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Top five reasons why Sri Lanka is still leading the game in sustainable apparel making

sustainable apparel making

Ten years ago, Sri Lanka was the lead crusader for sustainable fashion manufacturing in South Asia, and among the top in the world. The green building trend in Sri Lanka was a big part of the apparel industry strategy from 2007 to 2013. MAS built the world’s first purpose-built LEED Gold Facility—MAS Intimates Thurulie. Similarly, Brandix and Hirdaramani made LEED Platinum rated buildings during the same period. With commendable sustainability initiatives and state-of-the-art factories that had minimal carbon footprint, the island was a clear favourite for brands that wanted to keep their fashion ethical. United under the banner ‘Garments Without Guilt’, Sri Lanka’s apparel makers were a force to reckon with. Fast forward to 2018, things seem to have changed, with the latest stats indicating Bangladesh to have the highest number of green apparel plants, and many other competitor nations to be catching up to what used to be Sri Lanka’s forte. Is Sri Lanka, South Asia’s pioneer in ethical fashion, going to take a backseat as new maker-nations take the lead? Not so fast: because for the Lankan apparel industry, sustainability is a much more complex ideology than simply increasing the number of green plants.

sustainable apparel making
M. P. Tuli Cooray, Secretary General of Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAF)

Joining Apparel Resources to discuss the matter is the Secretary General of Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAF), M. P. Tuli Cooray. According to Mr. Cooray, ‘Sustainability’ is very much a key focus in Sri Lanka’s apparel agenda, and his response proves that this powerful industry is nowhere near intimidated by the ratings that point to Bangladesh as South Asia’s new green hub. He goes, “The green building trend we see in Bangladesh is a reaction to the Rana Plaza incident.” But, Sri Lanka is in its own league when it comes to sustainability in apparel making. Here are the top five points we discovered in conversation with Mr. Cooray.

True sustainability takes a social, economical, and environmental- three-prong approach

For Sri Lanka, sustainability is not just about being green. It is an approach that converges social, environmental, and economic strategies where people, planet, and profit are all equally important. “Over the last few decades, the Sri Lankan apparel industry ensured its growth through sustainability; firstly, through better working conditions, then engaging professionalism with business and empowering our people at all levels of the organisation,” says Mr. Cooray summing up how Sri Lanka’s Apparel Industry is approaching sustainability in all three ways.

Green plants were the focus of the past; today it’s much more.

“The environmental sustainability move kicked off around twelve years ago with the implementation of green building standards and the energy efficiency drive. Today, the Sri Lankan apparel industry seeks to find solutions at the global level to address problems of material circularity and work-life integration,” clarifies Cooray, shedding light on how apparel businesses need to take their green strategies deeper. “The overall long-term strategy is to drive towards zero impact on all aspects. Buildings and infrastructure do play a big role but they are a part of the bigger strategy,” he adds.

Better work conditions from maker to decision-maker

We took a closer look at how Sri Lanka facilitates work-life integration into its apparel workforce. Power players like Brandix go as far as hosting annual festivals for its workers, hosting its own radio channel, and working with their employees to strengthen the quality of life in their villages by providing clean drinking water, facilitating education, and even offering scholarships.

For companies like MAS, the quality of their nine-to-five spaces are a key feature in establishing better working environs for blue-collar workers and senior management alike. MAS Build, a Subsidiary led by Archt. Aditi Amalean, focusses on improving the spatial experience for its workforce, across the board. Amalean herself spoke at a recent forum discussing how MAS Build approaches this through human-centric design. She noted, “Is it the kind of workspace that requires thinking zones or collaboration zones? Think about how most people work. One size doesn’t fit all. Some people need quiet spaces, and others collaborative.”

sustainable apparel making

Empowering the female worker = Empowering a family = Empowering society

Female workers have long been celebrated and encouraged by Sri Lanka Apparel, as the cornerstones of their industry and society. Many apparel giants like MAS have special programmes like ‘Abhimani’ in place to support their women at work. And these foundations have helped women succeed as the sole breadwinners of their families, overcome abuse and social discrimination, and even represent the country as champion boxers! Most companies believe that strengthening females is as good as strengthening a family unit, and therefore the entire society—and this vision has definitely delivered for them.

Developing its own sustainable factory index!

This is perhaps the most impressive point that shows how serious Sri Lanka Apparel is about sustainability. Mr. Cooray disclosed how the country has been working on developing its own sustainability index for factories that overcome the weaknesses of most traditional assessment systems. He noted, “The basic compliance of the buildings in Sri Lanka is assessed by Health and Safety teams and by outside verifiers. What we have learned through our experience is that these building rating systems only look at the design of the building. So, MAS internally developed and adopted a tool called Environmental Sustainability Calibration Tool which looks at investment, operation, and maintenance of apparel and textile specific areas. This internal tool adopts best practices of industry tools such as Higg FEM 3.0, building codes such as LEED, ASHRAE and other regulatory requirements such as IFC regulations.” Now, that’s a strategy!