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How Big Brands, Small Startups Have Partnered to Push the Circular Economy

Alaska Airlines' Jacqueline Drumheller shows off a Looptworks bag made from recycled seat leather | Image credit: Randy Tunnell/SB

“It didn’t make sense to me — to make a bunch of products that use a lot of materials, and then throw it away,” Scott Hamlin, co-founder at Looptworks, said during a Tuesday breakout session on partnerships in the circular economy at Sustainable Brands '16 San Diego.

What Hamlin saw was a broken apparel industry, which focused on the traditional take-make-waste model. That’s why the social entrepreneur decided to found a company that doesn’t use virgin materials at all — and Looptworks was born.

“We are called Looptworks because we are working toward a closed-loop system,” he said.

Another innovative startup called Thread, a finalist in the 2013 SB Innovation Open, also takes used materials and upcycles them into new products.

“Where our clothes come from is just as important as where we take them,” said Ian Rosenberger, Thread’s founder & CEO.

The startups have found themselves acting as a proverbial tugboat for larger brands, helping them to steer toward circular economic models, which emphasize eliminating the very idea of waste, and seeing used materials as “technical nutrients” for new products.



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For airlines, fuel and waste are the biggest environmental impacts, said Jacqueline Drumheller, sustainability manager at Alaska Airlines. While the carrier has a good track record of recycling trays, cups and toilet paper, among other items, initially it was unable to recycle the high end materials used for the seats of it Horizon Airlines planes.

Having partnered with Southwest Airlines in 2014 to upcycle its seat leather into soccer balls, bags and other products, Looptworks followed suit last year with Alaska Airlines, turning the airline’s used seats into handbags and purses. The social enterprise collects, sorts and cleans the seat materials, designs and develops the upcycled products, produces them and markets and sells them.

“It’s important that large brand partners are getting the access to transparency when we are going and rescuing those materials,” Hamlin said.

To date, some 5,000 pounds of leather seats have been repurposed, saving 10 million gallons of water.

Rosenberger emphasized the importance of storytelling to achieving scale.

“Startups in the social space have difficulty achieving scale,” said Rosenberger. “If we could tie a story to a product in a meaningful way, we could achieve scale.”

Thread has now partnered with Timberland to provide upcycled materials for use in the apparel brand’s footwear. Timberland also uses upcycled tires as rubber in some of its shoes.

These two partnerships illustrate how small companies and big brands can both benefit from collaboration while pushing the envelope on the circular economy.
“This is a starting line for us," said Margaret Morey-Reuner, director of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development at Timberland. "We are working with an industry stuck in the 20th century, but we do believe that forging this kind of relationship helps us drive our sustainability goals and allows us to help with system sustainability change.”


Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]


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