Startup Upcycles Airline Seats into Leather Goods for Rural Costa Rican Women

woman standing by a window at the airport carrying an upcycled leather bag made from airplane seats
Lynne Corvaglia, who graduated from U of T Scarborough two years ago, models one of her startup company's bags made of leather upcycled from old airline seats (photo courtesy of Wearsos)

Lynne Corvaglia is on a mission to turn thousands of old airline seats into high-end leather products - and create job opportunities for women in rural parts of Costa Rica in the process.

Southwest Airlines replaces the leather seat covers on its planes every four years. To keep thousands of old seats out of landfills, the airline donates the leather to organizations that can transform it into new products.

More than 12,000 seats are being upcycled into bags and accessories through a program dedicated to teaching women in rural Costa Rica leatherworking and business skills.

"There's a lack of access to opportunities here. We want to create a social enterprise that can create a positive impact in the lives of those working with us," says Corvaglia, the founder of upcycling startup Wearsos who graduated from the University of Toronto Scarborough's International Development Studies (IDS) Co-op program two years ago.

"Our strategy is to produce and activate local economies in Costa Rica."

The seats are being stored in the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), where Corvaglia lives and has helped spearhead the launch of a free workshop series. Hosted at CATIE, Corvaglia says the program is working to act as an incubator by teaching artisans the basic technical skills for leatherworking along with entrepreneurship and personal and professional development. About 60 women have taken the first induction workshop.

"The program at CATIE is meant to be comprehensive. It's not just about leatherworking. We all want to empower women," Corvaglia says. "They can learn the skills to start their own businesses and use upcycling as a tool."

Women artisans in the CATIE workshop program have been learning to strip the leather from airline seats and create high-end goods (photo courtesy of Wearsos)

As a research centre, CATIE isn't exactly built for the world of retail sales - that's where Corvaglia's startup Wearsos comes in. The company is dedicated to upcycling and plans to recruit women from CATIE's program to become paid artisans. The women will then receive specialized training to make the specific products that Wearsos will eventually sell on its website, with a percentage of the profits going back to the training program.

"We're trying to provide real jobs with Wearsos. While we can train women, we also need to provide economic stability and create a demand," Corvaglia says.

Wearsos plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to fundraise for their first year of production in the next few months. The launch will feature three bags: a belt bag (also known as a fanny pack), a crossbody and a tote. Other products in the works include duffle bags, shoes, clothing, laptop cases and other accessories.

Reducing waste is essential for Wearsos, a portmanteau of "wear" and sostenibilidad, or sustainability in Spanish. The company also plans to incorporate other sustainable materials into its products, such as textiles made from pineapple fibres.

Two of the leather accessories Wearsos plans to sell include a tote bag and a belt bag (photo courtesy of Wearsos)

Startup takes off amid pandemic

It's taken three years, perseverance and a little serendipity for Wearsos to come together. In 2019, Corvaglia was completing a co-op placement at CATIE while volunteering with a women-run organization that supports entrepreneurs working in tourism. It was then that she witnessed the volatility of the tourism industry.

"These women have many jobs. Maybe their main one is they have a farm or they are tour guides - but they're also sewers and creators," she says. "But in an economic crisis like the 2008 recession or the pandemic, a lot of these women lost all their jobs.

"We started thinking about how we can create other economic opportunities for people in rural areas. That's where this whole project really came from."

Wearsos has created a range of prototype products including shoes, passport holders and laptop sleeves (photo courtesy of Wearsos)

When Southwest Airlines contacted Corvaglia's co-op adviser, Eliecer Vargas, about their initiative to recycle seats, Corvaglia and her business partner (and now husband) Christian Riquelme began writing proposals to create an upcycling company. They soon found The Hub, an entrepreneurial incubator at U of T Scarborough. Former director Gray Graffam encouraged the pair to enter the incubator's annual startup competition. Wearsos later won first place and received $5,000 in funding.

The pandemic kept many of Wearsos's plans and partnerships up in the air for years, but the company is now a registered business in Canada and Costa Rica - and another shipment of seats is on its way to CATIE.

Wearsos's website includes a mailing list that will notify customers of news and product sales.

"During the pandemic, I was thinking, 'Is this project even going to happen?'" Corvaglia says. "Now everything is just coming together."

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