Ford unearths $100K in leather during demolition at Dearborn, Michigan facility

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Basement discovery at Ford leads to $100K gift for two Detroit businesses

$100,000 worth of premium leather discovered in Dearborn, donated to Detroit businesses by Ford.

Ford, Detroit Free Press

Few, if anyone, had any idea what was in the basement.

With demolition underway at the Ford Product Development Center in Dearborn, rooms and closets filled with old furniture and automotive materials that have been out of sight and out of mind for years are being discovered, the Detroit Free Press, a USA TODAY Network publication reports.

Most recently, Ford unearthed about 250 cow hides valued at $450 to $500 each or more than $100,000 — once destined for premium leather seats in the Ford F-150 King Ranch, Ford Explorer, Ford Escape, Lincoln Aviator and Lincoln Navigator.

These leftover materials were ordered for prototype vehicles and show cars made over the last six to eight years, said Jim Conner, 3D process director for Ford design.

He’s the man in charge of fabrication, clay modeling and milling. But Conner has been in the role only three years. He is playing a key role in recycling and upcycling materials to keep things from ending up in the dump.

“It kind of forced our hand a bit, with the campus transformation,” Conner told the Free Press. “We have big areas where we’ve stored stuff for a long time. We knew we had these but we didn’t realize the type or quantity. These are super high quality leather hides, the highest quality.”

These are small-batch leftover hides from prototypes that have come and gone. Still, premium, full-sized leftovers. The shades of black, brown and gray all vary. 

Conner wanted to find a home for the leftover leather that would somehow make a difference and have an impact. The batch is too small to ship to factories, Ford said.

That’s where Pingree Detroit and Mend on the Move enter the picture, two Detroit businesses run by entrepreneurs creating things that help change lives.

Pingree is a small company that sells handmade footwear and leather accessories including wallets, coasters and work folios created by U.S. veterans and civilians. Their goods range from purses sold exclusively at the Detroit Institute of Arts to custom sneakers that take nearly three days to make. Its cofounders are a known presence at the Eastern Market downtown as onlookers touch and discuss the beautiful leather products.

The $349 sneakers are individually numbered on the outside, like collector cars.

“Every piece has character and purpose, just like the people who make it. Right here in Detroit,” Jarret Schlaff, cofounder and CEO of Pingree, told the Free Press.

“We’ve diverted over 10 tons of leather from the landfill thus far and will put this leather to good use in our new pet, home and footwear collections,” he said. “On June 1st, we’re unleashing our first ever dog leash made with seatbelts from junkyards and upcycled automotive leather.”

The second beneficiary of Ford’s gift of luxury leather, Mend on the Move, is a nonprofit local business that employs abuse survivors to create jewelry using salvaged auto parts. This donation will be transformational.

“We are just starting to dream of all the possibilities that having a large quantity of leather will mean,” said founder Joanne Ewald, herself a survivor of child sexual abuse. “The ideas are endless.”

Her organization has already purchased an industrial sewing machine. And now it’s planning to turn a pallet of leather into a Mend at Home collection, beginning with decorative pillows and plant wraps that will be sold online and at sites throughout metro Detroit and nationally.

At Pingree, everything is handmade by a team of seven in their Detroit factory at 15707 Livernois Ave.

This Ford gift will result in thousands of new products, Schlaff said. “Our team is beyond inspired and grateful for this opportunity.”

Nathaniel Crawford II, an Air Force veteran who specializes in making footwear, said, “As a worker-owned cooperative that prides itself on service above self and making our neighborhoods stronger, expanding our relationship with Ford unleashes endless possibilities.”

This latest move is part of an ongoing commitment to sustainability, Conner said.

“One of the things that’s really cool about this is that, well, I can’t remember how many shoes you get out of a single hide but our donation is substantial. I think they get five or six boots out of a hide,” he said. “On the other side, Mend on the Move has been making smaller things because they’ve been getting scraps of leather and now this will allow them to sell much larger pieces. “

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The automotive industry and other companies are working to recycle and upcycle car parts, and also have reached out to both Pingree and Mend on the Move.

Pingree has received donations from Ford previously as well as General Motors, Corvette, Lear, Eagle Ottawa and Shinola. The business, founded in 2015, saw $200,000 in revenue in 2020, Schlaff said.

“We are a team of veterans and Detroiters,” Schlaff said.

“We have hired, taught skilled trades in industrial sewing, shoemaking and leather crafting to 12 veterans to date and many of them have secured jobs with those skills in the automotive industry or with larger companies,” he said. “As new jobs become available, Pingree will be canvassing the blocks around its workshop to invite neighbors to apply and join the team and participate in free leather crafting and sneaker making workshops.”

Meanwhile, Mend launched in 2015 at a fundraising event when Ewald first shared her personal story publicly. The organization has received donations from Eagle Ottawa by Lear, which was used to create clutch bags and pouches, as well as Ford, Ralco Industries, BAE industries and General Motors.

While luxury trucks and SUVs still include premium leather as an option, Ford has noted the award-winning all-electric 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E uses vegan, animal-free leather or faux leather — reviewers have praised its luxury design, look and feel.

“We’re upcycling and keeping materials out of landfills and doing the right thing,” said Conner, a Northville resident who served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1990-96. He has worked at Ford ever since. “We’re taking care of local companies. It’s just a pretty cool story all the way around.”

The website for Pingree features images of their new products and says, “Smells like a new car because it nearly was.”

To view products or order directly:

Follow Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.

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