Enova gives new life to wasted cotton

Elliott Lightman, CEO of Enova Textile and Apparel, has been connected to the textile industry for most of his life. He earned his bachelor of science design degree from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (later Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University), and then spent a year in the master's program (then called the industry program) at the Scottish College of Textiles, now part of Edinburgh University. 

During his college years, he worked on creating triaxial weaving, which led to a range of stronger fabrics and the “very, very, very, very, very beginning of bulletproof vests,” he recalled. In later years, he helped to create all-cotton wrinkle-free pants and washable woolens. “I've been in the textile, apparel [and] homegoods business basically my whole life,” Lightman said. “All the companies that I've run are all really based on product.” 

In the 1990s, Lightman’s wife Kris launched a textile business, taking advantage of Apple software that could design woven patterns. “Her idea was to outsource merchandising and design for a lot of the big designers and companies,” Lightman said. At the time, most American textile companies wanted to handle everything internally, but with the Iron Curtain falling and new international trade opportunities, companies in China, India, Pakistan and Turkey were “extremely interested” in producing textiles. Lightman later joined his wife’s team, and Enova took off as a global business.


After so many years in textiles, Lightman noted a worrisome trend. “There's cotton that was being disposed of or burned or whatever from lots of different industries,” he said. “All sorts of different types of woven products and all sorts of different types of knit products, and they're all dropping [lots of] cotton.” 

An average cotton factory, he estimated, operates at about 88 percent efficiency, and up to 90 percent for the better ones— “meaning from the point of view of the cotton that comes in versus what their products are,” he explained. “So what falls out is a whole lot of cotton.” Lightman estimates that a full 40 percent of all cotton that is cultivated is wasted during the manufacturing process, wasting more than 3 billion pounds of cotton fiber worldwide per year. 

At the same time, he noted a Harvard Business School study that found companies that were running on a sustainable method—recycling and making better use of their energy—were anywhere between 14 and 16 percent more profitable than similar companies that didn't take such initiatives—and, more importantly, were remaining in business while other companies struggled. 

With those numbers in mind, the Lightmans began developing a new process to improve the textile system, reclaiming unused fibers from traditional factories and dividing them into 17 categories for different uses, depending on desired weave or knit. The fibers are sorted, sanitized, bleached, opened and carded for further cleaning, forming a strand of fiber called a silver—an untwisted fiber ready for the spinning machine that makes yarn. The recycled yarn then can be knitted and woven into new products.

In India alone, Lightman estimates approximately 1.2 to 1.5 billion pounds of repurposed cotton a year can be used to make a first-quality product, although he acknowledged that this number can vary depending on a range of factors. “We've learned to take that and reprocess it and turn it into good first-quality towels, sheets and blankets,” he said.
Not only does the process save material from being wasted, it also helps to minimize water usage and contamination. Lightman estimates that the cotton industry in India alone uses 425,000 gallons of water each day in the full process of creating textiles, but less water is needed to repurpose fibers than to grow new cotton plants. Worse yet, when wasted fibers end up in landfills, water that passes through the material can become contaminated, hurting the surrounding communities.
Lightman believes that most consumers—both in retail and hospitality—are eager to improve sustainability measures, but finding ways to do so can be challenging. “They haven't been able to find the actual product that is in their hotels or in their stores,” he said. “Until now.”

Clicking with Clients

Several years ago, a head of purchasing from Best Western Hotels & Resorts came to India and spent more than a week with Enova’s team, watching the manufacturing process and learning about how it worked. “It’s amazing to see what looks like dirt—real dirty cotton—turn into pure white [and environmentally friendly] product,” Lightman said. “She took the time and effort to go see it. And, we have tons of documentation on where it came from, and even the patent is fairly detailed on what we do.” In 2017, Best Western hotels began using Enova towels, and the hotel company is poised to start adding Enova sheets, blankets, duvet covers, and pillow protectors to their linen closets. In addition, the textile firm will pick up old towels and sheets from the hotels and repurpose them again. “In other words, we’re completing the entire loop of the process,” Lightman said. The Best Western recycling program is likely to start in the fourth quarter of the year, and Lightman expects more hotels and chains to come onboard as contracts and agreements with other suppliers expire.   

Logic in Logistics

Lightman estimates that Enova has, since implementing its process, saved more than 1.2 billion gallons of water by processing unused cotton. “All that cotton doesn't have to be grown again, so you can take all that land and make food, which is—over the next 30 to 40 years—going to be an increasingly important issue,” he said. “We carry that theme through in our production. We use what's called an ecofriendly dye stuffs—mostly natural dye stuffs—and we regenerate the steam in our factories. We recycle all the water. The water that goes out of our factories is cleaner than the water that goes in the factory.” Enova also adds an antimicrobial element to its textiles that prevent bacterial growth on the product, extending its usable life by years.