GREENING THE REALM OF FASHION

With the fashion industry constantly accused of polluting the planet, a Sri Lankan apparel giant provides insights for a sustainable business model that creates value from waste. If scaled with other industry players, it offers the prospect of going beyond mere ‘greenwashing’ to become a game-changer

The fashion industry reveals a glaring irony – while providing us the clothes to look beautiful, it remains the world’s second largest polluting industry (just behind oil). However, with more and more people viewing life through a sustainability lens, it has come under pressure to reduce the environmental impact. Sustainable fashion might help change things. It is an increasingly popular concept, and has been embraced by businesses around the world. Today, it influences everything from materials and design to waste disposal and how companies relate to the communities around them.

Sustainable fashion gained prominence around 30 years ago when clothing businesses like Patagonia and Esprit adopted sustainability. The environmental impact of fibres was studied and principles of sustainable fashion mooted based on the work of influential ecologists. There was emphasis on the natural, the organic and the recycled.

Today, many brands are involved and responsible consumption is stressed. There is a growing sense of the need to go green and make the world a better place. Action continues with the aim of reducing the negative effects, especially of the fabric-manufacturing process.

Sri Lankan manufacturers entered the field some time ago. There were efforts to position the country as a responsible fashion and apparel sourcing destination. The ‘Garments without Guilt’ campaign launched by the country’s apparel industry, for example, proved to be a success. There have since been various projects revolving around sustainability.

MAS Holdings – a giant in the apparel trade – is among the Sri Lankan companies that are actively involved. Its initiatives range from waste conversion and toxic-free processes to habitat restoration. While such efforts can be looked at from a marketing or CSR perspective, there are also elements of a sustainable business model. The MAS Eco Brick project is a case in point. It basically transforms sludge into bricks and energy. Though it was launched in 2013 with a serious environmental agenda, it can now be regarded as a viable business model.

Sludge from effluent treatment plants is the byproduct of a wastewater treatment process. It is estimated that local industries produce over 30,000 tonnes of this sludge annually. Most of it ends up in unknown destinations, probably contaminating the soil and groundwater.

The MAS fabric manufacturing facilities at Thulhiriya, Biyagama and Giriulla generate large quantities of sludge. Sometime back, the engineers at the MAS Fabric Park in Thulhiriya began researching ways to transform it into a valuable resource. Their efforts were not in vain.

Last year alone, the company converted 1800 tonnes of wet sludge into 779 tonnes of dry sludge through solar drying. This was then incinerated in their biomass boilers with sawdust and the residual ash was turned into over 220,000 bricks of all shapes and sizes. These were used for paving, trelliswork and various other aspects of construction.

LAST YEAR ALONE, THE COMPANY CONVERTED 1800 TONNES OF WET SLUDGE INTO 779 TONNES OF DRY SLUDGE THROUGH SOLAR DRYING. THIS WAS THEN INCINERATED IN THEIR BIOMASS BOILERS WITH SAWDUST AND THE RESIDUAL ASH WAS TURNED INTO OVER 220,000 BRICKS OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES

Director of Environmental Sustainability at MAS, Sharika Senanayake says the significance of this project lies in its multi-pronged impact: “First, we prevent an industrial waste product from entering our environment; then we create a raw material out of it; and along the way we eliminate the use of river sand by replacing it with ash in the making of these bricks. The entire cycle involves maximizing the value of our waste and creating a business model out of something that would have been disposed.”

The company is also planning to add a waste-to-energy component into the project. This will generate steam and energy to run manufacturing operations. When that happens, the project will not only facilitate zero waste but also generate energy, steam and bricks.

Sharika believes this technology offers immense opportunity for industry-wide transformation – in apparel manufacture and beyond. She says that those wanting to adopt this model as a business venture could do so by joining the Sludge Coalition.

The Sludge Coalition is a group of industry leaders formed to help resolve the issue of industrial waste. At present, it comprises four companies, namely MAS, Hirdaramani, South Asia Textiles and BPPL Holdings. A pivotal role in bringing this coalition together was played by Board Director – MAS Group Sustainability Sarinda Unamboowe, who is an avid conservationist.

In addition to sludge, two other major polluters – plastic and fabric waste – can be converted and monetized. Sharika says they are excited about the possibilities of converting PET into polyester yarn. She points out that last year, MAS KREEDA produced fabric from over 8 million yards of recycled polyester yarn made from PET, while MAS Fabrics used more than 478,000 kg of recycled polyester yarn made from PET in their production.

“This needs to be the future of innovation,” says Sharika. “The demand for polyester is only rising and we as manufacturers need to be inventive in how we supply this demand without damaging our eco-systems.”

Fabric waste is also a major issue globally. So far, the local apparel industry has largely been focusing on disposing its manufacturing waste. However, MAS has been researching ways to upcycle, recycle and dispose their waste more responsibly. Last year, they reused and recycled over 2000 tonnes of their fabric waste and sent 2600 tonnes for energy recovery.

“We intend to keep increasing this,” says Sharika. She notes that while these are individual solutions, the opportunity for real impact lies in collaborative projects. “We need to do a lot more,” she emphasizes.

Among the issues facing manufacturers globally is how to close the loop on fabric so that a T-shirt or bra, for example, can be turned into something new instead of being sent to landfill. Across the world, 80% of all used clothes end up in landfills. Ongoing efforts to resolve this problem go deep into the very fibre of fabric.

