Repurpose with Purpose

What would you do with 675,000 pounds of used leather?

That’s a question that Southwest has faced for years. “We regularly renovate the interiors of our aircraft,” says Todd Spinks, Southwest’s Citizenship Advisor. “Southwest operates more than 4,000 weekday departures during peak travel seasons, so our cabin interiors get a workout. Sometimes the aircraft just needs a few new seat covers to replace worn or ripped seats. But other times everything is taken out, and new carpet and seats are installed to align with current branding style.”

“Every month, between 12 and 18 planes go through some part of this process. Each aircraft has either 143 or 175 seats, so each aircraft can potentially give us a considerable amount of material that we can repurpose.”

Repurpose with Purpose
The Repurpose with Purpose program first began in 2013, following the Evolve retrofit program, which updated Southwest’s leather aircraft seat covers. At the project’s onset, we hoped Repurpose with Purpose would encourage partners around the world to reuse and repurpose leather to better people’s lives and raise industry standards for the environment and the communities in which they operate. In 2017, we continued to expand the program, repurposing nearly 675,000 pounds of seat covers and other surplus materials.

The benefits of the Repurpose with Purpose program are twofold. By upcycling materials from aircraft interiors and turning them into products like bags, jewelry, and golf club covers, Southwest reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills. And the program also benefits communities in the U.S. and Mexico—providing opportunities for careers, economic empowerment, and skills training.

Our Partners

  • Arise: Jennings, Missouri-based nonprofit Arise Veteran Foundation provides art instruction and skills-building programs for youth, veterans, seniors, and other disadvantaged groups. Arise’s veterans rehabilitation programs use upcycled leather from Southwest aircraft seat covers to foster the development of entrepreneurial skills and generate income. Arise also shreds and deconstructs leather material to be used as padding for products in the furniture and automotive industries.
  • Carla Fernández: Mexican fashion designer Carla Fernández works with artisans in seven different communities throughout Mexico to upcycle Southwest aircraft seat covers into sellable goods. These artisans create textile and embroidery designs that preserve Mexico’s rich cultural heritage and help generate income for themselves and their local communities.
  • Dallas Designing Dreams: Dallas-based nonprofit Dallas Designing Dreams (DDD) provides workshops, volunteer opportunities, sewing classes, and training in a creative space to individuals with “dreams or broken dreams.” DDD has produced a line of items including golf club covers, jewelry, backpacks, tote bags, and luggage tags from aircraft seat covers and old Southwest Employee uniforms. By selling one-of-a-kind art and handmade products online and in the local marketplace, DDD offers alternatives to the mainstream shopping experience while connecting Customers with local producers.
  • Looptworks: In 2017, we also continued to work with one of our original LUV Seat partners, Looptworks. Looptworks is a Portland, Oregon-based business that upcycles or repurposes abandoned, pre-consumer and post-consumer materials into limited edition products. Looptworks engages veterans and people with disabilities in the local community to provide skills and economic opportunities. Reverse engineering their entire supply chain, Looptworks is driven to be as sustainable as possible by creating jobs, reducing environmental impact, and helping communities.
  • Rethreaded: Jacksonville, Florida-based nonprofit Rethreaded offers a line of upcycled leather jewelry and accessories while creating career opportunities for women who have experienced exploitation and trauma coming out of human trafficking. The program offers the women three months of on-the-job training, mental health counseling, crisis management, and case management. They are then fully integrated into the business through one of five departments and are pivotal in all aspects of the organization.

Changing Lives—One Seat Cover at a Time

As Repurpose with Purpose continues to grow, lives are being changed. Each of the program partners uses the materials in different ways, and they are addressing different social challenges. But the common thread that unites all of the partnerships is that people’s lives are being impacted. Renata Bryan, a survivor and Rethreaded employee, explains, “I had given up on society because I thought society had given up on me. And now, here I am today, a successful business woman.” Renata’s fellow employee, Carrie Smals, believes that repurposing Southwest leather creates job security: “It keeps me off the streets, and it keeps my sisters off the streets.”

Doing the Right Thing
Todd says, “When I first started working at Southwest, I sat down with Bill Tiffany, Southwest’s Vice President of Supply Chain Management, who oversees the collection and storing of all this surplus material. I asked him about our strategies, logistics, costs, and the rate at which material was coming in.

“After Bill addressed my questions, I said, ‘Well okay, I will do my best to get all of these materials distributed so that we can realize some cost savings as quickly as possible.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Todd, I appreciate your attention to cost because it is central to our low-cost mission. This is also about doing the right thing.’

Our Repurpose with Purpose program is about doing the right thing.

“That was a pinnacle moment during my early days at Southwest. Having such a strong advocate at the Executive level who is passionate about doing the right thing only invigorated my belief that we have created a successful program and affect people’s lives for the better.”

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