Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Looptworks transforms retired leather seats into something stylish.

This journey began at Southwest and is being completed in the Pacific Northwest.

Project LUV Seat is an innovative idea initiated by Southwest Airlines to repurpose the leather from discarded aircraft fleet seats and turn the soft textile into a viable, Made in America consumer product. The route to manufacturing facilities — instead of a landfill — ends in Pacific Northwest destinations such as Portland, Oregon, nearby Salem and Vancouver, Washington.

The project began in 2012, when Southwest launched its Evolve campaign, a large-scale redesign of the majority of its aircraft that reduced the weight of each plane by more than 600 pounds. Nearly 80,000 leather seat coverings, equivalent to approximately 43 acres of used leather, were removed and destined for the dump, as had been standard operating procedure.

But this time, Southwest had a better idea — it would find a new use for all that leather.

The project’s pilot location was a non-profit in Nairobi, Kenya, where the leather became goods like soccer balls for local community groups. But Southwest decided it wanted to find a partner closer to home.

Looptworks, a Portland-based nonprofit, was willing to take on the used leather and create a set of all purpose bags that would be manufactured with as little harm to the environment as possible. Today, Looptworks takes the soft, broken-in leather from the seats and creates three travel bags – a weekender duffel, a convertible tote, a backpack — and a toiletry case.

“Southwest’s PR Firm Edelman, the largest public relations firm in the world, was having difficulty finding someone to partner with on this project when they called us and said ‘Is this something you guys do?’” said Looptworks co-founder and CEO Scott Hamlin. “Well, we said yes this is what we do, in fact this is all that we do. This is our business model.

“There was about a five- or six-month window of conversation around the how’s, what’s, where’s, when’s and all that. We kind of figured everything out and moved forward with them as their exclusive U.S. partner on this to make the project come to life.”

The versatile bags, which are beautifully hand-crafted with a nostalgic reminder of Southwest Airlines, went into production and appeared on the Looptworks website in November 2014, just before the holidays. The bags sold quickly — in fact, the manufacturing of two of the four products are idle right now while Looptworks awaits additional leather.

"I think we are ripe for innovation in this industry and that can allow us to bring some of that manufacturing back in a way that makes it more affordable to everybody." Scott Hamlin, co-founder and CEO, Looptworks

Hamlin said the convertible tote will go back into production soon, and the website allows a potential customer to complete a short form that the company will use to contact consumers when the backpack is once again being manufactured. It’s just a matter of time until Looptworks acquires another sufficient supply of the reusable leather, Hamlin said.

The four bags in the Project LUV Seat are all handcrafted in the Pacific Northwest, and Looptworks even partnered with a local nonprofit that employs workers with disabilities to deconstruct and rehabilitate the leather.

There have been challenges, Hamlin admitted, including finding available sewers, machinery and technology.

“In manufacturing, however, it’s my belief that we are the innovators and this industry has not had much innovation in the past 100 years,” Hamlin said. “About 50 years ago we shipped it overseas. Well, we’ve had some evolutions — but we haven’t had any innovations. I think we are ripe for innovation in this industry and that can allow us to bring some of that manufacturing back in a way that makes it more affordable to everybody.

“What’s happening right now in our industry is the focus needs to be shifting to Made in the U.S.A.”

Along with being made here at home, another appealing aspect of the LUV Seat bags is the ecological factors that go into manufacturing with reusable leather. When you start with materials that already exist, they already have the water and carbon emissions footprint. 

“In this process you end up conserving a whole lot of water,” Hamlin said. “It takes 2,109 gallons of water to make a pound of leather and there is approximately two pounds of leather in these bags so we are conserving more than 4,000 gallons of water per bag by using existing airline seats versus virgin leather. That’s a really important piece of it. It’s not that we just reduce the waste but the two things we really focus on – to make this a really simple conversation – is water and air. That’s all you need to exist on this planet. On average, we reduce carbon emissions by 72 percent.”

Southwest Airlines isn’t the only partner Looptworks has worked with — the company’s client list includes organizations such as Patagonia, Belgian Brewing, Microsoft and Lush Cosmetics. Some of Looptworks’ environmental values rub off on these partners, who began to find new ways to reduce waste in their organization, which increases employee engagement and helps reduce companies’ bottom line, Hamlin said.

Buy the Bags: LUV Seat collection bags made to order and can take from six to eight weeks to manufacture and ship. Click here to find out more about availability and pricing, which range from $70 for the toiletry case to $260 for the LUV Seat Weekender Duffle Bag.