That's exactly what Southwest Airlines have done, replacing the cow-skin with a lightweight material. This dropped 600 pounds per plane of weight--a pretty hefty saving. But Southwest then had a problem. What exactly do you do with the discarded leather from 80,000 airline seats?
To their credit, the answer was not landfill. Instead, Southwest teamed with upscale upcyclers Looptworks to use the leather for accessories. Tote bags, duffels and backpacks will all be created as giveaways and gifts for corporate events. This kind of reuse brings a certain eco-chic, and I can see the items that Looptworks builds out of the seats becoming highly desirable. Probably best not to consider how that leather became quite so soft and broken-in, though.
That desirability is part of the equation that makes upcycling viable. Contrary to what you might think, it's not a cheap process. The material needs to be broken down and reformed, and there will always be variations in the quality of the material, meaning that upcycling is highly labour intensive. Scott Hamlin of Looptworks explains:
"...in many cases, unfortunately, the cost of creating the upcycled material is higher than the value of the material itself. The best way of recovering the costs is by creating an upscale product."That's not to say upcycling is just for posh bags and wallets, though. In a smart PR move, Southwest are also working with charities in Kenya and Malawi to teach children how to work leather, and a portion of the seat covers are being remade into shoes and footballs.
This clever reimagining of materials is good eco-thinking, and can create some interesting revenue streams from the most uninspiring of sources. An increasing amount of sports and technical wear (including many brands sold by Pier32) is made from PET, which is essentially recycled plastic from drinks bottles. It's great to see a big company like Southwest making a virtue out of a necessary loss, and creating something beautiful as part of the process.
The Guardian has more, including an interesting new use for fish skin.