Silos of plastic bottles waiting to be processed.

Increased consumer demand for sustainable apparel is helping the textile industry clean up its act. And the transformation is timely, as the $2 billion industry is the second largest polluter in the world after oil.

But companies such as Unifi, a manufacturer of polyester, nylon textured and premium value-added yarns based in Greensboro, N.C., pledged its commitment to sustainability long before the market demanded it. “[We] want to become a leader in recyclables,” said Kevin Hall, the chief executive officer and member of the board at Unifi.

In 2006, Unifi began recycling its leftover polyester waste to transform back into Repreve performance products. After success with that venture, the firm sought to turn plastic bottles into 100 percent recycled polyester fibers, which today is the basis of its Repreve line. Hall told WWD, “We were [recycling water bottles for textile manufacturing] right as brands came to us and said, ‘We think it’s important that brands take ownership of sustainability and recycling. We know our consumers want it. Can you help us in that area?’ Well, it just so happens that we can do that.”

Thirty-one percent of plastic bottles are recycled in the United States, the company said.

The Bottle Processing Center.

Unifi’s Bottle Processing Center.  Steve Cash Photography

Its recycled materials are used by apparel brands worldwide, including Patagonia, which was one of the first partnerships that enabled Unifi to take its technology and transform recycled material into performance fabrics, the company said. Unifi works with “like-minded” brands such as The North Face and Target, which have expressed ongoing interest in sustainable apparel and manufacturing.

Hall told WWD, “Anything we recycle we can build PVA technology into and make it recycled with kind of a ‘wow’ factor. So you’re not buying [just] recycled, you’re buying recycled with superior wicking or recycled with stretch and different things like that.” Hall added, “We don’t recycle enough in the U.S. What we’re hoping we can do through these partnerships is increase awareness of the importance of recycling.”

And Unifi is distinguished in the market for its ability to customize materials for its client base, particularly with premium value-added yarns. Earlier this year, American & Efird engineered a new Repreve eco-friendly sewing thread with performance capabilities. “We’ve been able to make these custom runs of high-performance products and that’s where Unifi has really found its niche. It’s taken that high quality, reliability and moved into things that really matter to consumers. And so now brands are very interested in buying these [materials] because they want to differentiate in the marketplace,” Hall said.

Unifi’s performance yarns include Sorbtek, Amy, Mynx UV, Repreve, Reflexx and Inhibit.

For More Textile News From WWD, See:

Pantone on Understanding the Language of Color

Outdoorwear Brands Meet Consumer Demands With ‘Cozy’ Performance Fabrics

University Scientists Develop Printed Battery Technology for Textiles

International Textile Industry Growth Spurred by Preference Programs

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