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Q&A: How Unifi Plans to Help Weave Sustainability Through the Supply Chain

Eddie Ingle has a straight forward answer for why his position of vice president of global corporate sustainability and supply chain, at Unifi Inc. was created: “Where there’s a hole, you have to fill it.”

Because many of Unifi’s customers want to know more about sustainable methods and practices and how to go about incorporating them, the new position gives the company a focal point and a team that can educate knowledge-hungry companies on how to be more sustainable.

“If you’re going to be in the sustainability business, you have to practice what you preach,” Ingle, who was appointed to the newly created post in January, told Sourcing Journal in a phone interview. “We always want to be transparent and I am able to help Unifi better tell its story of commitment to the planet in this new position.”

Ingle is a 31-year veteran of Unifi, beginning his career at the company’s operations in Letterkenny, Ireland. He moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1991 to work for Unifi in the U.S., and over the years has held numerous leadership positions. Ingle eventually started working in the supply chain end of the business, and “that’s how I really morphed into getting involved in the whole sustainability role.”

The aim for Ingle will be to drive Unifi’s many eco-friendly efforts and initiatives and establish a singular sustainability mission for the company.

Leading the effort

For Unifi, the focus on sustainability through this role and its other efforts, has really been about the customer.

“We’ve been selling our flagship brand Repreve in the market for many years and what came with that is a certain responsibility around education and around helping our customers understand how they can make their brands and their product mix become more sustainable,” Ingle said. “It’s an incredibly collaborative position that’s been created…There’s a renewed and accelerated interest in more brands diving in deep into recycled polyester. It says a lot about Unifi and how we’re going to be interacting between brands and consumers.”

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Two years ago, Unifi opened a bottle processing facility in Reidsville, N.C., making the process of converting plastic bottles into polyester fiber and yarn nearly vertical. In 2015, Unifi expanded its Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, N.C., giving it a capacity to produce up to 60 million pounds annually of Repreve and other premier value-added products.

“So it went from buying beautiful virgin material to buying lots of pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste to run our recycling operations,” he said.

Q&: How Unifi Plans Help Weave Sustainability Through the Supply Chain
Photo credit: Unifi

Repreve is Unifi’s flagship brand of recycled performance fibers, that transform plastic bottles into fiber for apparel, shoes, home goods and other consumer products for brands like Patagonia, Haggar, Quiksilver and Ford.

Unifi’s products are Oeko-Tex certified, and the company has SCS Global Certification for its Repreve products. Unifi also has LNO certification for its flake, which means it has received Food & Drug Administration approval for food grade flake that is sold to other companies and used in food packaging.

For its Repreve fiber, Unifi uses 45 percent less energy, 20 percent less water and achieves a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses compared to production of virgin polyester.

“On the innovation side, recycling is innovation at its core,” Ingle said. “It’s so challenging that you have to take a creative mindset toward making a consistent product. The innovation stems around the ability to take a material such as a plastic bottle and turn it into yarn that is as good a virgin product.”

Last year Unifi recycled more than 10 billion plastic bottles, and is targeting 20 billion bottles recycled by 2020, and 30 billion bottles by 2022.

The strategic initiative

The main challenge for Ingle has been on what he calls “the outward facing story around sustainability,” plus the development and execution of a broad-based strategic initiative that Unifi could integrate across all levels of its business.

“I’m building out a three-year plan for sustainability at Unifi around how individuals at the company can reduce our carbon footprint, how they can be more responsible about the packaging they use or how they can make sure what they use can or cannot be recycled,” Ingle said. “We want to share best practices and communicate with the chief sustainability officers at the companies we service, which will allow them to build supply chains that are more sustainable.”

As a diversified producer and processor of multifilament polyester and nylon textured yarns and related raw materials, Unifi adds value to the supply chain and enhances consumer demand for its products through the development and introduction of branded yarns that provide special performance, comfort and aesthetic advantages. In addition to Repreve, key Unifi brands include AIO all-in-one performance yarns, Sorbtek, A.M.Y., Mynx UV, Reflexx, Microvista and Satura.

Headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., Unifi has about 3,000 employees in the U.S. and its manufacturing operations in Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia and China. For the first six months through Dec. 24, Unifi had net sales of $331.7 million.

“I’m going to try to educate people, I’m going to try to connect people, I’m going to try to help the recycling world become less scary and be something that is clear to the many different stakeholders that we have,” Ingle said. “A lot of it is going to be about collaboration and creating a sustainability beacon for the company that all our employees can get behind.”