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Fiber Producers Warming to Green Tech

Turning Eco-Friendly from Source through Waste

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, May 21, 2007

Fiber producers are becoming more eco-friendly in at least three ways — increasing their research and development to bring to market products that fit this profile; improving their manufacturing processes to eliminate contaminated wastes; and teaching consumers better ways to care for the products they buy.

As this wave of eco-friendly conversation grows, there is a clear difference, according to Roger Berrier, vp, commercial operations for Unifi. "It is a lifestyle change, not a product change," he asserted. And in Unifi's case, he said, "We feel very committed to be eco-friendly."

For American Fiber & Yarns (AF&Y), the polypropylene fibers are a byproduct of post-industrial waste which "creates a recycle stream different from traditional waste streams," according to Jim Morelli, executive vp. "Our product being plastic has an extremely small environmental footprint and uses very little water and heat in manufacturing."

AF&Y has a recycling program for fabrics and products made from its polypropylene and encourages consumers and customers to send the appropriate products to the company's Bainbridge, Ga. facility where it is converted into a wide range of products.

Now in the pipeline to encourage recycling is a tagging program on furniture using fabrics made from AF&Y fibers. The tags encourage users to recycle when the furniture is now longer in use. "Now we're moving into the apparel market with a similar program," Morelli noted.

"Only recently have we had a strong positive reach to eco-friendly home furnishings products," reported Nina Nadesh, home textile merchandiser-USA for Lenzing, producer of Modal and Tencel fibers. "We now are getting an absolutely fabulous reception in the home textiles market."

Both Tencel and Modal are biodegradable, Nadesh explained, with Tencel produced from eucalyptus where the processing materials are reused and the eucalyptus is harvested from managed forests. Modal, a cellulosic, is derived from beechwood, again from managed forests.

Mark Messura, executive vp, global product supply chain at Cotton Inc., pointed out, "There's a lot of emotion about eco-friendly and sustainability. It's the latest marketing activity."

Messura also believes, "There are greater supply chain strategies needed beyond just the product. Consumers have to know how to use and care for the products, as well as the product life cycle. It's a more holistic view."

Recycling also is an important piece of the Cotton strategy. Recycled denim, for example, is being used as building insulation. There are changes in technology in washing machines that will improve care of products as well as require reduced temperature and water needs.

In home furnishings, Unifi has found that the contract segment of the business is significantly ahead of the residential in eco-friendly trends. Berrier bases this on demand for the Repreve fiber, a recycled polyester yarn. More recently, he added, "The residential side has shown a lot of interest."

While the development cycle takes from 12 to 24 months, he said, "We are now well beyond conversation in converting fabrics and developing products. We're working to develop sheers, top-of-bed fabrics, upholstery and decorative fabrics."

In addition to Repreve, Unifi also produces Satura, a solution dyed polyester that uses "far less water for dyeing."

On the business side of the equation, Unifi takes such green measures as recycling the motor oil used in its transport fleet, reclaiming energy and hot water from dyeing processes, and transferring biosolids with nutrients to farmers.

With its goal of 100% recyclable materials effective last August, Unifi calculates that every pound conserved is the equivalent of 61,000 BTUs — which equals a half gallon of gas. This savings is to be derived across the company's planned fiber production for this year of six to eight million pounds.