Southwest ‘Upcycles’ Old Airplane Seat Leather Into Bags, Balls, Shoes

By Sheryl Jean The Dallas Morning News.

Southwest Airlines hopes travelers have fond memories of sitting on their leather seats -- often for hours.

Now, customers can carry a little piece of those memories around with them.

Over the last few years, the airline replaced 80,000 leather seats in about 450 jets, leaving it with about 32 football fields of leather and executives scratching their heads about what to do with it.

Eureka! Project LUV Seat was born to turn some of the seat leather into stylish two-tone backpacks for eco-conscious shoppers and into soccer balls and shoes for kids in Africa.

It's Southwest's first foray into the world of "upcycling" -- turning waste materials into new products of greater value or better environmental value. The project also provides jobs and skills training for disadvantaged and disabled people in Africa and the United States.

Now, the Dallas-based airline is making plans for the rest of the leather: roughly 60,000 seat covers. It's looking at projects closer to home or in places it serves, said spokeswoman Casey Dunn.

Doing good Southwest's move to a lighter, more durable, eco-friendly faux leather seat reduced the weight of each plane by more than 600 pounds to save fuel.

"What didn't fit with the green story was: Where are we going to put these 43 acres of leather?" said Bill Tiffany, vice president of supply chain management for the airline. "We knew it couldn't go in a landfill."

Tiffany, who grew up in Nairobi, came up with the idea of doing something that would help people in Africa. For Project LUV Seat,

Southwest teamed up with:

Alive & Kicking Kenya. The training program for young adults has made over 1,000 soccer balls.

Life Beads Kenya. The training program for women and people with disabilities is making 15,000 bags and wallets.

Maasai Treads. The training program for young adults in Kenya is making 2,100 pairs of sandals and shoes.

Kenya's first lady, Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, helped promote the project as part of a campaign to put shoes on kids to protect against jiggers, Tiffany said. Jiggers are sand fleas that burrow into the skin and cause painful wounds.

SOS Children's Villages. The charity organized the skills training in Africa and is distributing the goods there.

In addition, Southwest teamed up with Looptworks, a Portland, Ore.-based upcycler that is making stylish duffel and tote bags, handbags, backpacks and toiletry kits with the help of disabled workers. It's the only U.S. and for-profit partner.

Looptworks began making stylish bags in a blue-and-camel color combo in the fall. Prices on the company's website range from less than $85 (for a toiletry kit) to $250 (for a backpack).

Co-founder Scott Hamlin wouldn't say how many bags have sold so far, but he said the response "has been overwhelming." Looptworks, which has worked with brands such as Patagonia and Toyota, has an order waiting list of four to six weeks.

The Southwest project is a chance for 6-year-old Looptworks to spread its "message of upcycling and reducing waste ... to a larger audience," Hamlin said. Each Southwest bag saves up to 4,000 gallons of water and reduces carbon emissions by up to 70 percent.

Looptworks also has been working with nonprofits to train and hire adults with disabilities who deconstruct and clean the leather before it's made into bags. The company has created at least 25 jobs for the disabled and 10 manufacturing jobs, Hamlin said. 'Upcycling'

Project LUV Seat reflects the growth of corporate social responsibility.

"For a long time, companies focused on economic value; now they're focusing more on social value," said David Chandler, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver and author of Corporate Social Responsibility: A Strategic Perspective. It can translate into more business, better supplier relations or happier employees, he said.

Upcycling is a growing piece of the social responsibility pie. For example, Etsy, a website for handmade goods, offers over 315,000 "upcycled" items, up from 8,000 in 2010.

The trend emerged from a 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which supports a manufacturing cycle in which products at the end of their life can be reused as something new.

Southwest is not the first airline to upcycle.

In 2008, London-based Virgin Atlantic donated material from about 1,000 retrofitted airplane seats to a company called Worn Again, which made about 2,000 bags. A percentage of each sale went to environmental outreach and to offset carbon emissions.

"Virgin Atlantic has always had sustainability at the heart of our corporate philosophy," said spokeswoman Olivia Gall in New York.

Southwest's next phase Southwest has upcycled about 20 percent of its seat leather. It hasn't all been easy pedaling, with delays and communication issues.

"What I learned the most out of this is that it's really hard sometimes to do something good," Tiffany said. "Getting 10,000 seat covers that we declared as having no value into a country like Kenya -- the custom agents were skeptical and wanted to know why we were doing this."

Tiffany wants to replicate the project in Latin America and the Caribbean as the airline expands in those areas in the next few years. Southwest already is talking to potential partners, he said.

One of them is Looptworks, said Hamlin, who used to work for Adidas in Latin America.

"We want to be a significant force in the communities where we serve," Tiffany said. "We're looking at different leather products tailored for what is needed in the local communities. Who knows what comes next?"

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