Expanding the boundaries of fashion

Colombo’s fashion industry is turning to sustainability to redesign its image on the global stage

There’s a new trend sweeping the world – designers and consumers are spurning fast fashion and embracing sustainable fashion with zeal. In other words, they are adopting ethical practices that protect the environment and promote fair labour.

Sri Lanka has also entered the fray. The Responsible Fashion Summit 2018 held in Colombo issued a clarion call urging stakeholders to be responsible and accountable. The dominant theme: Come together to make fashion clean.

The Responsible Fashion Summit arose from the vision of Ajai Vir Singh, founder and president of Colombo Fashion Week, who saw fashion as a means to showcase the inherent goodness of society and safeguard the environment for future generations.

At the event, Bangladeshi designer and global fashion icon Bibi Russell laid emphasis on drawing inspiration from one’s culture and supporting artisans. Well-known communications strategist Lynne Franks – who started London Fashion Week among other globally renowned initiatives – spoke about consumer traction towards consuming responsible fashion.

Representatives from Sri Lanka’s three apparel giants, MAS, Brandix Lanka and Hirdaramani Group, shared details of their sustainability initiatives and collaborations for change; while Managing Director of BPPL Holdings Dr. Anush Amarasinghe talked about a venture that transforms PET bottles into garments.


“The people of Bangladesh are my gurus and my inspiration. For me, respecting their dignity is my number one priority.

In the West, people think Bangladesh is a poor country where there is a war; they could not see the beauty that I saw. So my dream was to show that beauty through my work. If I had one big success in my career globally, I owe it to my nation, my culture and my heritage.

If there’s one thing I want to tell the youth of Sri Lanka, it’s to learn to use things from home in your work. I had the most wonderful parents who kept me grounded and made sure I grew up in a cultured family; so I grew to appreciate the beautiful colour combinations of Bengal.

In our part of the world, ethical fashion is the norm, with natural things like organic fabric and batik. You have to use these things and diversify to make it relevant to the world. Whatever one wears, you can see their culture through their fashion.

My Fashion for Development project started in 1996, supported by UNESCO. They believed that fashion could make social, economic and sustainable development sense, like what Ajai is doing in Sri Lanka. Today, Fashion for Development is present in many countries, and is a global platform to advance the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

It’s also important to know that when you support a craftsman, you are supporting a whole family to come out of poverty with dignity. Education is the backbone of any nation, so it’s important to educate these artisans as well. ”


“This is how the whole world should be – after this summit, all of us can work together to change industries. I have been a champion of responsible business practices in the fashion industry for many years, which is why my heart is so full at what is happening here.

Consumers in the Western market would protest if they felt labour was exploited in manufacturing their clothes. There is awareness that is growing about the lack of sustainability. They care to an extent. So it’s important how the shop relates back to how that garment is made or what damage it didn’t do to the environment. There is a need for integrated information and strategy in communicating this to the consumer; it starts with factories, designers, brands and retailers, and is disseminated through the media. At the moment, that partnership does not exist.

Following the success of campaigns like #MeToo, I feel our sustainability initiative should become a brand that is known all over the world, perhaps with a hashtag like #CleanClothes. This is how we can change the future…

Women’s networks are also an incredible way of getting information out there and working together to create a better world. My Sustainable Enterprise and Empowerment Dynamics (SEED) initiative helps women work together to empower change. We can do it, but it’s multilevel. I love this phrase: ‘It’s not about human resources, it’s about human beings.’ Everybody is a human being in their own right with responsibilities and families. It has to go to their heart, so it can’t be just about business.”


BPPL specializes in sustainable manufacturing processes that meet international environmental, ethical and governance standards, such as recycling PET bottles for reuse.

“Sri Lanka imports 1,200 tons of PET bottles each month. BPPL collects and recycles 200-250 tons of PET each month – 20% of imports. By reusing such large quantities of PET waste, we reduce the need for new, virgin plastic. Our target is to double collection to 400 tons by next year. To do this, we have set up bottle collection centres across the country. A centre would have a facility to compress used bottles for space saving and cost-effective transportation. We also collect bottles from beaches together with the MAS sustainability team and the Sri Lanka Navy. These bottles are weighed and compressed, and transported to a washing plant in Horana. The bottles are then sorted, washed and crushed into flakes. This site has the capacity to wash 300 tons of waste bottles a month. We also have water treatment plants here, where used water is treated for re-use, with only 5% being discharged post-treatment. The flakes produced come in clear, blue, brown or green colours.

