Companies in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam facing up to sustainability

Companies in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam facing up to sustainability

Sustainability improvements in the Asian outsourced clothing and textile sector are far from being the sole preserve of China, with companies in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam facing up to the issue.

In Cambodia, Tonlé, a sustainable garment-making firm based in Phnom Penh, obtains 90% of its fabric from factory off-cuts and 10% through sustainable suppliers to make a zero-waste clothing line.

When "an average garment company wastes 40% of material, Tonlé wastes only 2-3%, but even this waste is used to make our own recycled papers, bringing waste to zero," said the firm’s creative director and founder, Rachel Faller.

The company makes around 2,000 garments monthly, including T-shirts, jersey dresses, scarves, and tote bags with 50 employees paid above the Cambodian industry average. It caters to a growing international market in the US and Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Europe, says Faller. At its heart, Tonlé wants to make "easy-to-wear clothing that people actually want to buy, while producing in a zero-waste model at the same time," she explained.

Elsewhere in Cambodia, Samatoa is an eco-friendly garment company that uses fibres in the lotus flower’s stem to make a unique line of clothing for the international market. The lotus fabric resembles a blend of linen and silk, but according to Samatoa founder Awen Delaval, is better because it is "soft and wrinkle free and very breathable, making it comfortable to wear in summer." The company produces around 50 metres of lotus fabric per month to make scarves, trousers, and jackets, of which 99% are sold to Hong Kong, Singapore and the US.

Samatoa provides "decent working conditions and with perfect respect for the environment," Delaval said. Among other natural fibres used are silk fabric, kapok fabric, banana fibre fabric, and organic cotton fabric.

Eco-friendly factory
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the Hirdaramani Group operates a custom built eco-friendly apparel factory called Hirdaramani Knit Mihila, in Agalawatta, 70 kilometres southeast of Colombo. The company has spearheaded a range of initiatives at the plant to promote sustainability and ethical practice in the clothing manufacturing sector.

Chamara De Silva, general manager for operations at the Mihila factory, told just-style: "We don’t just dump waste into the environment. As a green factory we have to set an example."

The factory follows the internationally-recognised ‘three Rs’ concept: reduce, reuse and recycle. Mihila segregates all forms of waste into fabrics, food, polythene and water. Some food waste is given to a piggery, while remaining plant food waste and tealeaves are turned into organic fertiliser to feed trees.

Mihila also treats wastewater in a special treatment plant and then uses it to flush toilets, while the polythene utilised by the factory is sent back to source companies for recycling.

"We segregate the fabrics into two groups – polyester and cotton – which are handed over to companies that have obtained environment protection licenses. These companies recycle the polyester into polyester pellets which are exported to China and Malaysia to manufacture interior dash boards of cars," De Silva explained.

The cotton fabrics are also sent to China and Malaysia, to be recycled into yarn. Mihila even sends back the thread cones to the supplier, for the thread to be rewound.

Taking its toll
In Vietnam, which with US$21bn worth of garment exports in 2014 has become the world’s fifth largest clothing supplier, garment production is leaving its toll on the environment, despite the sector still being mainly about cut-and-sew.

While the increasing number of dyeing and finishing units in the country brings more pollution, the issue has been poorly addressed. "The Vietnamese government and trade associations have not launched any initiatives for clothing makers’ sustainability," a well-informed garment manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh City explained.

In 2005, Vietnam implemented its current Law on Environmental Protection, controlling private sector industries.

But application of the law has been slow. In the Red River Delta region around the capital city of Hanoi, only 30% of industrial wastewater is treated, leaving water supplies at the mercy of the remaining 70%, according to the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Observers believe this hands-off approach in terms of sustainability has been attracting polluting companies from China, where the government’s environmental agencies come too close for comfort.

"China is not building that many factories because the new normal requires spinners, weavers and dyers to be less polluting," said Mike Flanagan, CEO of Clothesource, a UK-based consultancy firm. "Many of them believe it will get easier if they invest in Vietnam because they believe the Vietnamese care less about pollution."

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With additional reporting by Poorna Rodrigo, Munza Mushtaq and Mandy Kovacs.