Sri Lanka’s textile factories are leading the green transition in industry

The textile and garment manufacturing industry is undoubtedly a leader in Sri Lanka. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)’s diagnostic report, it contributes 20 per cent to the country’s GDP and employs over a million people, the majority of whom are women. Meanwhile, Nikkei Asia reports that it was worth $4.5bn in 2023. Of Sri Lanka’s main industries – food and beverage, textiles, rubber and plastics, as well as minerals – it’s the second-biggest consumer of petroleum products and electricity. This important industry is also set to grow.After the 2022 economic crisis, growth is welcome, but it must also be sustainable. That’s why textile industry leaders are paving the way when it comes to the green transition.

There are a myriad of reasons why sustainability should be integral to industrial growth. During the crisis, power cuts were common due to a shortage of imported fossil fuels, so renewable energy sources would be better placed to withstand economic shocks. Then, there’s the severe effects of climate change on the natural environment, as Noyon Lanka CEO Husni Salieh points out. He’s one of the textile industry leaders working to decarbonize his factory: “The impacts of climate change extend far beyond rising sea levels and changing weather patterns – the loss of biodiversity is another significant threat,” he says. “[There are] disruptions to power supply due to extreme weather, increased energy costs due to limited availability or lack of alternatives, and potential future regulations on water extraction for our processes.”

Noyon has made several adjustments to its practices. Around 70 per cent of its revenue in 2023 came from products that comprise sustainable elements . Meanwhile, compared to a 2019 baseline, carbon emissions have reduced by 35 per cent. Noyon has also introduced a natural dye platform called ‘Planetones’, which, when used, reduces water use by 52 per cent and energy use by 61 per cent.. “We’ve also installed a one-megawatt roof-mounted solar panel, introduced sustainable biomass boilers, retrofitted VFT technology and are utilizing real-time online energy monitoring systems,” he adds.

Pubudu De Silva, CEO of Teejay Lanka, echoes these sentiments. “Our industry is very much dependent on the climate, in terms of production,” he says. “We utilize 4 million litres of water per day –we have taken initiatives to use less water, reduce our water footprint, and to use sustainable materials.” To monitor energy and resource use while also reducing these, Teejay has introduced a real-time utility monitoring system, or IOT. “It’s one of the largest IOT platforms in the island,” says De Silva. “It was developed to monitor energy, water, utility and machine utilization. Through this system, we were able to streamline the production processes and become more energy conservative.”

In the past 20 years, Sri Lanka’s CO2 emissions have doubled, according to the International Energy Agency, and the country is aiming to reduce them by 14.5 per cent by 2030. Combined, industries emit 25 per cent of Sri Lanka’s GHGs. Not only will the textile industry’s adoption of green practices set an example for other industries, it’ll also make it the obvious choice for Western fashion brands wanting to cater to increasingly green-savvy consumers.

Greenwashing and environmentally damaging practices in fashion are being cracked down on, particularly in Europe. In March 2024, France’s lower house voted in favour of surcharges on mass-produced fast fashion. Meanwhile, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are getting tough on three fast fashion brands’ green claims after an investigation. This led to the brands agreeing to tougher terms around marketing their products as sustainable. The impressive adaptations made by Sri Lankan factories are an example not only to other businesses across the country, but to garment manufacturers worldwide. Globally, the the textile industry is responsible for 10 per cent of all GHG emissions according to analysis by the European Parliament –more than air travel and shipping combined.

Supporting efforts to make the textile industry greener is the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the European Union (EU), through the Accelerating Industries Climate Response in Sri Lanka programme. Under this effort, employees in the industry receive theoretical and practical training on energy management from experts in their own factories. The first 45 trainees graduated in November 2023. UNIDO’s own research identified that one of the factors slowing down the adoption of green practices in Sri Lanka’s industries was a lack of knowledge among workers, so the learning programmes are a vital part of addressing that roadblock.

Senura Dharmadasa, the Sustainability and Compliance Manager at Star Garments, is one of the graduates. The factory has been carbon neutral for four years via offsetting, but has made further changes, like installing a 3.5 MW solar system and replacing furnace oil boilers with biomass boilers. Dharmadasa emphasises that not only is sustainability key for doing businesses with Western clients, it’s about cost-saving, too.

“Our primary markets being Europe, the UK and the US, mean we have to place a greater emphasis on renewable energy sources to meet customer requirements,” Dharmadasa says. “This is challenging with Sri Lanka’s dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation and systems for rooftop solar power generation that do not lend themselves to the adoption of renewable energy. With the energy crisis in the country, energy costs in our production process have climbed from 1.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent. This issue is affecting Sri Lanka’s entire apparel industry. Our exports have become less competitive than our regional peers.”

Dilakshi Liyanage, a Senior Executive at Hela Apparel Holdings, makes the important point that women need to be a larger part of the conversation and the shift to more sustainable practices. “Involving more women is not only a matter of gender equality but is also a strategic imperative for creating more effective, inclusive, and sustainable solutions,” she says. This includes increased job opportunities for women –the International Labor Organization forecasts that the green economy could create as many as 15–60 million new jobs. With the majority of textile industry workers being women, there is an opportunity to upskill them through energy efficiency training, and improve equality and inclusion in the Sri Lankan workforce.