23 May 2024, 07:40
By Furniture News Nov 25, 2019

Harrison Spinks’ core principles

In the war on waste, can one company really make a difference? Paul Farley visited Harrison Spinks’ manufacturing empire in Leeds to talk about the bedmaker’s biggest breakthrough yet …

Old mattresses are not the easiest things to get rid of. 

The National Bed Federation estimates that 7.26 million (181,500 tonnes) of mattresses were disposed of in 2017, at a cost of over £20m – a value equal to around 91% of all new mattress sales. Of these, just 19% were recycled. The rest went to landfill (40%) or were processed into energy (41%). 

Although the situation is improving, the sheer amount of waste generated by beds is enough to keep you up at night. They’re big, bulky, and often made from composite materials which are difficult – if not impossible – to separate for recycling.

Growing consumer demand for more sustainably-produced products has been matched by a bed industry striving for ever-greener solutions, and Harrison Spinks is one of the front-runners in this race.

Building on a background in natural materials, the bedmaker has championed sustainability since 2009. Today, it produces 100% of its fillings on-site in Yorkshire (60% of which are locally sourced). It weaves its own chemical-free, naturally fire-retardant fabrics, and continually reduces the waste it sends to landfill (by over -30% – that’s 289 tonnes – in the last year alone). 

Wherever possible, it employs natural, recyclable materials. By using hemp and flax fibres from its own farm, the business has reduced the amount of C02 produced per mattress by -83%. 

Harrison Spinks’ achievements in sustainable development saw it earn a (second) Queen’s Awards for Enterprise in the category this year, and in July it pledged to make its production processes foam- and glue-free.

“We don’t have a five-year plan – ours is more like 55,” says MD Simon Spinks. “We’re looking at the long game. I guess you could say we’re trying to save the world, one mattress at a time!”

Crop circles

Simon delivers that last line with a grin, but you can tell he’s not joking. In a market replete with greenwash proclaiming the benefits of one eco-conscious product over another, his claims have clout, and land in perfect sympathy with the zeitgeist.

“David Attenborough definitely made a difference,” he says, referencing the war on plastics catalysed by the naturalist’s BBC series, Blue Planet – which would prove a drop in the ocean of the wider sustainability movement.

“After plastics, foam will be next,” says Simon, pointing to a study which suggests that the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in PU mattresses could be harmful to health. While its results have not yet been qualified, this concern is fast becoming a matter of public discourse, prompting manufacturers like Harrison Spinks to explore directions that pre-empt any legislative changes.

“We’re trying to think about the end of a product’s life when we design,” says Simon. Consider the time taken to establish a recycling process for Pringles cans, or when McDonald’s committed to replacing its plastic straws with paper ones, only to later reveal that it didn’t have the means to recycle them. “People aren’t thinking about recyclability from the outset.” 

There are historical barriers to overcome, too. Harrison Spinks currently farms around 400 acres of hemp – long sidelined thanks to its association with marijuana – which accounts for a third (by weight) of all the material used by the company. “It’s antimicrobial, and gives us a massive environmental advantage,” states Simon.

The farm is just part of the picture. As well as beds, the capacious manufacturing facility has divisions dedicated to components, footwear, and more – but the company’s ability to grow (and rear) its own raw materials is a rare asset, and Simon takes great pride in the company’s near-verticality. 

“We make more of our own materials than any other company,” he says – and this grasp of its production processes gives Harrison Spinks the ability to innovate.

A self-professed spring fanatic, Simon’s team developed the Revolution pocket spring in 1995, and Posturfil, a low-height, microcoil pocket spring, in 2003. Both were commercial successes, bringing increased responsiveness to the company’s mattresses, and greater levels of comfort. And both will be eclipsed by his team’s most recent invention.

“One way or another, foam is doomed,” says Simon. “But you need an alternative. Cortec has been on the drawing board for at least five years, and ties in with micro-coils to replace foam as a fundamental filling. It’s the most exciting thing we’ve ever done.”

Core principles

Cortec is a pocket spring system with a difference. Thanks to an advanced sonic welding process – in which high-frequency ultrasonic acoustic vibrations are applied to create frictional heat, allowing materials (such as the polypropylene pockets housing the springs) to be welded together – there’s no glue connecting each pocket.

“Glue is a massive inhibitor of comfort,” says Simon. “Removing it from the process creates more independence from spring to spring, so the mattress responds better to a sleeper’s movements.”

During the prototyping process, his team found that a sleeping surface comprising just Cortec springs offered a surprisingly refined feel. “You’d swear blind it’s on a similar level to Talalay latex,” states Simon, “and increasing the density of the springs creates an even better, and more cooling, experience.”

And because the system enables mattresses to be made without foam or glue, it lends itself to fully recyclable product. “No-one’s coming up with anything for mattresses that’s outside the norm,” says Simon. “I personally believe that the proportion of mattresses going to landfill is nearer to 75% – that’s 100,000 a week. They’re full of glue and foam, chemically constructed, and not very biodegradable.

“Usually, when you’re going ‘greener’, there’s some compromise on price or comfort. But when we tried to address this need, we were surprised to learn we’d actually made the product better! It was a real stroke of serendipity.”

A growing number of the company’s beds now employ Cortec, with a new line, Synergy, dispensing with every filling other than springs, and coming in zipped covers, making it ideal for disassembly and recycling. 

“It’s a new category of product,” says Simon proudly. “You don’t see things reinvent the scene very often – you had Tempur’s foam mattress, and, before that, Bonnell springs and pocket springs. You’ve never seen a foam-free mattress with a zip-on cover – Synergy is just steel, polypropylene and polyester.”

Driven by this innovative zeal, Harrison Spinks’ components division is performing well at home and overseas, and Simon sees wide-reaching potential for its latest breakthrough.

“To create Cortec, we had to innovate with the steel itself,” he says. “You can only ask British Steel for a new melt if you’re ordering a decent volume – and you need to expand your horizons to do that. More importantly, we can’t save the world by keeping this to ourselves. We’re keen to proliferate this technology, because it solves a global problem.”

From sofabeds to car seats, Simon sees Cortec’s potential to be a gamechanger – as did the judging panel of this year’s Bed Industry Awards, which named it 2019’s Component of the Year this autumn.

“You can’t do everything,” he says. “If you’re looking to seriously make a difference, you have to decide what your own flavour of ‘green’ is. 

“Ultimately, we want to be circular, using materials again and again for the same purpose, rather than binning them, burning or diluting them. Steel may be energy-intensive to make, but its life is endless – and we’re playing the long game.”

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