Sustainability through responsible production 

  • In conversation with Leonie Vaas 

By Imesh Ranasinghe 

In June 2021, The United Nations Global Compact announced 10 new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Pioneers and among the 10 pioneers, Leonie Vaas was announced as the SDG Pioneer for Responsible Production for her extraordinary work at Hayleys Fabric PLC as the Manager of Sustainability and Innovations. 

SDG Pioneer is one of the prestigious awards given by the UN for the outstanding sustainable leaders and this was the first time a Sri Lankan was awarded it. Her achievement paved a new way for sustainability in Sri Lanka, teaching the lesson that anyone with the passion as her and the desire to do the best for the environment could lead to many good things. 

Vaas who is an alumnus of Gothami Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo is a chemical engineer by profession, awarded by the Engineering Council, UK. She has completed an MBA awarded by Cardiff Metropolitan UK, an Electrical and Electronic Engineering Diploma from City and Guild UK, and is currently following a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt programme. She is also the lead auditor for the environment management system, a professional sustainable manager, and a visiting lecturer on sustainable areas, while conducting educational programmes on environmental sustainability for kids. 

In an interview with The Sunday Morning Business, she said more than the recognition by the UN, she wanted to do something better for the environment. “Because I always believe if we do good to nature or the society it will give back the best,” she stated. 

She added that through her achievement, her company Hayleys as well as the country was recognised for sustainable solutions. 

Vaas said although Sri Lankan manufacturers did not focus on sustainability earlier but rather on profits and other financial benefits, the scope has changed now especially among textile and apparel manufacturers as sustainability is now considered as one of their top priorities. The reason for this, she said, is due to the sustainability commitment of the brands they are providing for. 

“Hayleys Fabric is mainly working for the sports, apparel and lingerie brands which are top class brands based in North America and Europe, so they are really concerned about sustainability in terms of the process and the products. As the pioneer of sustainability in Sri Lanka, Hayleys Group is concerned about the main three pillars of sustainability,” she added. 

Speaking of the people who helped her achieve this feat, Vaas said Hayleys Group Chairman Mohan Pandithage and Hayleys Fabric Managing Director Rohan Gunatilake provided their utmost support and leadership, and she would not have been able to achieve it without that. She also thanked her office colleagues, parents, husband and her son for their support. 

Her work at Hayley Fabric 

“When I was appointed as the Manager for Sustainability and Innovations at Hayleys Fabric it was a really challenging task, I took a step further in my professional career at Hayleys Fabric. I was able to develop many initiatives on sustainable production modules and innovative solutions,” she said of her workplace experience. 

She added that she initially analysed the impacts and the possibilities to develop and looked into innovative and sustainable modules with new systems. This was done mainly with eco-friendly material to make the production cycle much greener and profitable at the same time. 

Further, she said efforts were taken to minimise waste which can be used for reusing and recycling purposes, less energy consumption for production and to reduce water and soil contamination through eco-friendly and ethical mechanisms, aligning the business and industry to the sustainable development goals. 

Explaining the five areas she focused on in terms of environmental sustainability which helped her to be identified as a SDG pioneer, she said the first target was to achieve net zero emission to address and reduce the carbon footprint of the factory. 

“Mainly, I focused on how to reduce carbon footprint on Scope One and Two emissions. Also, I led the project to commit for the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTI) which is basically aligned with the Paris Agreement to limit the global temperature rising by 1.5 Celsius degrees,” she said. 

The second area was water management, where she conducted several projects to improve the effluent treatment plant at Hayleys Fabric by coming up with suggestions on sludge management. She noted that there are some ongoing projects now to minimise the sludge generation during the manufacturing process and some other projects to reduce the water footprint. 

The third area is to enhance the biodiversity and the green belt by planning tree planting programmes, which she has already been able to complete three programmes during the pandemic. 

The fourth area is the training and team building programme. “I believe to establish good sustainable progress in a company we need two commitments which are the commitments by the top management and the bottom layer involvement,” she explained. 

Under her guidance, Hayleys Fabric has already been able to conduct several physical and virtual training programmes to develop the knowledge of the operators on sustainability, reduction of energy and carbon footprint. 

The final area of her focus was innovation of sustainable products, which for the past 12 years, she has worked on in the textile industry. 

She was able to innovate products following sustainability rules such as eco engineering principles, biomimicry for design, and circular economy. “From the start of the innovation process, we are planning to give the lowest impact to the environment from our products and innovations,” she noted. 

On the importance of sustainability for businesses, she said even though many small and medium manufacturers are not keen on investing in sustainability due to lack of short-term benefits, the manufacturers could recover their investments in the long run and could take their businesses to the next level. 

Climate change and Sri Lanka 

Commenting on climate change, Vaas said that the pandemic cannot be considered as an obstacle or an excuse to address climate change as it is an imminent requirement the world needs to fulfil. 

“Although we have limited understanding on the extent the world will be threatened by global warming and climate change, we will continue to experience its implications,” she said. She pointed out that the world and as a country, everyone should be looking to reduce the use of coal as an energy source to reduce the GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emissions which are directly related to climate change. 

Moreover, she said as responsible corporations, the industries need to identify and adopt more sustainable ways of life to their business modules and industrial structure to reduce impacts and to promote long-term resilience for climate change. 

Sri Lanka as a country committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement, and with a national plan act on climate emergency has somewhat to execute and respond to them. 

“We have to educate people on this as many don’t know what is meant by climate crisis or global warming. I would like to join hands with the Government as the SDG pioneer to establish more solutions to achieve sustainability,” she added.