Exploring the ethical initiative

Friday, 12 November 2010 23:36 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

SLDF 2010 Ethical Fashion Symposium

The Sri Lankan apparel industry is still perhaps understood as a relatively young industry, but has taken the bull by its horns and changed the way people perceive it both locally and internationally.

By Cheranka Mendis

The single largest contributor to the export revenue of the country and the largest employer in the manufacturing sector, the local apparel industry has reached phenomenal growth within the past few years and has managed to bag the title as the one of world’s best suppliers of readymade garments.

Evolving by embracing the qualities of sustainability and ethical manufacturing, Sri Lanka today has four LEED certified garment factories and is known to be a pioneer in receiving them.

However good ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainability’ may sound like when put back to back with the word ‘apparel’ on print, getting there was no easy task. Home to the world’s first eco apparel plants, there is still much that needs to be done and a longer road ahead to travel. The world of fashion too needs to join hands and not only nod approval, but create awareness in their circles to further implement the subject.

Sri Lanka Design Festival, being held for the second year, yesterday held its Ethical Fashion Symposium, addressing the various issues and aspects that surround ethical apparel manufacturing and promoting. Held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, the symposium was a culmination of interesting speeches and interactive discussions. “As manufacturers, there is no question that we need to go on the path of ethical manufacturing and sustainability. However, we do not see all the value partners in the chain contributing in equal proportions to this value addition. There is also no end contribution from the consumers,” Chairman of JAAF A. Sukumaran said at a panel discussion yesterday.

From the local apparel experience, the ethical initiative was taken five to six years ago, since it was the place where the industry leaders thought Sri Lanka’s competitive edge was located.

“Unfortunately, the rewards from our partners were not enough or as we expected, but we sustained our initiative. We sustained it thanks to the GSP+ concession, which gave us the expected returns indirectly, which the buyers did not give.” What now needs to be done is to change the mindset of value partners and even consumers, even if that calls for legislation, he said. “What you have done is tremendous. Do not ever give up. All around the world people in the industry are talking about you – Sri Lanka. It may not be economical. It is commendable,” an audience member exclaimed to applause of everyone at the symposium.

CEO of Brandix Ashroff Omar along with Sukumaran and former Chairman of JAAF Ajith Dias asserted that in ethical practices, given the choice, fair wages would come first; closely followed by water and then emission since per capita income in Sri Lanka is minuscule in comparison to economies such as UK and USA.

Dias noted however that he was not convinced that the market for ethical manufacturing and sustainability was growing. Markets are dropping instead of heading up, he said, adding that consumers are not yet ready to pay that extra amount for such sustainable products.

Giving a Western perspective, Head of Technology for Lingerie, Child wear, Per Una of Marks and Spencer Paschal Little, who was also part of the discussion, stated that the reason for Marks and Spencer to embrace the ethical concept was that its values were deeply rooted in the company’s core values.

“Obviously it has to be profitable because it’s a business. And it is profitable. It’s a complex thing to achieve and communication with the customers on different levels is required,” Little said.

He also shared that the target of Mark and Spencer was to have half of the attributes used for production to be ethical by 2015 and the total production attributes to be ethical by 2050. While communication and awareness creation is essential, the customers have been saying otherwise, Omar noted. “What the customer wants is cheap prices and phenomenal products. How much they are willing to pay for a sustainable product is still questionable. Therefore to remain in the market by products must also be sustainable.” Moderating the discussion, Colin McDowell, who has been in the fashion industry for over 30 years, questioned if the problem today was mass production. Answering, Omar assessed that the query was not that there was over production and low quality and cheap prices, rather high prices. “My personal view is that we are overcharging the consumers. What we make for US$ 3, retailers sell for US$ 10. Retailers need bigger margins. I feel that the retail model is not right. The solution is to fix the industry where manufacturers can come up with new and innovative products. Right now there are fragmentation and no economies of scale,” Omar said.

Putting forward interesting thinking and getting applauded for it, Omar went on to say that people needed to walk the talk – including CEOs and heads of corporations. “Private lifestyles of one single entrepreneur or leader in certain organisations are so high that their carbon footprint alone is bigger than four of my factories. It’s in the cars they drive, the private jets they use.”

Managing Director of the American Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN) Mike Todaro, commending the local attempt, added: “Hats off to these gentlemen in Sri Lanka for creating so many jobs through the apparel industry and adding stability to the lives of the many employees.”

He also added that at the end of the day, what was important is that it was all about the factory. “It is all about the factory. What really comes together is the factory. For decades factories have been trapped between retailers and suppliers. It’s about building relationships.” “Sustainability and ethical wear is not a passing trend as some predicted. It is here to stay. The recycled look is something that looks more prominent rather than wearing mineral makeup or eating organic food. Everyone is moving back towards a different ideology of how we bond with clothes and the industry must follow,” said founder of fashion label ‘From Somewhere’ and curator and co-founder of Estethica Orsola De Castro, speaking at the panel discussion.

She claimed that selling ethical clothing was selling a story, which is an important value addition in a product. Castro added: “It is not what we say, but it’s what we do. We are in a country that is precisely doing it. It can happen. And it can happen rapidly. But you have to have a passion and enthusiasm. We are now in country that happens!” “As people we are beginning to realise that there is a story. The world of ethical practices is inspirational. As ethical manufacturers, Sri Lanka is providing aspiration to all people in the value chain.”