The company saving airplane seats and NBA jerseys from landfills

The End of Waste: Upcycling to Combat Climate Crisis

With nearly 48% of consumers willing to change consumption habits to improve our environment, businesses are under increasing pressure to become leaders in the fight against global warming.

Climate change is the defining issue of the century.

From rising temperatures that spur wildfires, to elevated sea levels causing catastrophic flooding, the changing climate impacts every intersection of our lives. Scientists warn that we have a short window to transform energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst effects of global warming. The future of humanity may very well depend on our generation’s response to this crisis.

Youth activists like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg are at the forefront of the current charge to combat climate change, but with nearly 48% of consumers willing to change consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, businesses themselves are also under increasing pressure to become leaders in the movement. And not just with marketing campaigns, but by actually changing the way they operate, or even designing their business models itself to reduce waste.

Scott Hamlin founded his start-up Looptworks, an upcycler of textiles like used NBA jerseys and airplane seats, with the goal of reducing material waste. The process of reusing and refurbishing finished goods not only benefits the environment by conserving natural resources, but extends the life and value of the materials themselves.

Concerning textile waste alone, Looptworks says the average apparel factory discards approximately 60,000 pounds of perfectly usable, pre-consumer textiles every single week. And because countries in Southeast Asia are no longer accepting Westerners' waste, gone are the days when America could ship away their waste disposal problems.

The rapid growth of such waste and overproduction also puts a strain on one of our Earth’s most valuable resources: water. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and of that, only 0.3% is accessible to humans, says Kristy Jenkensin, Director of World Resources Institute.

Looptworks CEO Hamlin came face to face with the reality of textile and water waste while working at apparel brands like Royal Robbins, adidas, and Jockey. In some cases, he says about 30% of excess materials were leftover from manufacturing, only to head to a landfill or incinerator. Steps were taken towards sustainability, like using organic cotton over polyester, but it wasn’t significantly reducing the large amount of waste generated during pre- and post-production. For example, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed to create one cotton t-shirt.

“The material was getting better, but the system was broken,” says Hamlin.

He describes an overseas warehouse with racks and racks of materials sitting untouched for months, only to be hauled off to the landfill or incinerator where it would waste away, releasing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Hamlin incubated Looptworks for about a year before launching with a singular mission: to use only what already exists. For Looptworks, upcycling is the starting point, with the long-term goal of preventing waste through a circular model of manufacturing and re-use.

“Step number one was recovering perfectly good materials from the waste stream and [reusing them], then moving to zero waste. We look at the entire supply chain from a circularity standpoint, and take inventory on what materials are being used in the operations.”

Looptworks’ closed-loop business model garnered them major news coverage that thrust them into the spotlight and onto Southwest Airlines radar in 2014. As part of an environmentally friendly initiative, Southwest replaced 80,000 leather seat covers with durable and environmentally-responsible material that lightened the weight of the plane and conserved jet fuel, thus reducing fossil fuel use.

Not wanting to contribute more waste or end the lifecycle of the previous leather seats, Looptworks rescued, designed, transformed the material into a collection of duffles, totes and messenger bags. Hamlin estimated that for each bag, 4,000 gallons of water was saved in addition to the two pounds of excess materials.

"We look at the entire supply chain from a circularity standpoint."

The unlikely partnership with the aviation industry came as a surprise, “Initially we thought partnerships with outdoor, fashion and apparel were a natural fit,” says Hamlin. “We didn’t expect Southwest Airlines to reach out.”

Since then, Looptworks went on to partner with Delta and Alaska, upcycling excess uniforms and seats into limited-edition accessory and travel collections.

As it turns out, excess comes in many forms. The awareness resulting from Looptworks work with airlines then led to partnerships with Tesla and Mercedes Benz, Bon Iver, the NHL, and NBA teams like the Portland Trailblazers.

“I think sports have a really unique opportunity to raise awareness of ways we can have a more positive impact in the world,” says Christa Stout, Vice President of Social Responsibility at Portland Trail Blazers in their Looptworks collection video. “Something that would otherwise go to the landfill, we can repurpose into items that fans can cherish.”

Hamlin adds to the notion that the benefits of upcycling are twofold for both companies and consumers. “When you buy an upcycled product made from discarded materials, you are directly offsetting the water and energy needed to make new materials from scratch to produce the same product.”

With companies across the globe more committed than ever to bold climate action, Looptworks has positioned itself as a catalyst for sustainable solutions towards a managed climate. From custom products to global supply chain management, Looptworks is providing solutions to corporate sustainability practices by cleaning up supply chains and exciting new audiences with eco-friendly products.

To continue answering the global call to address climate change, the decade-old company is focused on responsible growth and expanding its core business to international markets, launching its first subsidiary in Australia and stepping up to play a bigger role in global distribution. “The more Looptworks grows, the more good we can do in the world,” says Hamlin.

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