Sustainable Fashion Takes to the Skies

Fashion Studies Department partners with United Airlines to design recycled banners into fashionable carry-on bags.

When United Airlines retired 20 "Fly the Friendly Skies" banners from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, they wondered how to best recycle the large pieces of fabric. The unique solution: the United Eco-Skies program, a design competition for Columbia College Chicago Fashion Studies students to upcycle the banners into sustainable, fashionable carry-on bags. This partnership between United, the Fashion Studies Department and Re:new, a nonprofit employing refugee women, resulted in two travel bags designed to simplify the airport experience, from the security line to the overhead bin.

"As part of our eco-skies commitment, we are excited to give these banners a second life, and know our customers will enjoy taking home a piece of the friendly skies," said Angela Foster-Rice, the airline's Managing Director of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability.

During the competition, students researched the perfect travel bag by visiting O’Hare’s airport security, boarding a plane and meeting with flight attendants. The two winning designs were judged on attractiveness, durability and the ability to fit under an airplane seat. First-place winner Anne Tilma created a duffel bag with a pocket that zips off to become a small cross-body bag. Second-place winner Dillon Halford created a backpack that maximized use of the banner, leaving less than 2 percent fabric waste in the production.

On Oct. 13, the student winners met with United representatives and Columbia College Chicago President Kwang-Wu Kim to unveil the final product. The bags are now available for purchase at, with the proceeds benefiting Re:new and the Alto Mayo Forest Carbon Project in Northern Peru.

Halford sees the project as a reflection of the college’s commitment to sustainable fashion. "At Columbia, I think we take a great stance. There are so many opportunities to reuse old fabrics," he said. "You don't have to go out and buy $50-a-yard fabric to make something beautiful."

Additional stories about the project include: Chicago Tribune, FashionMag, Business Travelerand  Chicago Business Journal.