South Asian Sustainable Fashion Summit

Taking sustainability towards a global consensus

“Sri Lanka is leading the way when it comes to sustainable fashion. We see this across the whole supply chain with our modern eco factories to our local talented sustainable designers. This year in particular, the design aspect was that of a very high standard and importantly, extremely commercial for the markets we have traditionally supplied,” said Nikhil Hirdaramani, International Chair of the Sri Lanka Design Festival releasing a special statement on the relevance of the ‘South Asian Sustainable Fashion Summit’ held as part of SLDF 2013.



The forum plays a crucial part in Sri Lanka’s positioning as the South Asian leader in sustainable apparel making and directing the regional discussions on the topic towards the island and brought in a special focus for ‘design’ this year.
Sri Lanka as a role model Jonas Eder-Hansen, the Event Chair and Development Director for Danish Fashion Institute/Copenhagen Fashion Summit stated that it would be good to use Sri Lanka as a role model example at the world’s largest event on sustainability taking place in Copenhagen in 2014. He stated that although Sri Lanka has done a great job in creating a national standard in sustainability, it is time to urge Lankan apparel to move forward to create a global standard.


2013-10-30 1His speech also brought out the point that despite the fact that fashion is a leading industry when speaking of sustainability, sustainably still requires to be mainstreamed in fashion. For this, new partnerships with fashion supply chain members who value sustainability will be essential while ROIs being achievable for eco factories, new business consumption models and education/training for a whole new generation to understand fashion from the high-street shop to the factory floor will also be significant.


“It is important for Lankan apparel makers to take the lead to spring into action and take advantage of the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh and the fire in Pakistan to get local governments and apparel manufacturers to work together across South Asia,” he added, stressing stressed that consumers are currently on their own if they want to know more and make choices.


2013-10-30 2The discussion also touched on the HIGGS Index – a sustainable apparel coalition development that is an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain. HIGGS aims to be the global standard measurement for sustainability and will be an important consideration when Sri Lanka targets to become a global hub for sustainability in the future.


Applying sustainable business models


Providing a Sri Lankan based example for applying sustainable business models for traditional or established businesses, Yohan Hewagama, HR Business Partner Brands & Customer Development of Unilever spoke on ‘Sustainable Living Plans’.


Hewagama said that Unilever products are used by consumers across the world, and keeping in mind that out of the six billion world population one third is hungry or in ill health, the company understands its immense and growing responsibility. Speaking of a sustainable living plan for this global consumer base, Hewagama mentioned that Unilever is aware of the energy consumption increase by 50% by 2030 along with increases in food and water consumption.


“If the whole world consumed at the same rate as the UK, we would need three worlds to survive. We need to develop and be responsible across the product lifecycle… small actions by many can make a big difference. Unilever is into year two of a 10-year program.”


He mentioned that this program was being run by the HR department to instil sustainability in the company, the same way they did for safety many decades ago. “Unilever is the second largest buyer of tea in the world. We’re now buying tea from small farmers and helping them to form cooperatives and alliances.”


Sustainable sourcing strategies and beneficial partnerships


Bringing in global expertise on sustainable sourcing strategies and forming new and beneficial partnerships for success, Ariel Kraten, a Senior Consultant of Made-By, spoke at the forum. Made-By is a European not-for-profit organisation with a mission to make sustainable fashion common practice and improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry.2013-10-30 3


Kraten, who works with works with fashion brands of varying sizes and scope and supports them in developing sustainable strategies to improve conditions across their entire supply chain, said that small, medium and large brands are all different and need a different mix of services and a different starting point. “But the most important thing is to start!” she said, urging businesses to take a sustainable start with whatever and however resources they have.


Simple yet effective solution


As the CEO of a 10-year-old company with the key strategy to take complex sustainability issues and make them simple, Futerra’s Lucy Shea spoke about a simple yet effective solution to prevent fashion waste: ‘Swishing parties’ by Futerra where garments are exchanged between consumers was first taken on by M&S and popularised among their customers.


“It took a few years to get off the ground but now it’s very successful all over the world, preventing thousands of tons of textiles going into land fill and helping garments get an extended life. Brands H&M, Unilever and Mondelez have implemented their sustainability strategies to make it easy for people to love and act sustainably with their products/brands.”


Shea added that ‘swishing’ is an open source and is open to everyone. “The best way to influence is to make it fun for the consumer… consumers have a hunger for change and a desire for a sustainable lifestyle.”


2013-10-30 4Ensuring responsible sourcing Tom Smith, Director of Insight and Planning of UK-based global supply chain advisors Sedex told the summit that buyers have an increasing and important duty to ensure responsible sourcing.


“We all know standards need improving and maintaining and Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapse in April is a good example for this rising need. Buyers should ask the supplier if the order is done right. Just asking that simple question can bring about a massive transformation, and can be the first step towards achieving greater transparency,” he said.

He also stressed the need for big brands and retailers to become engaged in this process, giving such good practice a critical mass of support.
Sri Lanka sets the benchmark Nikhil Hirdaramani, international chair of the SLDF also Director of the Hirdaramani Group, one of Sri Lanka’s largest apparel exporters said Sri Lanka had helped lay the groundwork for such changes, recalling how the county in 2007 – then plagued by a long-running civil war – introduced its ‘Garments without Guilt’ scheme, involving an open adherence to adequate labour standards.
“Today what we launched so many years ago is being carried out on a global scale. Sri Lanka was the pioneer for this concept, because we strongly believed in responsibility and transparency. There is no doubt that the benchmark has been set in Sri Lanka,” he noted, while calling for the introduction of a uniform international standard, which would enable consumers to tap information about a garment’s production process.
A debate between Hirdaramani, Tom Smith of Sedex and Roshan Pieris, Regional Manager for Supply Chain Assessment and Sustainability/SGS, discussed the standards on hours of work for apparel employees within local and international contexts.
It was pointed out by Pieris that SGS on visits apply the higher stand of international law, but always include in the visit note the local laws and standards as brands and companies rarely want to change their standards. The panel discussed the reality of retailers being reluctant to display Sri Lanka’s own national standard known as ‘Garments without Guilt’ as it made it look as if all other garments without the label were guilty!
Jonas Eder-Hansen mentioned that it is within this problematic context that they were trying to introduce a global social compliance standard which would standardise the matter worldwide. “We need a simple message for consumers they need to be informed. Compliance should not be about just a check box list with ticks; it is more important to advise and educate and have follow-up.”
It was also discussed that in the light of recent global tragedies and controversies like the Texas chemical plant fire, The Pakistan fire, Bangladesh building collapse and major Chinese company dumping waste directly into the river, the need for standards and adequate training in waste management and chemicals is essential.
Embedding sustainability
Subramaniam Eassuwaren of Carbon Consulting Company stated that the future of fashion lies largely in embedding sustainability into products and with the basics like declining resources as an important first step followed by radical transparency achieved through the power of numbers, establishing enforceable actions, having an environment defence fund and increased expectations.
The special session was held at the end of the forum where several designers whose brands are built around sustainable ethos discussed their experience, the realities and the importance in forming partnerships that enable and encourage sustainability. Some of these designers included Mihiri De Silva, founder of Sri Lanka’s first ethical fashion label ‘RedCocoon,’ Lonali Rodrigo, Nithya Lamahewa and Prabath Samarasooriya.
The forum was hosted by SLDF with the support of Standard Chartered Bank as part of the bank’s CSR policy to support sustainability across all industries.