Southwest Airlines, Air Transport World magazine’s 2012 Eco-Pioneer of the Year and your grandmother’s preferred way to get from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, has announced that the leather covers recently stripped from 80,000 passenger cabin seats will be donated to a small consortium of nonprofits. From there, the partnering humanitarian organizations will go about upcycling the old leather into new products such as soccer balls, shoes, and other consumer goods that benefit in-need communities in Africa and beyond.

Along with “other interior elements,” the redundant leather seat covers have been replaced by lightweight, “environmentally friendly materials,” a move that the Dallas-headquartered low-cost carrier says trimmed the weight of each individual aircraft by an incredible 600 pounds.

Theoretically, the weight-shedding design overhaul, completed in 2013, should have enabled Southwest to reduce passenger fares given that lighter planes need less (very expensive) fuel to make their journeys; the savings would be passed on to the customers (and the planet). Somewhat by happy accident, the load-lightening redesign of the planes, carried out on all Boeing 737-700 aircraft and some 737-300s, allowed the airline to squeeze several more passengers onto each flight by adding more seats to the now-roomier cabins (without sacrificing comfort, naturally). So, in the end, perhaps the revamped 737s, didn't loose that much weight after all. 

Following the snazzy EVOLVE redesign scheme, Southwest was left with 43 acres (!) of old, well-traveled leather discared from redesigned. Landfiling the massive stash of leather was out of the question for Southwest, a relatively young airline with a long history of progressive sustainability and social responsibility campaigns. And so, earlier this week, the airline launched its do-gooding leather seat cover upcycling initiative, LUV Seat: Repurpose with Purpose.

The initiative’s pilot will launch this summer in Nairobi, Kenya with the involvement of four different social organizations: SOS Children’s Villages Kenya, Alive & Kicking, Masaai Treads, and Life Beads Kenya. The core partner in the pilot, SOS, will provide teenagers with paid leatherwork apprenticeships in which they’re schooled on how to create shoes and soccer balls with the scrapped airplane seat leather. According to a press release issued by Southwest, the shoes will be distributed as part of a jigger (the foot-burrowing chigoe flea, not to confused with the chigger which is a Trombiculidae mite) prevention campaign while the soccer balls will be donated to a sports-centric educational program that raises HIV/AIDS and malaria awareness. 

Outside of Kenya, partners include TeamLift, a U.S.-based organization in the process of building a boarding school with leatherworks training program in Malawi. Also on board is Looptworks, a Portland, Ore.-based sustainable fashion and accessories purveyor that will transform the discarded leather into an array of upcycled Southwest Airlines merch including tote bags, wallets, and duffel bags.

Speaking to The Guardian, Scott Hamlin, co-founder of Looptworks, explains the environmental benefits of working with reclaimed leather to produce handbags:

The water conserved by making goods using old leather rather than virgin leather is enormous.For each bag, 4,000 gallons of water is saved. In addition, there's a CO2 reduction of up to 82 percent.
Southwest is also encouraging customers and the general public to share their ideas on how to give old leather a new life. They’re also taking suggestions, using the #LUVSeat hashtag on Twitter or Facebook, for other social enterprises that they could potentially partner with to spread the LUV. For those not familiar with Southwest's corporate branding idenity, LUV Seat is a play on the company's customer service slogan, "LUV," itself a play on the fact that the airline is based out of Love Field in Dallas. The company's New York Stock Exchange ticker name is also, of course, LUV.

Kudos to Southwest on the creation of a whole upcycled leather goods cottage industry that teaches the virtues of both entrepreneurialism and environmental stewardship.From the sounds of it, 43 acres of airplane seat leather has the potential to do a whole lot of good. I’m curious as to what other nifty upcycling tricks Southwest may have on their hands in the future.

Artisanal jewerly handcrafted from spent cans of Mr. and Mrs. T Bloody Mary Mix cans, perhaps? 

Or pop-up emergency shelters — "LUV Shacks," if you will — insulated with pretzel bags?

In such a high-waste industry as commercial aviation, the possibilies really do seem endless. 

Via [The Guardian]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

From seat to shoe: Southwest Airlines launches leather upcycling campaign
Following the interior redesign of much of its fleet, America's largest budget carrier was left wondering what to do with 34 acres of old leather seat covers.