May 4, 2024

Sri Lanka is using sustainability to revive its economy

Despite being under immense economic pressure, Sri Lanka is turning to sustainable development and manufacturing to revive its economy.

Sri Lanka is Using Sustainability to Revive Its Economy

Sri Lanka Economy Background

In 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt, facing its worst economic crisis as a nation. This crisis can be attributed to the decline in tourism due to Covid and poor economic planning from government officials. This has led to widespread crop failures due to a ban on chemical fertilizers, fuel shortages and restriction on petrol & diesel sales, shutting down operations of essential services like buses, trains, and household power, and school closures and work from home mandates to conserve supplies.

Sri Lanka Focus on Sustainable Development

But despite the looming economic crisis, Sri Lanka is focusing on sustainable manufacturing and development. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe plans to transition Sri Lanka to a clean economy and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment has rolled out plans to transform 3/14 free trade zones into eco-friendly areas.

Although the Sri Lankan garment sector only commands a small share of the global market but supplies big brand names like  Gap, Patagonia, Hugo Boss and Victoria's Secret and it accounts for nearly 50% of foreign exchange income via exports. Many of these factories are turning to green manufacturing and sustainability commitments, embracing a “green chic”.

Garment Factories

Garment factories across Sri Lanka are implementing environmentally sustainable practices, like renewable energy, water purification systems, and waste management.

1. MAS’ Fabric Park in Thulhiriya

(private owned special economic zone of 65+ hectares in a forest, along the Maha Oya river)

  • employs 10,000 local community members
  • has state-of-the-art plant to tap the river and purify the water for use before treating the waste and discharging it back
  • uses solar panels and biomass for electricity

1. Hayleys Fabric in Kalutara

(Sri Lanka’s largest weft-knitted fabric manufacturing plant in South Sri Lanka)

  • achieved a 90+/100 Higgs score (a tool to gauge sustainability & drive behavior change)
  • generates renewable energy (biomass & solar)
  • treats contaminated water on plant
  • recycles waste properly
  • has QR codes in products for users to scan for supply chain sustainability

1. Brandix Factory in Arayampathy

(Garment Factory on a 4-hectare property)

  • Powers machines and ACs with rooftop solar
  • Lights building interior for 1,600 workers per shift through solar tubes
  • Treats wastewater through high-tech processing systems
  • Has LEED certified buildings -- the highest for any factory in Sri Lanka.
  • 6 plants reached net-zero emissions, with plans for all 13 to reach target by 1st quarter of 2024

Garment Worker Rights

However, it’s important that the fashion industry goes beyond sustainability and centers justice and garment workers’ rights.

While these initiatives may reduce energy use or carbon emissions, they do not prioritize the well-being or safety of the thousands of garment workers who are living in poverty. The sustainability enhancements are also primarily funded by each business itself, potentially making the motivation behind the improvements profit-oriented instead of people or planet centered.

Change in this area has been "easier to implement with a one-off investment without changing the whole business model," observed Miedema at the Clean Clothes Campaign. "These measures might genuinely lower energy use of these factories, however usually do little to nothing for the well-being, safety or alleviating the poverty experienced by the workers."