Amy Hawkins Isenhour – Class of 1986
Vice-President of Brand Sales Automotive, Unifi Manufacturing, Inc., Greensboro, NC

Our society is becoming more and more conscious of environmental issues and the need to reuse and recycle. Industry is answering the call, finding new and innovative ways to make new products from old. Unifi Manufacturing, Inc., is a company that is on the cutting edge of innovation and responsible sustainability.

“My job title is Vice-President of Brand Sales Automotive at Unifi Manufacturing in Greensboro,” explains Amy Hawkins Isenhour. “Our company manufactures REPREVE, the world’s leading recycled performance fiber. REPREVE is used in many textile products, including pro jerseys, uniforms, and fan merchandise for the NFL, the NBA, and MBL. When you see a major sports team, you can be assured they are wearing products made from REPREVE.” Dozens of clothing companies make use of this polyester product. Some of the more recognizable names are Aeropostale, Jockey, L.L. Bean, Land’s End, Patagonia, Teva, and Under Armour.

“Sports fans and athletic enthusiasts buying merchandise from a sports shop like Fanatics can often find the green bottle tag saying that the item is manufactured from recycled material. With or without the tag, the item is most surely made from REPREVE.”

But REPREVE is also used in many other types of end products. “I have worked for Unifi for nine years. I started as a brand manager for apparel, and then it became apparent that I had an aptitude for the more technical side. I am a curious person, and I enjoy selling. It is difficult to be an expert in every part of this industry, and my interests led me into the automotive area of Unifi. Members of the buying public have definite opinions about what they want, and I work directly with the OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) to help utilize our products in the design of the interiors of popular luxury cars.

“Our home office is in Greensboro, and we have plants in other North Carolina cities including Yadkinville, Reidsville, and Madison as well as divisions in Bogata, Colombia, and Suzhou, China. We acquire much of our content from the company WM (Waste Management, Inc.); they collect waste items from all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida. It’s almost a sure thing that the recycling from western North Carolina will go through Unifi.

“Most of our content comes from plastic water bottles, although every kind of material eventually finds an end use. The items are taken to our recycling center in Reidsville where they are first sorted. Our high tech sorting machinery, as large as an entire building, goes through millions of pounds of waste every day, separating the items into necessary categories. For example, dark colored soft drink bottles must be separated from clear water bottles because they will be used to manufacture different items. After sorting, the material is washed and cleaned in extremely high temperatures.”

Unifi first opened its doors in 1971 and soon became a premier manufacturer of textile fiber. When changes in the economy, the culture, and the environment occurred, Unifi moved with the times, and in the early 2000’s became a chief manufacturer of polyester yarns from recycled products. One of the first innovations was providing fibers that offered wicking moisture control. Now their products are used in as varied fields as aviation, automobile manufacturing, household products, footwear, highway construction, and much more.

“Unifi is a company that promotes responsible sustainability. For example, we use hot water in the dying process when manufacturing our product, and then we use the same hot water to wash the incoming waste products that will be recycled. This single action is one of many that represents how we save resources and energy.

“Times are changing, and consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about preserving the environment. Their buying habits reflect these new attitudes. They are more likely to purchase sustainable products that they see promoted on Instagram, and Unifi makes it a point to provide our society with materials that both fulfill their needs and help preserve the planet.

“Since I am in the recycled product industry, many people have questions for me about recycling. One of the questions is whether to remove or leave the cap on a water or soda bottle. I tell them that either is fine. The bottles are made of polyester, and we use it to make our fiber. The caps are made of polypropylene. Our machinery cuts off the caps, and they are sent to another facility for making hard plastic items such as automotive battery casings, signal lights, brooms, brushes, ice scrapers, and sports equipment. So the answer is that almost everything will be used and very little remains as waste.

“Another question people ask is if it’s better to crush the bottle or keep it in its original shape. The answer is that it doesn’t matter because the chemistry is the same either way. I find it encouraging that people are concerned enough about recycling to ask such questions.”

Amy earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Textile and Apparel Management from North Carolina State University. “My education has helped me in each of my jobs. I worked for twenty years for the chemical company that was at the time called Ciba-Geigy, later purchased by Huntsman Corporation. I traveled all over the Southeast selling chemicals to textile companies to help them with processing their products such as clothing, socks, hosiery, military uniforms, and sports jerseys. The needed chemicals included repellants, wicking elements, coatings, softeners, or dyes. I also had the opportunity to travel to Europe and work for a while with different methods. It was interesting work because each day held a new challenge and a new problem to solve, and I found that experience energizing.”

Even though Amy, like many students, could not have known where her interests and training might lead her, she remembers that certain high school classes, teachers, and activities influenced her. “Jerry Murray’s chemistry class certainly stuck with me, and I hope he realizes how much his guidance and teaching have helped me find my career path. Other teachers I remember well were Elsie Whisenant, Phyllis Garrison, and Roy Sweezy. I really enjoyed Coach Donnie Basinger’s golf class.

“Cheerleading is a great activity because it makes people more outgoing, helps them with building relationships, and gives them opportunities to learn how to work together. Being named Homecoming Queen is an interesting experience. Being chosen by one’s peers is both exciting and humbling. I sometimes almost forget that it happened, but I have observed over the years that having a public profile, even as a high school student, makes an impression on others. People will remember an individual for different reasons, and it is important that we present ourselves in a positive and generous way in order to set an example and spread good will.”

Through her career, Amy continues to contribute to the community and to the world. She carries with her the lessons she learned at East Burke as well as the skills she has developed along the way. She is a strong advocate for women in science and technology professions. “This chemical and technological world is very male dominated. Statistics show that the ratio of men to women in the field is ten to one. I encourage girls and women who enjoy chemistry and other technical subjects to pursue careers in technology. They can find it to be exciting, challenging, and truly rewarding.”

Published December 2023

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