The right trousers

Third-world clothing factories don't have to be sweatshops - they can instead be healthy both for workers and the environment, as E&T discovers.

As consumers increasingly demand products manufactured with minimal environmental and social impacts, retailers are encouraging their suppliers to improve their environmental and ethical credentials. Marks and Spencer is addressing such issues through 'Plan A', a five-year, 100-point action plan aimed at combating climate change, reducing waste, safeguarding natural resources and trading ethically. As part of the plan it has helped develop four 'eco' factories, two of which are in Sri Lanka, one in China and one in Wales. Buy a pair of trousers labelled "This garment was made in a Plan A Eco Factory", and you're guaranteed they were manufactured in a state-of-the-art enterprise that's about as far from a sweatshop as you can get.

The factory with the highest credentials of all is Brandix's Seeduwa plant, located an hour from downtown Colombo in Sri Lanka. Brandix, one of the Indian Ocean island's largest clothing exporters, supplies garments to several UK retailers including Gap, Victoria's Secret and Nike. The Seeduwa plant is dedicated to manufacturing casual wear for Marks and Spencer, including garments for its Blue Harbour and Land's End ranges. Converted into an eco-plant from an existing 30-year old apparel factory at a cost of US$3m, it achieved 76 points of a possible 85 under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system of the US Green Building Council. This made it the first converted clothing factory in the world to achieve a LEED Platinum rating.

The plant comprises several low-rise cream buildings with a total footprint of 12,000 sq m. Inside one, several hundred women sit at sewing machines, each engaged in a specific task such as sewing on waistbands or checking garments for flaws. The environment they are working in is surprisingly airy and pleasant. Skylights in the high ceiling and windows along one wall allow light to flood in; palms planted in pebble beds form a central avenue; and photographs taken by staff of local wildlife decorate the walls. Outside, bathed in the orange glow of late afternoon sunshine, are neatly manicured lawns, beds planted with ferns and red-stalk palms, plus a water feature, around which geese wander.

Going green to save money

The conversion took some ten months, with manufacturing continuing as normal during the works. A major target for Brandix was to reduce the factory's energy use and carbon footprint. Air conditioning usually accounts for some 70 per cent of energy used in garment factories, so the conversion team began by replacing the existing units with more efficient ones. It also fitted LED bulbs in the task lights that illuminate each worker's sewing machine, and installed prismatic skylights to replace much of the tube-lighting that had previously lit the factory floor.

"Before the conversion we had between 5,000 and 6,000 tube lights, and we were replacing them in December every year," explains Manojini Rathnayaka, Manager, Green Project. "If we'd laid them in a line it would have covered 4.8km; these were going to landfill and the mercury was very environmentally unfriendly. Now we have just 800 to 1,000 tube lights, used mainly at the quality-control points where good light is vital."

The skylights and windows are fitted with a special glass obtained from the USA. This lets in shortwave radiation from the sun, essentially sunlight, but blocks long-wave radiation, or heat. Stopping the fierce heat of the tropical sun from penetrating the factory has significantly reduced the need for air-conditioning.

Outside, meanwhile, the previously dark Tarmac road is now paved with pale, interlocking blocks. Whereas Tarmac absorbs shortwave energy from the sun and re-emits it as long-wave heat energy, warming up the immediate surrounds, the pale blocks directly reflect the light energy back into the building. The result of all these changes has been to reduce the factory's energy use by 46 per cent.

The high red wall that provides a colourful backdrop for the pond also hides the factory's steam boilers and distribution systems. Brandix redesigned these systems to reduce their fuel consumption by 26 per cent. It also replaced its diesel vehicles, used to carry stock around the plant and between factories, with an electric truck, car and tour bus. These are charged simply by plugging them into a standard three-pin socket.

The result of these fuel changes, together with the energy-saving measures, has been to slash carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80 per cent, sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 71 per cent and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 92 per cent. These achievements gained the factory national recognition at the World Energy Globe Awards, held in Prague earlier this year.

Sri Lanka has a tradition of conserving water using artificial lakes, or tanks, that dates back thousands of years. Although water is not in short supply in Colombo - the monsoon supplies abundant rain to the city and its surrounds during the Yala season from May to August - Brandix decided to continue the tradition by including water-saving features in the factory's design and encouraging its staff to use water wisely. After all, climate change is forecast to make water scarcer across parts of Asia, including some regions of Sri Lanka.

The roof, which was designed to harvest rainwater, directs some 115 cubic metres per day down gutters into drains that feed into a 100,000 cubic metre underground rainwater-harvesting tank. This is hidden from view beneath a trim triangular lawn close to the plant's reception area. Percolation pits, meanwhile, help top up natural groundwater levels. "We have managed to reduce our water use by 62 per cent," says Manojini. "Raising awareness among our staff has helped a lot; they now use much less water in the canteen and toilet areas."

Solid waste was also tackled during the conversion. In past days, there was no integrated solid waste management. Instead, the 40t of solid waste produced by the factory annually was simply handed over to the municipal council as landfill. Today, however, the landfilling has been reduced to almost zero. This has been achieved by separating out the waste into fabric, paper, cardboard, polythene, plastics and food waste. Paper and card are recycled, with some of the waste used to make photo frames. Fabric is recycled or reused for patch-working, as a filling material or to make mats. And food waste either goes to a local piggery or is composted to produce biogas, which is in turn fed back to the kitchens for use in cooking.

Local awareness

With little culture of recycling and sustainability in Sri Lanka when the conversion was started in 2007, Brandix had to ensure staff understood and complied with its vision. It launched a series of internal awareness-raising events and poster campaigns under the title Haritha Peraliya - a Sinhalese phrase meaning 'green revolution' - and also directed staff to take the environmental message into their communities and report back their progress. "Installing the technology is not a big thing because the technology is available and proven." says Iresha Somarathna, Head of Energy and Environment. "The difficult thing is to make sure staff have the right mental attitude. It's not like in Europe where there is already high awareness of green issues. We had to make sure the staff followed the instructions, such as separating out rubbish into the right coloured bins, otherwise we would have had problems."

One worker, 27-year-old HM Sudammika Herath explained how converting the factory to an eco-plant has had a positive impact on the working environment. When she joined, the factory was enclosed and workers couldn't see out; they were not in touch with the environment as they are today. Now they can look out on the landscaped grounds, she says, they find the repetitive work much less stressful.

"Before this project we were not aware about global warming or environmental problems," she added. "But thanks to the awareness-raising programmes we are now much more knowledgeable. Now we want to protect the environment. Having begun separating out rubbish here, we now do it automatically at home and are passing the green message onto our children."

Brandix is now planning to extend the green credentials of the Seeduwa plant to its other factories. It has 27 plants in all, comprising 20 or so garment factories, plus textile, plastics, thread and button manufacturing operations and washing, dyeing, finishing and fabric-printing facilities. At present, all its factories meet local environmental standards but the company is increasingly aiming for its businesses to comply with the international standards demanded by its Western customers, such as Marks and Spencer. It is embarking on a project to fit more efficient air conditioning at five of its factories, and install a wind turbine at its Girithale factory to make that plant self-sufficient in energy. The overall aim is to cut its total carbon footprint by 30 per cent by 2012. "Ultimately, we want to be able to make a product that can be labelled not only to say it was made in an eco-factory but with its actual carbon footprint," says Iresha.

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