How Leather “Scrap” from Detroit’s Auto Industry is Powering the First Sneakers Manufactured in the Motor City

By: Jarret Schlaff, CEO of Pingree Detroit

I could not have imagined that showing up to a meeting in the GMRENCEN three years ago carrying Pingree Detroit’s newest urban utility boot prototype, and a vision for creating skilled trades jobs for veterans, would provide my team access to the materials we needed to launch our company.


It was 2015 and a team of veterans and I were in our first year of bootstrapping this sustainable leather goods manufacturing start-up in every way you can imagine. We had passion and designs for days but were lacking the necessary capital, key expertise, nearly all the equipment we needed to get started, and the cost of materials and skilled labor were barriers we hadn’t figured out how to overcome yet.



Then came an email from John Bradburn, a mentor of mine and the sustainability visionary behind the Michigan By-product Synergy Initiative and some of GM’s most profound waste repurposing initiatives. He invited me to come to the third quarter Suppliers Partnership for the Environment meeting at the GMRENCEN where hundreds of engineers and auto industry leaders from across North America would be coming together. I welcomed the chance to share our story with as many people as possible (and to ride the People Mover) and had the goal of leaving the meeting with a contact of someone at a company who wanted to explore turning their waste streams into an input for us to create the first sneakers ever manufactured in Detroit.


This evolved into an actual possibility after meeting Doug Andrews with Lear Corporation on one of the coffee breaks. He loved our commitment to serving those who have served and bringing shoe manufacturing back to Detroit. After a follow-up meeting he introduced me to his colleagues the following week and we began the process of exploring the possibility of Pingree Detroit solving part of their leather “scrap” problem.


We learned that every day, tons of leather intended for new cars goes unused and is considered “waste” or part of the cost of doing business. It’s not easy to create a closed loop manufacturing process but it is possible. Any waste stream has an opportunity for innovation in design and instead of this unused leather being shipped overseas or landfilled we made the case that it could directly support Detroit veterans, create jobs in Detroit and also keep this gorgeous leather in the Motor City. Lear agreed and we have been collaborating ever since.



With our relationship with Lear established, and some generous equipment donations including some by Lear, our U.S. veterans and other makers now had access to put these materials and equipment to use for training, prototyping and handcrafting the best of it into high quality leather products that are sustainable and handmade to last. Each piece has character and purpose. Just like the people who make it. Right here in Detroit.


Those who want to be part of our story and support our efforts can explore our offerings. Our signature tote bags, belts, drawstring backpacks and wallets are designed and handmade in Detroit in small batches by veterans and community makers using this reclaimed luxury automotive grade leather.



Our leather sneakers become available for purchase in Q4 2018. Folks can sign up for footwear updates here. 


You can visit Pingree Detroit at the pop-up store at 1441 Woodward Ave in downtown Detroit now through August 31 or visit our online store at Use code RENCEN for 10% off any of our products.