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ESG Outlook: Eddie Ingle of Unifi on a Synthetic Solution

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Eddie Ingle, CEO of synthetic and recycled fiber company Unifi, explains how not all plastics are created equally.

Name: Eddie Ingle

Title: CEO

Company: Unifi

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

When we first introduced REPREVE® recycled fibers in 2007, REPREVE was adopted by two brands. It is now used by more than 1,000 brands globally—from the largest global companies to new start-ups across apparel, footwear, home, automotive and more. Our biggest ESG-related achievement over the last five years is helping hundreds of brands make the more sustainable switch to using REPREVE. As a result, we’ve been able to recycle more than 25 billion post-consumer plastic bottles, and will shortly reach our goal to recycle 30 billion plastic bottles in 2022. We recently received our Higg MSI scores, which score a product’s life cycle impact. The study confirmed that REPREVE manufactured in the United States reduces the global warming potential by 21 percent compared to conventionally processed, mechanically recycled polyester, and 45 percent compared to conventional virgin polyester. The Higg MSI global warming potential is related to greenhouse gases and based on the score, REPREVE is verified to have a lower carbon footprint than alternative materials.

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What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes?

I want to be a snappier dresser, but I only buy new clothes when my old ones wear out because of the environmental resources that fashion uses. I drop worn-out items in our Green Zone bin at our office to reclaim items into new materials and avoid landfill. When I do have to buy new clothes, I tend to purchase those made with polyester because I don’t have to dry clean them. I try to be conscious of new products I buy—not just apparel—because of their environmental impact. I prioritize shopping local and supporting brands who use REPREVE due to their goals to source recycled and sustainable materials.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

I believe in buying synthetic garments—particularly those made with polyester—because they require less water and energy to make, and are made with no pesticides. In many cases, synthetics perform better than naturals. For example, you don’t have to iron polyester shirts. If I buy anything that consumes energy, I buy the product that has the lowest consumption, even if it costs a little more.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

We are focused on expanding our footprint in the home furnishings industry. As furniture brands continue to make more sustainable choices in their product designs, we support and empower their transition to more responsible sourcing through partnerships like the one we have with the High Point Market Authority, which is the largest home furnishings industry trade show in the world. Unifi is an active participant in the Market Authority’s “Sustainability Stories” series, where three of our company leaders recently participated as panelists or panel moderators. We also take our REPREVE Mobile Tour to Market, demonstrating, through an interactive educational experience, how Unifi’s technology transforms recycled plastic bottles into fibers used in furniture and other consumer goods.

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

Consumers sometimes believe that all plastics are bad. We get this question a lot due to the fact that our REPREVE recycled performance fibers are made from post-consumer PET plastic.

The truth is, not all plastics are created equally. Globally, PET is the most accessible plastic, and it is the easiest to recycle and the most recycled. PET’s technical properties make it unique among the other plastics because it can be recycled and used again and again, remade into something new, and not end up in our oceans, rivers, beaches and landfills.

The truth is, not all plastics are created equally.

Synthetic fibers are an integral piece of the fabrics, garments and articles that are produced globally.  Choosing materials that can lessen the environmental impact, like REPREVE recycled polyester, are a meaningful and purposeful way to reduce impact versus using virgin synthetics or materials.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid-19 crisis?

The crisis was a wakeup call for the textile industry in terms of the importance of Made in the USA. The textile industry is one of the oldest in the world and still exists in the USA. The crisis highlighted how important it is to have a vertical supply chain within the U.S. for essential and critical PPE and medical supplies. Covid-19 placed a greater emphasis on more localized supply chains that are closer to final markets, and this has increased the need for supply chain diversification.

While an international company, Unifi’s heart and soul is supplying local production. We have vertical supply chains in the U.S. and Central America, which in turn, creates greater flexibility. Brands and retailers will likely move to transition some of their supply chains closer to final markets, but the overall need for some diversification is more essential than ever.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

We’ve partnered with Accelerating Circularity and 20 other companies as part of a U.S. pilot program to create domestic circular systems for textile-to-textile products. During the trials, participants will test mechanically and chemically recycled cotton, polyester and cotton/polyester blends from post-consumer and post-industrial feedstocks that meet commercial requirements. This is the next evolution of sustainability in textiles by creating new products out of old products while reducing millions of tons of textile waste annually going into landfills.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

It’s not quite a missed opportunity, because the mainstream market has only just begun to ask for change. The apparel industry is finally making a big move towards designing for circularity—driven by the consumer. Building out a circular supply chain takes time, a more open mindset and a desire for change. That’s happening in the industry right now. We know that only 1 percent of garments are recycled, and that should be much more because an estimated 25 percent of garments are made from mono materials. Mono materials today can be more easily recycled into fibers to make new product. I am optimistic that in 10 years, we will look back and be able to say that we didn’t miss the opportunity to do our part to make our industry more sustainable.