Companies are continually pressed to innovate products and services to address environmental concerns and many organizations, like Nike and Ford, are thinking outside the box to create materials that pave the way for a leaner and more efficient future. However, oftentimes a sustainable innovation can create some very unsustainable byproducts – and it's up to companies to create solutions that benefit both business and society.
For the past few years Southwest Airlines has been hard at work transforming its airplane interiors to enhance customer comfort, improve fleet efficiency and address sustainability issues. The project resulted in a new and improved cabin, complete with recyclable carpets and lightweight seat covers. These innovations also meant a 600-pound reduction in total aircraft weight -- which decreased overall fuel use, and in turn, carbon emissions. Yet, in order to transform the interiors, Southwest had to remove 80,000 leather seat covers from existing planes, resulting in 43 acres of leather waste which traditionally would be destined for landfills. Instead, Project LuvSeat was born.
To "close the loop," Southwest Airlines partnered with organizations in Kenya and Malawi to upcycle the covers into items like soccer balls and shoes, while also teaching leatherworking skills to youth in the area. Here in the U.S., Southwest also partnered with Portland, OR-based Looptworks to turn a portion of the covers into tote bags and backpacks which the airline will then purchase and distribute as gifts. Co-founder of Looptworks, Scott Hamlin, describes the environmental benefit of the upcycling project in a recent Guardian article, "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."
By thinking differently about the waste produced from its sustainability innovation, Southwest Airlines was able to not only create a new life for the leather, but also teach new skills to communities. And although the project remains a one-time initiative – without a continuous infusion of the materials, the project is bound to be short-lived – the concept is an example of how companies can turn trash into a social impact improvement.