While cotton and polyester are easy to recycle on their own, the problem has always been with blends. However, things have changed with new advances in the field. MAS is now working with partners who can convert these blends back to yarn.

“The challenge lies in the process we adopt,” says Sharika. “Polyester takes 200 years or more to disintegrate. As it’s the most popular yarn right now, we need to find ways to cut back on the use of virgin polyester or innovate ways to convert old clothes back to yarn while maintaining the performance and quality our consumers have come to expect.”

MAS is currently working on a waste-to-energy boiler that will tackle both their sludge and waste. The machine – which will be operational by the end of this year – will consume nearly 3000 tonnes of their annual fabric and packaging waste and 450 tonnes of solar-dried sludge to generate 28,000 tonnes of steam per year to run manufacturing operations. It will also eliminate the need to consume 7000 tonnes of biomass which would have been used instead. The company will shortly open the Material Recovery Centre in Biyagama. They hope that this will influence others to segregate their waste so that its potential can be maximized.

Sharika says the challenge in collaborating for change is finding common ground to scale things to a level where they can make a massive difference. She hopes that the Sludge Coalition will pave the way for greater collaboration among competitors.

MAS HAS BEEN RESEARCHING WAYS TO UPCYCLE, RECYCLE AND DISPOSE THEIR WASTE MORE RESPONSIBLYv

She recalled the sense of unity when the local apparel industry launched the ‘Garments without Guilt’ campaign over a decade ago. She said that together they sent a bold message that made a difference in how they were seen by the world.

“The time has come for us to reunite again because today’s environmental and social realities are too overwhelming for single players boxing in their own corners,” she stressed. “The time for incremental change is over – the Sludge Coalition is our attempt to build an industrywide movement with the final goal of positioning all of Sri Lanka as a truly ethical manufacturing destination.”

 

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POWERED BY PHOTON

It is now a decade since MAS invested in the world’s first purpose-built green factory for apparel manufacture. The momentum of their investments has grown in recent years, moving from single projects to a plan with a long-term vision.

One of their goals is to generate more renewable energy than they consume by 2025. Their initiative – MAS Photon – has resulted in the installation of 15 MW of solar rooftops across their facilities in 16 locations. Their target is to increase this to 28 MW in 26 locations by the end of next year. At that point, solar panels will cover an extensive 2 million sq.ft. of roof space. This will take their renewable generation to 60% of total energy consumption from the present 50%. It will also offset the equivalent of 32,250 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Each business unit at MAS drives numerous efficiency projects; they all attempt to achieve an annual target set in a strategic planning system called ‘Hoshin Kanri.’ Under this system – which originated in post-war Japan – strategic goals are communicated throughout a company before being set in motion.

MAS has focused on various areas of environmental sustainability. In addition to renewable energy, these include chemical management, waste utilization and habitat restoration. “We also continue to strengthen our resources to tackle the challenges in our supply chain,” MAS executives said. By introducing sustainability into their corporate culture, they hope to make a positive social and environmental impact wherever they operate.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The keyhole garden is among the concepts popularized in Sri Lanka by the MAS initiative Eco Go Beyond. This raised bed system – which has its roots in Africa – is often used in permaculture. It is simple enough to be taught to schoolchildren and involves low cost and maintenance.

A keyhole garden is basically a raised, round garden with a notch to access the compost basket in the centre that provides moisture and nutrients. It combines all the requirements that crops need to thrive.

The Eco Go Beyond programme reached out to sustainable gardening expert Dr. Deb Tolman to introduce her keyhole garden model to schools in Sri Lanka. The initiative was successful, and the method has caught on in homes as well.

Keyhole gardens have the potential to improve numerous lives. They can provide families with a constant supply of fresh, healthy produce at a low cost. They also enable cultivation in inhospitable soils such as those found in the coastal and arid areas of Sri Lanka.

Keyhole gardens combine all the requirements that crops need to thrive

RIPPLE EFFECT

Eco Go Beyond is an initiative that seeks to drive change through schoolchildren. Launched by MAS in 2006, it has covered 90 semi-urban and rural schools so far. In the process, it has introduced the concepts of sustainability to more than 45,000 students.

“The programme has a significant impact on schools,” says Deputy General Manager – Eco Go Beyond and Strategic Sustainability at MAS, Amanthi Perera. “It enables the creation of management systems to recycle their waste, grow more nutritious food and conserve water and energy. This in turn has a ripple effect on the surrounding community and their homes.”

Eco Go Beyond also promotes tree-planting, recording of indigenous knowledge and using resources effectively. Eco-friendly lifestyles and multiculturalism are emphasized.

Amanthi says they use Sri Lanka’s value systems and cultural heritage to introduce sustainable development to students. This not only helps them relate easily to the subject, but also builds trust and makes connections.

When MAS embarked on the programme in 2006, the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth was gaining popularity. It influenced their outlook on sustainability education. The film – which revolved around Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming – was highly acclaimed and has been credited with reenergizing the environmental movement.

According to Amanthi, students have realized that they have the power to drive change. “We see our own role as that of a catalyst,” she stated. While the programme imparts the concepts of sustainability with relevant knowledge and skills, students often come up with practical applications as they know the ground situation better.