Q&A with Dr. Reiner Hengstmann: ISA TanTec | MII

May 30, 2023

How ISA TanTec Has Diversified to Include Next-Gen Materials

ISA TanTec is a global leader in the manufacturing of Next-Gen materials, specializing in producing sustainable leathers and sustainable additional materials for footwear, handbag, apparel, and accessories. The company is represented by its trademarked LITE (Low Impact to the Environment) manufacturing concept in all facilities. The LITE concept defines and guarantees a high standard of environmental sustainability in the manufacturing process.Dr. Reiner Hengstmann is the Vice President of Additional Materials at ISA Next-Gen Materials. He was the Global Director for Sustainability and Compliance at the sporting goods company Puma from 1999 to 2016 and subsequently, Senior Head of Global Sustainability at Hugo Boss in Germany. His main areas of work include chemicals management, new materials, sustainability training, and socio-environmental impacts in the consumer goods industry. 

Read on to learn more about Dr. Hengstmann and how ISA TanTec is diversifying its business to include next-gen materials:

Credit: ISA TanTec. Hyphalite TC Embossed Black

Much of your career has been on the brand side – most notably 16 years at Puma where you were Global Director of Sustainability + Compliance. What motivated you to move to the material supply side?

RH: I must admit, working in a brand provides a great overview when it comes to fashion in general and on how processes and products are designed and developed. Although I had the opportunity to see the production of different products globally and under different conditions, working in a brand provides only a limited view of the product. My desire was to learn more, to see more beyond the final product. Trained as a scientist I am conscious, wanting to explore more, see all possibilities… that’s what took me to the other side, the manufacturing side. And it is a different but exciting world, the manufacturing world.

It’s rather extraordinary that a leather company – a very successful company that supplies leather to the world’s most recognizable brands – would diversify and make a leather alternative! Can you tell me about why ISA did that and when?

ISA TanTec Camper Sandal

Credit: ISA TanTec. Camper Sandal made with HyphaLite TM

RH: We do not call our material a leather alternative as for a leather company producing
a leather alternative would be counterproductive. Our materials developed in our COSM business unit — where COSM stands for Creation of Sustainable Materials — are called additional materials which ISA is offering beside our sustainable leather.

It started in 2019/2020 when our Executive Chairman, Mr. Tom Schneider commissioned a study at the University Lueneburg, Prof. Braungart, on additional/alternative materials to leather. This research study and consequently its results were the kickoff for ISA journey for our new material.

Although the pandemic disrupted my plans to work on the project in Vietnam in early
2020, we found a way to continue with it by refunctioning our chairman’s garage in the black forest. That is where HyphaLite TM was born. Later in 2020, we started further development work in Vietnam.

In 2021, the COSM department, which turned eventually into our new business unit, got established. It was always the intention to develop materials which are not alternatives to leather but alternatives to plastic-based leather imitations.

The development of COSM has diversified our company’s product portfolio, and as it grows, ISA has elevated to ISA Next-Gen Materials, a next-gen material supplier with two business units: ISA TanTec to produce sustainable leather and ISA COSM to produce sustainable additional materials.

The COSM (Creation of Sustainable Materials) business unit of ISA Next-Gen Materials uses plant-based feedstocks. Can you tell us more about that? What types of plants…Is it food waste, agro waste…?

RH: HyphaLite TM TC is made out of natural latex which is not treated such as crosslinked or vulcanized. Beside this the base material is a man-made cellulosic fiber, a non-woven material of viscose and lyocell.

Additionally, the material contains mushrooms and a natural plasticizer. It must be noted that the mushrooms are not taken out of the food chain. These mushrooms do not meet the criteria of the food industry and are normally disposed. Buying these mushrooms, which are dried under the sun, provided an additional income to the farmers.

All used raw materials are certified either according to FSC and VFCS or similar certification standards especially for the mushrooms.

HyphaLite TM TC was created almost 2 years ago to replace plastic leather imitations. They were way ahead of the curve in terms of environmentally preferable materials.
● How long did it actually take the team to make a viable material?
● How was it received initially?
● Has interest in the LITE products grown over the years?
● So many of the alternatives to leather are very expensive. How did you decide to price HyphaLite TM ?
● Another one of your products mimics felted wool – TerraLite. Was that also developed 2 years ago?

Credit: ISA TanTec. Hyphalite TC Embossed

RH: As already mentioned, we started with the initial development of HyphaLite TM in 2020. So, it is fair to say that the development of HyphaLite TM took approximately two years.

How was it received? I would say like any new item being introduced to the market. It created interest as it was originally seen as an alternative to leather which is, as explained already, not the case but which created an expectation to the material to behave in the same way as leather and to perform like leather.

It required and still requires detailed information and education of our customers to explain the material and its performance.

Regarding LITE it is important to note, that all products manufactured at ISA at any entity globally, including the leather, are strictly the LITE concepts, where LITE stands for Low Impact To the Environment. For every sqft of material we produce, whether it will be leather or HyphaLite TM , we are able to provide the relevant KPIs used, such as energy, water, and waste.

Has the COSM division grown over the years?

RH: The COSM division has currently eight employees. We started in 2020 in Vietnam with two operators.

What is the most popular product?

RH: The most popular product is so far HyphaLite TM TC.

Credit: ISA TanTec. Hyphalite TC Embossed Shoes

How do customers (brands and the end-consumer) know what your materials are made of?

RH: We share the information with our customers such as brands. As ISA is not directly delivering the material to the end consumer, it is up the brands to get these messages to the consumers. But we do not intend to leave the brands alone with this as we are providing additional support and offering co-marketing initiatives which help educate the consumers.

Have you been able to conduct LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments) on the Lite products yet?

RH: We have commissioned an LCA for HyphLite TM TC and HP and are expecting the results [very soon].

Can you please tell me about your facilities or factories? Have they been given the same attention when it comes to sustainability? Energy efficient, water use, building materials, etc.

RH: ISA has currently four production facilities which are in the USA, Vietnam and China. HyphaLite TM is produced at our facility in Vietnam. As already mentioned, all materials produced at ISA are strictly following the LITE concept and all materials are given the same attention.

Do they have 3rd party audits?

RH: All entities have been and are frequently audited by our global customers. So far, the results are outstanding and no complaints have been received. All leather production units are LWG Gold certified. All facilities in China and Vietnam are certified with the ISO14001 and ISO9001.

ISA TanTec recognized a need to complement their leathers with sustainable alternatives to petro-based synthetics and textiles, and tackle a long-standing environmental oncern within the industry: plastic and global plastic pollutions.

ISA TanTec is a platinum partner of our Material Innovation Conference this June 20-22. Don’t miss Dr. Reiner Hengstmann, Vice President of Additional Materials at ISA Next-Gen Materials, in the Interview Series: Diversification as a Smart Business Practice.


Access the agenda and register here.