplies to Ford, along with Volvo, Saab, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Renault, Honda, McLaren and nearly every other car manufacturer. But what makes this company different from most other leather producers is that it is one of the greenest in the business.

‘The biggest concern a new car buyer will give to a leather interior is deciding on the colour. They really don’t sweat over it much more than that. Not that they should, that’s our job,’ Dale Wallace tells me on a recent visit to the site.

He’s been working for BoW for over twenty years and is a pivotal link between client and company.  ‘Look at that view’, he says pointing to the lush green vista from his office window. ‘Of course we work to EU and government environmental directives but as a company we adopted a zero waste policy many years ago.

‘From a commercial aspect it makes good business sense to recycle as much waste as possible but more importantly it would be criminal if we didn’t strive to do our bit for the environment.

‘Not just here, the local area to us, but through our global partners too (they currently have partners in China and the US). Our level of investment has been immense with our final goal to have 100% self-generated energy by the end of 2015; we’re ninety per-cent there already,’ says Wallace.

Implementing these strong ecological values has been a long and costly exercise – eight years and £6m at the last count. And that self-funding investment is clearly visible. Huge computer-controlled industrial machines stretch the length of the factory floor, making light work of the job that used to take teams of tanners many hours to complete.

Yet, despite the obvious industrialisation the fundamentals of the process – taking abattoir-fresh skins and turning them into supple-soft leather hides – has changed little over the centuries.

Quite literally, the skins arrive in a very raw state with muscle tissue and hair still attached. On average, each of these hide will weigh 40kg, but by the time they have been through the fifteen different stages, which necessitates the need of a whole gamut of rolling machines, dying booths, stretching presses and cutting benches, 90% of that original mass weight is lost as waste, and it is this waste which needs to be disposed of as cleanly and efficiently as possible.

‘When we initially put this program into motion our main objective was to best utilise the hundreds of tonnes of waste we were sending off to landfill sites,’ Wallace imparts. ‘Not only is there the obvious solid waste, there’s also the liquid effluent too.

‘We use over 200 million litres of water per annum and every drop of it is now heavily filtered through our own water treatment plant (one of the most advanced in the UK) to extract all particle matters before it is pumped back to be used again in our thermal energy plant.’

As for the ‘solid’ waste, that’s transported to the aforementioned thermal energy plant which represents the first stage of the BoW sustainability plan. This epic piece of plant has been specifically designed to convert what was once useless waste into recyclable resources, useable within the leather making process.

It creates the heat for the tannery too, plus provides a crude bio-fuel for the on-site generators. Having both these treatment plants working in unison closes the loop to give a zero waste system which, in turn, results in less impact on the environment, lower running costs and an ethically sound product.

Wallace may be correct in his thinking – the majority of the buying public are not necessarily bothered where and how the parts for their new car are sourced. However, it is reassuring to know there are companies like this that show genuine concern for the environment and have gone into such lengths to implement sustainable solutions in their manufacturing process.

Guest blogger Danny Cobbs

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