Greensboro-based textile company working to solve environmental issues

GREENSBORO, NC (WGHP) – There was a time when Guilford County was the textile center of the world. Now there’s a great player standing because he’s found a way to innovate.

“Who knew the world’s #1 brand of recycled yarns and fibers is right here in the Triad,” says Jay Hertwig, senior vice president at Unifi, which is based in Greensboro along with other mills in the region.

It’s rare that a business opportunity ends up being such a great good for society, but Unifi has found a way to do just that with its recycled fiber they call “Repreve”. They started developing it about 20 years ago and first brought it to market in 2007.

“We actually launched the product in 2007 with just two brands: Polar Tech and Patagonia,” says Hertwig.

“When we started, little did we know it would grow from these two brands to over a thousand brands worldwide,” notes Unifi CEO Eddie Ingle.

We don’t have enough space to name them all, but you know a lot – Nike, Igloo coolers, Hugo Boss shoes, Uggs boots, Haggar jeans and jackets, Lander iPhone cases and screen protectors…even the seats of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

“We knew it was a good thing to do. We had no idea how big it would get,” says Ingle.

“Consumers are looking for sustainability, they are looking for environmentally friendly products, they are looking to offset the use of natural resources. So you’re right – if it’s not eco-friendly, it won’t be popular,” says Hertwig.

It is environmentally friendly in more ways than one. Unifi kept 30 billion plastic bottles out of landfills because they recycled them into Repreve fabric.

“We’re looking forward to reaching 50 billion by 2025,” Hertwig notes, with a smile. “I think we would fill the Empire State Building many times over.”

But what many consumers may not realize is that recycled polyester also frees up thousands of acres of land that is no longer needed to grow cotton – and the water that would be used in this cotton cultivation.

“At Unifi, we like to say that we work for the good of tomorrow,” says Hertwig. “It’s more than just a slogan, it’s a lifestyle.”

Fortunately, consumers are also interested in a sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle. But to really be successful, Ingle says, you need to take this idea one step further.

“We have this durability backbone to the product, but then we add moisture management, we add flame retardant, we add things like climate control technologies so you have the durability platform plus performance technology that allows you to extend the offering beyond what you normally would with wearables,” he says.

Because of how Unifi is able to diversify Repreve’s uses, Ingle says the plan is to have it account for 50% of the company’s sales, in just a few years.

“We knew it was the right thing to do and if you follow your instincts and follow the markets, you’ll end up in the right place,” Ingle says.

Learn more about Repreve in this edition of the Buckley report.

You can find out more on the Unifi website.

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