This is the first spinning yarn production facility in Sri Lanka, and one of two plants in the world capable of spinning yarn directly from flakes. The washed flakes are melted and spun into yarn. This yarn will then be knitted or woven into fabric used to make clothing and footwear. It takes 10 bottles to make a new T-shirt, 27 bottles to make a graduation gown and 63 bottles to make a sweater.

This is just the beginning. By engaging with this industry, we want to create greater value to our stakeholders and the planet we live in.”


“We did a survey among our then 30,000 employees and found that a challenge 80% of our associates faced was access to clean drinking water. Ever since, water has been an integral part of our projects.

Our sustainability arm is broken up into two: environmental engineering, which looks at internal processes and implementing green manufacturing facilities; and on the external side, the communities and our people.

In partnership with many other organisations, we have come far, but have a long way to go. We want to provide clean water for all Sri Lankans by 2025, and small drops of water (Bindu) will help us reach that bigger goal. But we can’t do it alone; it’s all about collaboration.

One thing we learnt, especially in the North Central Province, which is the epicentre of chronic kidney disease, is that people have access to water but not necessarily clean drinking water. They use the same water to cook and clean, but the water is chemically influenced. So it’s a vicious cycle that keeps happening over and over again. What we realised is that it’s not providing access to water, but educating them because in certain instances, we saw them spraying their fields with chemicals and using the same water to refill their bottles. So in this case, it’s not access but awareness.”


“There are two ways to look at sustainability. One is the amount of damage that is done to the environment by the industry, and the other is the work on biodiversity and habitat restoration. As a responsible corporate citizen, it is important that we do it. We can, we should and we must.

Through our fabric mills, we were producing a sludge that is extremely damaging to the environment. So we took it and put it in an industrial dryer. The resulting sludge is dried, powdered and made into a brick that can actually replace paving bricks that you see on footpaths. We initially did this as a home project on a small scale, but now we want to scale it up and even partner with others who produce this sludge to create economies of scale. This is not about competition. It’s about saving our environment, saving Sri Lanka and the world. We all have a global footprint, but it’s important that we start from Sri Lanka and spread out to wherever we are operating from. We can be the catalyst for the change globally.

Waste is another area we are focusing on. One is chemical waste, where MAS is the first manufacturing company that has been certified by ZDHD, which is zero disposal of hazardous chemicals. This means we don’t put chemicals back into the water or environment. We also want to be zero landfill from 2019. We started an initiative across the country converting plastic into reusable items. We want to make Sri Lanka an example of zero landfill and zero waste.

Organisations, whether big or small, have to be conscious of what they are doing. We need to collectively stop using plastic or reuse such materials, upcycle, and dispose of responsibly.

Apparel is one of the most polluting industries, but we can also partner with other industries to drive this change. We have collaborated with Jetwing and John Keells to initiate collection and clearing points, but we need to build an economy out of it. The good thing is that we are off to a great start, we just have to be ahead of this.”


“I just want to reiterate the whole collaboration aspect, because we are seeing greater collaboration between stakeholders within the industry.

Making a bigger impact is easier with smaller companies. One of the challenges faced in big organisations is how we are going to inculcate a culture change company-wide. In our organisations, we also need to have the right people as champions of this change and the passion. In 2015, we developed a programme in a much more structured manner called Wonders of Wellbeing, or WOW. The WOW strategy was influenced by global research and an element of collaboration. We focused on five areas: economic, relational, physiology, mental and environmental. Using data from surveys, the happiness index and wellness satisfaction surveys, we improved the quality of the work-life approach.

However, sustainability is just as much about the environment as it is about the human aspect. We built the first carbon-neutral factory in Asia as a benchmark of our sustainability strategy. Today, we’ve linked our strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and define it as people, plant, product and community.”