Did You Know that Southwest Airlines Saves Lives by Repurposing Used Leather Seats?


There’s not much about the aviation industry that makes people think “eco-friendly,” on a regular basis (um, ever). The airline industry is known for being one of the least eco-friendly industries we can think of off the top of our heads, and it’s because those are big machines that use a lot of fuel and a lot of materials that will really do a number on the environment. Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s not much in general people have to say about the airline industry that’s overly positive (delays, cancellations, overbooking, lack of legroom, lack of free snacks, slow service…you name it) but that doesn’t mean that airlines aren’t solely looking out for themselves. Some airlines are very aware of the fact that they are not exactly environmentally friendly, and they’re looking to change that by making sure that what they can change is changed. Since airlines can’t exactly eliminate all their waste, they have to find creative ways to save the environment that don’t include staying grounded for life. Southwest Airlines is one of the most recent to launch a new campaign in which they will find a way to make use of recycled materials on flights so that they can reduce the waste that they produce on a regular basis. Before we get into that, however, let’s discuss just how wasteful it is to fly.

How Airlines Produce Waste

We all know that carbon emissions and jet fuel and gas and all the other mechanical things going on with each flight are terrible for the environment. However, you won’t get where you need to go in a reasonable amount of time if you don’t fly, so most people aren’t too concerned with the fact that they’re pretty much ruining the earth with every flight (and I fly often and really do rationalize this with the fact that a flight is like a carpool so really we are saving the environment with each vacation or business trip).

Airlines are not just wasting the hardcore stuff, either. They waste uneaten food and beverages, trash, items that cannot be reused to uniforms that the people who fly the plane or care for the planes can no longer wear. Though it’s my own personal opinion that it is less the airlines’ fault what food goes to waste and more the passenger’s fault to be honest. Airlines that remodel their flights or change out their seating also waste the materials that are used before they make changes. That’s what caused Southwest Airlines to make a decision to make a positive change, and that’s what keeping them relevant to people.

How Southwest is Becoming more Eco-Friendly

A new initiative by the name of Luv Seat is essential an upcycling program that’s designed for the airline. It’s in conjunction with NGOs out of Africa to also help provide education and job training. The program is going to take 80,000 used leather seat covers and remake them and repurpose them to be used on other seats rather than just discarding them as they would any other time.

A recent renovation of the airlines’ 737 aircraft left Southwest with these seat covers and nothing to do with them, which is what prompted officials from Southwest to turn it into something positive and environmentally friendly.

For a while, though, it seemed that the concept was not going to take off (who could forgo a little airline humor here?) considering the fact that they could not find anyone willing to partner with them when they first began shopping their ideas. That’s when one of the VP of Southwest who grew up in Africa, Bill Tiffany, made the decision to start looking in his native country for someone to help. They partnered with SOS Children’s Villages Kenya to help provide orphans with paid apprenticeships that will allow them to receive on the job training and education through the use of these leather seat covers.

What these young apprentices will do throughout the course of their paid apprenticeships is create soccer balls and shoes out of their leather seat covers. The shoes are then given to Maasai Treads. This is an organization that helps donate shoes to those in need in an effort to prevent debilitating and deadly foot parasites that can be obtained by walking barefoot in many areas around the country.

The soccer balls are given to Alive & Kicking. This particular charity uses their influence to provide these balls to children in an effort to bring awareness to AIDS and HIV prevention, as well as malaria prevention.

Southwest Wants to do More than Donate

It’s a simple concept to say, “Here, we have this stuff and we don’t want or need it anymore, so here you go, enjoy,” and then go home and go about your business like nothing ever happened. Southwest has decided to take their initiative a step farther, however, by making it their mission to not only donate their used seat covers but also provide education and training to youth. The skills they will learn throughout the course of this program will help them throughout many aspects of their lives, which will in turn help them in their futures.

Additionally, the concept of redesigning their seats in the first place on Southwest flights was one made to help with environmental factors. The old leather was quite heavy, and the new leather is significantly lighter. What this means is that each flight is now lighter, which means it will produce fewer emissions and make each flight just a bit more environmentally healthy. And while this is certainly one of the biggest redesigns that any airline has initiated, it’s not the first. Though it does seem that there is a growing trend for major airlines to look at what they’ve got left over and find a way to try and use it again to be a bit more conscious of their effect on the environment. It’s a big step in the right direction, and it’s a really nice thing that Southwest is doing.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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