“Going green” has been a huge selling point for years, prompting even the largest of corporations to adopt everything from recycling programs to energy-efficient lighting. And while those internal changes certainly benefit the environment, most businesses stop short of actually changing their approach to creating new products.
That’s where these four companies set themselves apart. Rather than relying on raw materials to create new things, these companies create upcycled products – products made from existing materials – including such unusual items as leather airline seats and military uniforms. Let’s take a look at how these companies are proving that “business as usual” can be sustainable too.
Looptworks, based in Portland, OR, has a simple mission: “to use only what already exists.” For them, that includes seat covers from airline seats, leather jackets, skis, t-shirts and a bevy of other reclaimed materials. “Mostly, brands and companies come to us with excess materials and we partner with them to find solutions,” says Scott Hamlin, founder of Looptworks.
Image courtesy of Looptworks
One such partnership resulted in one of the company’s most popular collections; a series of stylish bags made from leather seat covers provided by Southwest Airlines. In 2015, the airline decided to replace their blue and tan leather covers in favor of a more lightweight material, and Looptworks was more than happy to take all 80,000 seat covers off their hands. The resulting “In Flight Collection” has saved 2,000 gallons of water per pound of upcycled leather used.
Looptworks has developed similar relationships with other organizations, including Alaska Airlines and the Portland Trail Blazers, and each collaboration presents new challenges. “We have to collect, sort, deconstruct and clean the materials before even starting to work with them. Cutting these materials is also challenging as they are not always uniform and you cannot stack or cut them with a CNC machine,” says Scott. Yet those challenges are part of what drives Looptworks’ creative process. “It makes it really fun as the materials dictate what we can make and then creativity and design take over from there.”
Sue Burns, founder and owner of upcycled clothing and accessory maker Baabaazuzu, stumbled upon upcycling after her husband mistakenly put her wool sweaters in the dryer. Rather than letting her shrunken sweaters go to waste, she turned them into small jackets and matching hats for her two young daughters. Not long after, Baabaazuzu (a reference to both sheep and Sue’s nickname, “Zuzu”) was born, eventually becoming one of the most recognized upcyclers of wool in the country.
Image courtesy of Baabaazuzu
“We create hats, mittens, scarves, fingerless gloves, bags and jackets and more for men and women,” says Sue. “Each piece of Baabaazuzu that is created in every style, is a one-of-a-kind design.” In order to source all of the wool they need, Baabaazuzu relies on salvage companies from across the country. “[They] identify or sort the usable wool for us, using our strict specifications, which include ratios of plain to pattern wool or woven to knit wool.” Working with upcycled clothing materials can be a challenge due to the size, seams and existing ornamentation of certain items. But as a result, Baabaazuzu has learned how to “mix color, pattern and texture to make each creation a masterpiece.”
What Is Upcycling?
Upcycling is the opposite of recycling. Instead of converting existing materials into lower quality ones, upcycling uses existing materials to create sustainable products of greater quality or lower environmental impact.
Image courtesy of Alchemy Goods
Upcycling can be applied to just about any item you can think of. Those inner tubes that keep your bicycle tires inflated? Those can be cut up and sewn into messenger bags, wallets and even shaving kits. Alchemy Goods, based out of Seattle, WA, partners with bike shops to collect blown inner tubes and turn them into unique bags that combine rubber tubing, seat belts (for straps) and billboard vinyl to create durable and sustainable products.
Since 2012, upcycling company Sword & Plough has been making jewelry, handbags, money clips, hats and more from surplus military supplies. They upcycle thousands of pounds of material every year, including uniforms, sleeping bag covers, tents and even 50 caliber bullet casings – used to make necklaces and rings. Yet upcycling is only part of what makes their business unique. Each item they produce is manufactured by businesses that are either veteran-owned or that employ veterans, providing support to those struggling to make the transition to civilian life.
Image courtesy of Sword & Plough
Making upcycled products from army surplus, and providing job opportunities for veterans, are integral components of Sword & Plough’s mission to achieve measurable social impact. Since 2013, the company has saved more than 25,000 pounds of military surplus from the landfill, produced over 5,000 products for U.S. consumers, and donated 10 percent of all after-tax profits to veterans’ organizations.
Know other companies taking upcycling to the next level? Let us know in the comments!