A leather re-purposing program was recently launched in Nairobi, Kenya that aims to improve the lives of people in local communities. U.S.-based Southwest Airlines has partnered with SOS Children’s Village USA, a non-profit that serves orphaned children and families in need.  Additional partners include Malawi and the U.S. 

The new initiative called “LUV Seat: Repurpose with Purpose,”  is a unique project that came about as the airline was looking for a way to recycle the 43 acres of left-over leather from the seats of their redesigned 737-700 aircraft.

“They’re putting in newer seats that are lighter and more environmentally friendly, and part of that initiative was making sure that they weren’t just put into a landfill,” said Lynn Croneberger, chief executive officer of SOS Children’s Villages USA.

“So they thought creatively about how they could use all of this leather, tons and tons of leather.  And they came up with a great idea to use it for vocation programs and youth to train them leather-making skills, which is a very marketable skill in Kenya,” she explained. 

Croneberger said the donated leather has given young people in Nairobi the opportunity to learn the skill of working with leather, which creates goods and services for their community.

“The young adults are going to be learning how to work with leather. And they’re going to be making soccer balls and shoes, specifically for that community, and then they’re other programs who are also going to be making purses and other leather items, as well.”

Southwest Airlines, a Dallas, Texas-based company, was re-designing the interior of its aircraft cabins and replacing their heavy leather seat covers with a lighter leather product called e-leather.

Marilee McKinnis, the company’s senior manager of culture and communications, says, “As we were going through this process, it actually became very obvious that we had a lot of leather, very good leather that was durable, and we thought could be repurposed. And it was really just a matter of, what can we do with this leather that won’t put it in a landfill, and can we do something better with it?” said McKinnis.

However, finding an organization to take on the challenge of recycling their seat covers was more of a challenge than the airline anticipated. It took a year of developing the program, but said McKinnis they did have the support of upper management.

“And it was our vice president of supply chain management, Bill Piffany, who had asked us, had we looked at Africa, specifically, Kenya, because he grew up in Kenya,” said McKinnis.

“That was the first time we really turned our eyes abroad and looked for opportunities, and we were so fortunate to partner with SOS Children’s Villages USA and then find our partners on the ground that would be able to create a sustainable program with this leather.”

Croneberger said once the leather was delivered to Kenya, it was disbursed to the various partners.

“Southwest actually shipped the leather to Africa and then worked with our programs to get the leather to the vocational programs that we have in SOS Kenya.  So they’re disbursing it to different community partners who will be working with SOS to identify some of our youth to participate in these apprenticeships. And then, disbursing the products through the different community-based organizations there in Nairobi,” said Croneberger.

McKinnis said, “We are so excited with the product that our partners are producing and we are very fortunate to be working with an organization -- called Alive and Kicking -- that creates soccer balls. The game of soccer is just so huge in Africa, and there’s actually a shortage of real soccer balls.  And so they use soccer balls and sports for health education.

“They educate through sports, and so we’ve partnered with them to create beautiful blue-and-tan soccer balls with health messages for HIV and malaria prevention, and are donating those back into the community,” said McKinnis.