Blue Planet’s bombshell plastics episode may have focused consumer attention on the impact of reckless waste disposal, but some businesses were championing sustainability long before Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg made the headlines. With green thinking now integral to bed purchasing, Harrison Spinks’ fast-evolving offer has never been more relevant, writes Paul Farley …
If necessity is the mother of invention, an industry which consigns some 100,000 bulky mattresses a week to landfill (that’s nearly six million each year) has a responsibility to find solutions.
Leeds-based Harrison Spinks has long been at the frontline of the war on waste. The seeds of its sustainable journey were sown with the invention of the glueless microcoil in 2005, and its acquisition of a 300-acre farm in 2009 (with a view to harvesting hemp and wool fillings).
Over the last decade, the bedmaker has invested more than £20m in sustainable innovation, bringing various manufacturing operations in-house, acquiring its own responsibly managed forest and majoring on R&D in components and materials. This year alone, Harrison Spinks has pledged to erase all foam, glue, VOCs and FR chemicals from its products, develop a 20,000 sqft mattress recycling facility, and source only from suppliers that employ sustainable materials or products made from recycled materials.
“We’re investing in a new category of product,” says MD Simon Spinks, likening the business’ latest breakthrough, Cortec – a 100% recyclable, glue-free pocket spring system – to revolutionary industry advancements such as the Bonnell spring unit and memory foam.
“When the world decided memory foam was a good story, we turned the other way and made natural products,” he explains. “We thought we’d swim upstream rather than down.”
Simon describes the company’s attitude as “rebellious”, but there’s more to it than that. Alongside a palpable desire to improve the world around it, Harrison Spinks truly values its independence, and by creating its own materials and components, frees its products from any industry templates.
Take Synergy, a new modern-looking mattress collection with Cortec technology at its heart. Previewed at last year’s NBF Bed Show, Synergy will hit shopfloors (and AIS’ bed show) imminently. Made from just three ingredients (steel, polypropylene and polyester), each bed is easy to separate at the end of its life (or sooner, should elements need to be replaced), and fully recyclable. More importantly, says Simon, it’s really comfortable, and has received “fantastic” reviews from consumer focus groups.
“Sustainability is definitely newsworthy, but it’s rarely at the top of the consumer’s shopping list,” he says, “so our ultimate raison d’être remains making fantastically comfortable mattresses for people to sleep on.
“But when it comes to the bigger picture, things need to change, and fast. It should be a given that our mattresses are sustainable.”
Engineered to last
Although Simon is full of admiration for champions of innovation such as James Dyson and Elon Musk (“I love the absolute ambition of him!”), he’s a far more grounded individual than his CV might suggest. Born in a Leeds suburb before moving to the countryside at the age of 10, Simon had some notion of the simple life, but was much more interested in how machines worked.
“I was an inquisitive kid, and enjoyed taking things apart,” he explains. “I just wasn’t very good at putting them back together again!” When the family business called, any notion of pursuing a career in IT or engineering was dispelled – but Simon soon turned his creativity towards sleep, and the breakthroughs came thick and fast.
Today, his business boasts a 15-strong team of experienced spring and machinery engineers. “I’m an ideas man, really,” he says, “but none of them would get anywhere without so many extraordinarily talented people behind them, from metallurgists to CAD engineers.”
With Cortec under their belt, Harrison Spinks’ innovators are turning their attention to further improving both product and process. The former calls for even greater durability, and increased use of recycled content, while the latter is about exploring ideas for more sustainable construction at volume – such as inventing a system that re-pockets springs when the fabric around them wears out.
“We’re also looking at making spring machinery faster,” says Simon. “At the moment, we can make 700 full-height Cortec springs a minute, but I think we can get up to 1000.
“Although we’re not planning to offer our proprietary technology to our competitors, we do have more patents on the sidelines, so that scenario could change. After all, we’re not going to make the world a greener place by keeping everything to ourselves.”
Simon believes Cortec could benefit any number of sectors (it’s now finding its way into John Lewis’ upholstery), and even though it’s been in development for five years, the invention is very much of the moment. Thanks to David Attenborough et al, there’s more will than ever to live and buy sustainable, so Harrison Spinks’ historic efforts are truly starting to pay off.
“If you look at the mattresses of 60 or 70 years ago, they were all sustainable and recyclable,” says Simon. “Before foam, glue and plastics, they were all biodegradable, and most were actively recycled or restuffed – you could just wash them and put them back together. But as the disposable economy started to gain ground, mattresses became harder and harder to recycle.
“I believe that at certain points in history there comes a fork in the road. We’re only just now seeing the advent of reasonably priced electric cars with a good range – but if you could go back and modernise people’s thinking in 1890, they could’ve arrived much sooner. I believe we’re at another fork right now.
“When it comes to bedding, foam is brilliant in some respects, but it has too many negative attributes, and it isn’t going to be fit for the future. What’s needed is initiatives that contribute to a more circular economy – reduce, reuse, recycle.
“Contrary to popular belief, plastics play an important part in achieving that. Polyester can be used again and again, and polypropylene is endlessly recyclable – did you know that paper bags take more energy to recycle than plastic ones?”
According to Simon, the crux of the challenge lays in reclaiming product at the end of its life – so, through a new facility in Scunthorpe, Harrison Spinks will offer to recycle all returned Cortec mattresses free of charge.
“It’s about putting your money where your mouth is,” says Simon. “Most retailers are trying to do the right thing, but are forced to pass the costs onto their customers. What we’re offering calls for different relationships between retailers and consumers, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Time to act
If those 100,000 mattresses going to landfill each week were laid end to end, they’d stretch some 120 miles – roughly the distance from London to Birmingham.
“It can’t be right,” says Simon, “and the facts make for some pretty grim reading. Today’s younger generations have been schooled in climate change. They have a very different view on life, and know the threat is real – if it turns out the scientists have misjudged their estimates by just a couple of degrees … there goes London. Once these things have been set in motion, they can’t be stopped.
“But I think as a species we can react before it’s too late. Look at me – I wasn’t born wearing sandals and hugging trees, but as my awareness has grown, the more passionate I’ve become about change. I believe all products need rethinking for the modern era, and at Harrison Spinks, we’re a good decade into doing that. Innovation drives us, and we’ve made massive strides to deliver something better – without compromising on comfort.
“As an industry with such high output, we’re part of the problem. I’m glad Harrison Spinks is now part of the solution.”