The garment industry employs around 15% of the entire Sri Lankan workforce, with apparel accounting for around half of the country’s total exports. It is fundamental for economic development; and with Sri Lanka being one of the top apparel producing countries in the world, it is equally vital to the development of the global industry.
But there is a little known, yet ultimately profound, difference between garment manufacture in Sri Lanka and that of the rest of Asia. The Daily Mirror referred to it as their “conscientious standpoint in apparel production”, back in 2009.
“Conscientious” is not a word usually associated with Asian garment production. Yet this concept is taken so seriously by Sri Lanka that they have a dedicated, government-backed trade association named Sri Lanka Apparel, running a campaign named “Garments without Guilt”. I recently discovered that this is exactly what the Sri Lankan textile industry represents.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read about Sri Lanka’s work and development in this area, when usually my research in this field results in nothing but an unsettling sense of despair.
In fact they have been so thoroughly committed to this ethos, that they are the only country in the entire world to have both a sizeable garment industry and to be a signatory of 31 conventions of the ILO (International Labour Organisation).
Not only that but the Brandix group, Sri Lanka’s biggest exporter of apparel, actually achieved a 20% growth in 2010, with 30% of its goods exported to the EU and a further 60% exported to the USA, despite economic recession on both sides of the pond.
Sri Lankan apparel exports for 2011 are up 45% on 2010, indicating that global buyers will in fact back sustainable, see-through fashion if the price and productivity are right. These figures also flout any preceding notion that human rights for workers or sustainable practices have a negative economic effect on the fashion industry.
As far back as August 2008, Brandix were awarded the Platinum Certificate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) - the rating system of the US Green Building Council. Sri Lanka now has seven LEED apparel facilities with gold or platinum status.
More recently in July of this year, Brandix achieved another global first by becoming the first apparel manufacturer in the world to receive ISO 50001 certification, an exceptionally stringent energy management standard, introduced officially by the International Standards Organisation just a month previously on 17 June 2011.
The Brandix Eco Centre, a converted 30-year old factory, is a key manufacturing plant for Marks & Spencer and was inaugurated in April 2008 by its CEO, Sir Stuart Rose
Yet the Sri Lankan model appears to be a phenomenon in an industry overwhelmed by its own injustices to its most valuable asset – its workforce. Stories of mass fainting, malnourished employees, excessive hours and frantic disorganised strikes have become so common that many of us take the view the problem is too complicated to solve.
So what makes Sri Lanka so different?
Whilst government legislation is integral to the Sri Lankan model, these standards are actually supplier-driven. Suppliers are motivated not just by government incentives, but by a true desire to run efficient, powerful businesses whilst remaining honourable. This priceless differentiation in the world of apparel supply has come about by developing an industry-wide, unified commitment to social and environmental responsibility. And Sri Lankan suppliers are fully aware of the competitive advantage that results from these achievements.
Brandix are not alone in achieving profitable enterprise whilst harnessing shared value and sustainability. Garment Services Lanka have just spent 1.1 million USD on a brand new factory that will open in January 2012. Director Christopher Katukurunda stated last week, “We have clientele in Europe, especially the UK, Germany and France. As of now, there is no impact of EU crisis being felt and we are expecting 100 percent growth over our current revenues after the new plant becomes operational.”
Brandix Director Udena Wickremesooriya stresses that "It is customer positions that drive us, not just the numbers," Mr. Wickremesooriya explains that their exponential growth over the past decade has been largely achieved by focusing on simple fundamentals such as on-time delivery, price, speed, product and the sustainability platform, with commitments to Greener products, organic cotton, Fair Trade certifications and the Better Cotton initiative.
As a former buyer myself I cannot tell you how precisely they have hit the nail on the head. Although we traditionally negotiate on cost, these other variables are priceless when considering the bottom line of the business.
Brandix recently installed an apparel software system to help boost the efficiency of its product development and production. According to Iswaran Senthil, CEO of Brandix Denim, they are now achieving "more than double the production of patterns that fit the first time, saving a large amount of fabric, and better utilising human resources”.
Ethical buying is the one, single, most important element to unifying garment production standards around the world. And so for true success, sustainability has to combine ethics with profits and benefits all-round. With a legacy of ethics, strategic partnerships, transparency, long-term commitment and its focus on innovation, Sri Lanka has proven that it can succeed without guilt, whilst generating exceptional profits for both parties.