In between cleaning rooms and attending to cranky guests, Carolyn Thoroski, a housekeeping supervisor at a Westin Trillium House hotel in Blue Mountain, Canada, sometimes dreams up new ways to make the world a better place.
About a year ago, Thoroski had noticed that her staff threw away many white sheets every day, since hotel bed linens have a relatively short life cycle. The vast majority of these sheets are chucked in a landfill. But what if there were a way to turn them into something else–like, say, pajamas for kids in need?
It’s not often that Thoroski’s idealistic notions materialize, but it just so happened that her bosses at Westin headquarters had recently put out a call to employees, soliciting ideas that would empower the communities in which they live and work. Thoroski’s idea seemed to fit the bill, so she submitted it. Of the 325 employees from around the world who submitted ideas, hers was selected.
Now, a year later, the Westin chain has found a way to turn this vision into reality. Over a thousand pajamas made from discarded Westin sheets will soon be given to children who really need them to get a good night’s sleep.
“It was a much more complicated process than we imagined when we first set out,” says Brian Povinelli, SVP and global brand leader of Westin Hotels & Resorts, who has been spearheading this effort. “For health and safety reasons, we can’t just cut pajamas out of old sheets and call it a day.”
By taking on this project, Westin helped develop a proprietary new way to break down the fibers in sheets, re-weave them into fabric, and upcycle them into new products–in this case, pajamas for children who don’t have them. Internally, this new operation is described as Project Rise: ThreadForward.
Establishing A New Norm
Textile waste is a well-known problem in the hotel industry, Povinelli explains. High-end hotels need to give each new guest fresh sheets, and the frequent laundering means that sheets wear out quickly. There isn’t an established or centralized method in the industry to recycle them. It’s tricky trying to donate sheets to shelters, since there are strict health rules that vary by state about what kinds of bedding products they can accept. Individual hotel employees sometimes try to take the matter into their own hands, by taking home old sheets to use themselves or tearing them up to use as rags.
“We believe there is an opportunity here to establish a new norm for both our own hotel and then, hopefully, for the rest of the industry,” Povinelli says. (It’s important to note that any sheets that have stains on them cannot be used in this program and must be disposed of immediately for safety reasons.)
It was also very important to Povinelli that the recycled fabric be used for something that helped people in need. Over the last few months, the Westin hotel has redefined its mission as one that helps guests experience a sense of well-being. Through a global survey, Westin discovered that 77% of consumers feel better when they are giving back to society in some way, and 89% are more likely to book a hotel with some kind of philanthropic program.
Povinelli and his team, very strategically, chose to turn the sheets into pajamas for kids in homeless shelters. By speaking with experts at the World Sleep Society, the Westin team discovered that a majority of children are not getting enough sleep. “The experts we spoke with said that something as simple as having a bedtime routine–and putting on a clean pair of pajamas–can do a lot to help vulnerable kids sleep better,” Povinelli says.
Making A Dream Come To Life
While all of this sounded good in theory, it ended up being a very complex operation to pull off. Povinelli and his team at Westin didn’t have the skills or infrastructure to make it happen themselves, so they relied on an NGO partner called Clean the World. This organization already works closely with hotels to collect partially used soaps and other toiletries, donating them to people in shelters. Westin asked Clean The World to study the problem of sheets and find a way to turn their dream into a reality.
The team at Clean The World began to see the range of challenges to overcome. For one thing, it would be a logistical challenge to collect all the old sheets from the hotels within the group, then bundle them up to send them to be recycled. It was important to develop an efficient system that didn’t result in a massive carbon footprint. Moreover, there are many government regulations around children’s pajamas. They need to be fire retardant, for instance, and of course, there are hygiene concerns.
In the end, Clean the World recommended that Westin send the sheets to a South Carolina-based company called Divergent Energy, that would break down the sheets into fibers, then reconstruct them into fabric, which would then be made into pajamas following all the necessary codes. “What makes this process more complicated is that the sheets are made from a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers,” says Jim Gosnell, the president of Divergent Energy. “Organic and synthetic fibers reacts differently, so the approach we took had to take this into account.”
Divergent Energy takes the sheets, sterilizes them, and tears them up into smaller pieces. Then it runs them through a machine that turns them into what looks like little fluffy balls of wool. This material is then spun into threads and turned into cloth, then turned into children’s pajamas. They are designed in Westin’s signature color palette of mint and grey and feature an image of a child rising over a moon with a book.
Povinelli says Westin has managed to successfully pilot this program. A quarter of all Westin Hotels participated in it, submitting more than 30,000 pounds of bed linens and towels over the course of five months. This waste has been diverted from landfills and turned into 1,500 of pairs of pajamas sizes 2 to 8.
The vast majority of the pajamas will be donated to children in need who are the most likely to suffer from sleep anxieties with the help of Delivering Good, a nonprofit that provides products to people who are affected by tragedy and poverty. A few pajamas will be sold in hotel stores starting April 16th for $25, and proceeds will go toward supporting children in vulnerable situations.
Now, Westin is expanding the program throughout the hotels in its network. Over time, Povinelli hopes that other hotels will follow its lead. “We’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time–and I imagine other hotel chains are looking for similar solutions,” Povinelli says. “Somebody had to take on the challenge of creating the infrastructure to make this kind of upcycling possible, but with this new method in place, it’s fairly easy to scale.”