Group director, Nikhil Hirdaramani

Group director, Nikhil Hirdaramani

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Sri Lanka is long-recognised as a pioneer in innovation and sustainability, with manufacturing giant Hirdaramani Group one of those championing the cause. Group director Nikhil Hirdaramani believes this track record will be key as the world adjusts to the new normal post-pandemic, with sustainability one of the key pillars of doing business.

Operating in six countries across multiple sectors including apparel, leisure, retail and IT, family-owned manufacturing giant Hirdaramani Group has come a long way since its inception as a sole retail store in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo in the 1900s. The company now employs over 55,000 people and is one of the world's largest manufacturers of jeans.

Despite having to halt production during national coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdowns, the company's operations across all countries – including its factories in Ethiopia, Vietnam and Bangladesh – are now up-and-running again.

Circular Innovation

Sri Lanka has long been recognised for setting the benchmark when it comes to sustainable and ethical production, and Hirdaramani Group has played a leading role in achieving this.

Back in 2008, the company built its first eco-factory 'Mihila,' which was awarded CarbonNeutral certification in 2012 – making it the first apparel plant in Asia to achieve this accolade. In addition to being carbon-neutral in its production, this facility marks the origins of recycling for the company and now sends zero waste to landfill.

This quest for sustainability across its manufacturing facilities and processes is in line with what group director Nikhil Hirdaramani believes will be the new normal as a result of the impact of Covid-19. A renewed focus on sustainability "will be one of the key pillars of doing business," he explains.

He also sees protective clothing as "an opportunity to expand our current product portfolio. We will also explore more functional elements in our products in line with the changing consumer preferences." A post-pandemic shift in consumer behaviour is likely to include a focus on personal health and wellbeing, with a skew towards fabrics and garments with functional characteristics such as self-cleaning, self-sterilising, anti-microbial and anti-viral.

A case in point is the 'Hirdaramani Discovery Lab' (HDL) – an all-in-one hub for denim innovation, design and product development – that was launched late last year.

Located in Maharagama, Colombo, the initial aim of the state-of-the-art innovation centre was on developing 'green jeans' thanks to its in-house design, sample sewing, washing and finishing, and fabric sourcing capabilities to provide end-to-end solutions for the company's customer base. But now, the Lab has a renewed focus on protective clothing under the tagline 'Safety, in style.'

"We understand the need for safety in terms of protective coatings – anti-viral, anti-bacterial – but we do not need to compromise fashion while doing so," Hirdaramani explains.

The facility is also set to contribute "immensely" towards the apparel industry in Sri Lanka, in promoting a circular economy. "Circularity must start at the design stage as 80% of the responsible decisions in the apparel manufacturing process are made at this stage. This ensures products are better made to last longer incorporating recycled material. Even when using organic material, we try to be one step ahead.

"We are in an era that is driven by innovation and much of it is owed to disruption in the tech space. We need to also appreciate the work done by a multitude of recycling technology companies for their vision to make fashion sustainable."

Hirdaramani says the company's efforts in circularity are not only limited to apparel or design but could also reach grassroots level around which "a national development framework" can be built. He is also studying the commercialisation aspect of circularity.

As part of these efforts, the company last year partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) on its 'Make Fashion Circular' and 'Jeans Redesign' initiatives. In September, Hirdaramani hosted key representatives from the Foundation to discuss how the fashion industry should shift towards a circular economy.

Transforming a vision

"Our primary objective is to ensure we embrace sustainability at all levels of operations," Hirdaramani explains.

The group is using its 2025 Strategy to "transform" this vision into action, opening up to working with stakeholders with "a genuine interest in research and the progressive development of sustainable fashion." With their input, the aim is to tackle some of the challenges of creating sustainable fashion, which can often relate to cost, technology, traceability and consumer awareness.

"These are the kind of things being looked at now, so there are a lot of wheels in motion at the moment in terms of how we can address them. But there is definitely a vibe on circularity at the moment, no doubt about that."

The technology needed to address those challenges, however, is where the industry is lacking, Hirdaramani says. This can include 3D fitting and sampling software, which helps eliminate the need for physical samples. Virtual meetings are also taking place due to travel restrictions around Covid-19. 

"We really need to get the technology right. There is a lot of interest in developing the technology, but it is still quite raw, and it's got to be commercialised."

He explains: "We might be perceived to be in a recession in years to come, and in any recession, price becomes a lot more important – survival – so we need to work on being able to produce more clothing at the same price. That's why technology needs to be developed to be able to do that."

A change in purchasing behaviour amongst the millennial generation is already helping to push circularity, but Hirdaramani says more governments need to get involved in actioning policy. 

Engaging in the process

The Hirdaramani Group, meanwhile, continues to chart its own path in sustainable manufacturing, and its credentials are impressive. It achieved net-zero status for greenhouse gas emissions from energy across all of its factories in Sri Lanka last year. And the Suryadhanavi Rooftop Solar project, which began in 2018, has so far seen the installation of 21,000 solar panels in factories across the country – the largest installation to-date in the Sri Lankan apparel sector.

The company currently operates five Fair Trade certified facilities and has been awarded a number of certifications, including Oeko-Tex, ISO14001 and WRAP. It also holds Organic Content Standard (OCS) and Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) certifications for manufacturing and processing recycled and organic cotton.

"Sri Lanka is really setting the benchmark when it comes to sustainability," Hirdaramani says. "As ambassadors of change, the apparel sector in Sri Lanka has kept true to an ethical code of conduct, and we've fine-tuned and redeveloped our designs to meet [these] standards."

Continuing to Evolve

The focus going forward will continue to be on innovating to become more sustainable. The company is working with sportswear brands such as Asics for global marathons and the Tokyo Olympics to produce garments with recycled polyester made from PET bottles.

Tackling the linear 'take-make-waste' model is also a challenge the conglomerate is taking on, with work underway "at all different stages" from design to manufacture, including using less water, particularly in denim production.

"We are trying to use technology, so how to use 3D tools to reduce fit samples and save sample waste. We're also working on upcycling to see how we can use some of the cut fabric waste to make garments. Even with sustainable school uniforms – how do we recycle polyester? The trim is made out of waste and the buttons are recycled. There are all sorts of ways we can work on that. We have got to find a way to be commercial too but it's an exciting time."

Hirdaramani continues: "Having been involved in sustainability and with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) for the last seven years, we are beginning to see the tide is turning in terms of creating an impact. There is a lot more pressure now from all stakeholders. And we have the technology coming. That has slowed things down in the past, but now things are starting to change."

As for getting through the current crisis: "We are working together with all our partners and stakeholders as we realise the only way we will be able to get through this is by working together. The health and safety of our associates is our priority and our facilities have been modified to take this into account. There will be a new normal and we will have to be flexible and agile to be successful."