Southwest's innovative upcycling experiment

When Southwest Airlines started overhauling the interiors of its 737-700 aircraft fleet in 2012 with its lighter, more ecofriendly Evolve design, one of the first things it began replacing were the heavy leather seats. Over time, it amassed 80,000 seats-worth of leather — enough to fill 14 shipping containers or cover 43 acres.

Rather than relegating that material to landfills, the Southwest sustainability team crafted an unique upcycling experiment, suggested by an internal team member and then approved by its green business council. Called the LUV SEAT: Repurpose with Purpose, the program is using social media outreach to find non-profits and other organizations that can put the leather to use for a good cause.

So far, the seat leather has found a second life in Nairobi, Kenya, as soccer balls used as part of a public health campaign and as shoes that will be donated to protect local residents from jigger infestations on their feet. Both projects — along with several others — are part of apprenticeships offered by SOS Children's Villages Kenya to teach local children skills that will help them earn a livelihood. Other organizations involved (so far) include Alive & Kicking; Masaai Treads; and Life Beads Kenya.

"It's really been an amazing word-of-mouth project," said Marilee McInnis, senior manager at Southwest. "People learn that we have leather and what we want to do with it, and they come to us. I have been amazed and awed by the people that have come together to make this work."

Calling on the crowd

Although leather is harder to reuse than Southwest anticipated, McInnis said that early success, along with internal and external support from Southwest's vice president of supply chain management, Bill Tiffany — who grew up in Kenya — inspired the airline to expand the program into a call to action seeking additional ideas for how to upcycle the leather. (You can follow the campaign on Twitter at #LUVSEAT.

Aside from Kenya, the program has reached communities in Malawi, through U.S.-based non-profit Team Lift, which supports women's and girls' education. Other partners include Cura Orphanage, GoodMaker Films, Gina Din Foundation and Seeds of Hope (part of Vision Africa).

In the United States, another participant in the LUV SEAT program is Looptworks, which uses excess textiles and leather to create accessories such as tablet and smartphone covers, as well as other accessories and apparel. So far, the Portland, Ore., company has saved more than 40 million gallons of water that would have been used to manufacture the materials required for its products.

According to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection, about 14.3 million tons of textiles made it into municipal waste streams in 2012. Just 14.4 percent of the materials in clothing and footwear was recovered and reprocessed (this doesn't include reuse).

In the case of the Southwest leather, there is a limited supply (the retrofit was completed in 2013), but McInnis said the airline's green team is using the experience to consider other items that can be repurpose or reused — everything from peanut packets to metal from aircraft to carpeting. "When you start looking at things with new eyes, everything has potential, but you have to do what makes sense," she said.

The cost of this program to the airline? While McInnis didn't discuss specifics, the main expenses are tied to vetting ideas, shipping the leather to the appropriate locations and providing training support. These are covered by the airline's philanthropic outreach budget.

Along with a new navigation system, Southwest's Evolve interior design was embraced as a means of improving fuel efficiency, a primary focus for the sustainability program at most major airlines.

Aside from using a thinner type of "E-Leather" that reduces weight, the Evolve interior swaps the majority of plastic items with aluminum alternatives and the new carpeting is recyclable. Emergency life vests are stored in pouches instead of boxes to save space. Overall, these changes serve to lighten the load by more than 635 pounds per plane. (An empty 737-700 typically weighs in at just under 84,000 pounds, according to Boeing technical specifications.)

Southwest reports on progress toward its green business goals as part of its integrated annual report (PDF). During 2013, the company saved about 60 million gallons of jet fuel, the equivalent of flying 9,990 round trips between Chicago and Las Vegas. The company is also addressing the fuel used for its ground operations: it is investing substantially in alternative fuels and in electric ground support vehicles and equipment that reduce emissions and air pollution at the ground level, McInnis said.

Top image of Southwest's new entirely recyclable, carbon-neutral carpet via Southwest.