The time for us to build a sustainable future is now

  • CFW hosts its sixth annual Responsible Fashion Summit

Yesterday (8) saw the sixth edition of Colombo Fashion Week’s (CFW) Responsible Fashion Summit take place at the Shangri-La Colombo in a respectful and responsible fashion. Held both physically and virtually, this year’s Summit saw a small number of physical attendees with a large number of people tuning in via livestream to watch the series of thought-provoking panels put together by the team at CFW. 

This edition of the Responsible Fashion Summit was proudly presented by CFW in partnership with JAAF/Sri Lanka Apparel and Star Garments. The main theme of this year’s Responsible Fashion Summit was “Circularity in Action”, with a view to discuss circularity, its impact on Sri Lankan, fashion, and how Sri Lanka’s fashion and apparel industries need to be pivoting to meet the demands of an ever-more-discerning and responsibility-driven customer. 

Addressing the gathering, CFW Founder and Managing Director Ajai Vir Singh shared that this year’s Summit had been curated to provide enriching knowledge with a range of speakers and panel discussions tackling and discussing the issues that face both the global and local apparel industry. “Circularity is a hotly trending word,” Singh said, adding that while Sri Lanka may not be able to achieve circularity as a whole yet, it is his hope that moves like the Responsible Fashion Summit will allow people to gain knowledge and build positive impact as we go forward.

Circularity and design

Panel on circularity in design from left: Moderator Dr. Mihirini De Zoysa, Hirdaramani Group Head of Design Piyumi Perera, MAS Active Trading Senior Designer Arjuna Hettikankanam, while Inqube Global Vice President – Design David Abraham joined virtually

The first panel discussion of the Summit, “Impact of Circularity in Design”, discussed the role that design plays in achieving circularity. The panel was moderated by Dr. Mihirini De Zoysa and featured Hirdaramani Group Head of Design Piyumi Perera, MAS Active Trading Senior Designer Arjuna Hettikankanam, and Inqube Global Vice President – Design and Indian label Abraham and Thakore Co-Founder David Abraham.

Perera discussed circularity in the context of developing jeans, explaining that as a company, the Hirdaramani Group has been working towards making jeans circular garments for several years, a process that has required them to look at jeans entirely differently.

Explaining some of the core principles of circularity, Perera shared that, broadly, circularity rests on designing pollution and waste out of the manufacturing process, extending product life cycles, and considering what happens once a product is discarded, and rejuvenating natural systems.

Perera and Hettikankanam both shared that designers have a very important role to play in achieving circularity by embracing new technologies and methodologies, from the use of new fibres and fabrics to cleaner manufacturing technology and processes.

The panel also explained that circularity, while relatively never thought about as discussed a few years ago, is quickly becoming a key decision-making factor in the minds of consumers, especially the new generation, and designers need to adopt the same mindset of responsibility to be ready for the future.

Abraham, as someone behind a niche brand, highlighted the importance of heritage crafts, and age-old techniques, noting that there are old skills and techniques, some of which have been around for centuries, that are very applicable and relevant in the context of circularity, especially when considering the impact it has on societies and livelihoods as well as on the environment.

The first third of the Summit also included a conversation with Mi Terro Co-Founder and CEO Robert Luo, a Forbes Under 30 scholar, Green Biz “30 Under 30” honouree, and Global Shaker’s Sustainable Fashion Innovator 2019.

In a segment titled “Food-Based Waste into Fabric”, Luo took the audience through the story behind his venture Mi Terro, which repurposes food waste like spoiled milk and beer by-products (as just two examples) to create biodegradable, ocean degradable, and home compostable packaging materials and textiles. Mi Terro extracts the protein from food waste to create items like yarn and packaging that can be used as alternatives to non-biodegradable products and single-use plastics.

Circularity, supply chains, and the importance of standardisation

Panel on standardising sustainable SMEs from left: Moderator and MAS Holdings Senior Business Analyst Chathushka De Alwis, CFW Founder/Managing Director Ajai Vir Singh, Independent Quality Management Professional Didul Kodagoda, HSBC Sri Lanka Head of Marketing and Communications Tharanga Gunasekera, and CHARINI Founder Charini Suriyage

The second third of the Summit focused on the relationship between supply chains and circularity, the role of standardisation and certification in driving circularity locally and globally, and developments in textile innovation that can bring us closer to circularity. 

Moderated by MAS Holdings Senior Business Analyst Chathushka De Alwis, the first panel discussion in this segment – “Readiness, Challenges, and Opportunities Regarding Circularity in Fashion Supply Chains” – featured Hela Clothing Strategic Brands Director Nissanga Warnapura and MAS Holdings Sustainable Product Lead Pasindu Samarakkody.

Sharing his perspective on supply chains and circularity, Warnapura said that big retailers have set their own ambitious circularity targets in response to the current climate, and apparel manufacturers need to shift in order to meet these new demands from their clients, and in order to do this, manufacturers will need to rework their supply chains.

Samarakkody added that there are challenges to be overcome before circularity can become a mainstream concept, and for this to be overcome, all sectors of the industry will come together and make a combined effort to be circular at all steps of the manufacturing process, from design (most products are simply not designed to be recyclable) to finance. He also said that the industry as a whole needs to work together to deal with the waste they produce and work towards circularity together as a larger whole.

Warnapura shared that the supply chain can be used to manipulate clients and consumers towards sustainability and circularity by introducing circular concepts into its products in stages and acclimatising customers to the importance of circularity so that they understand why circular products will cost more and be more willing to invest in the concept.

The panel also discussed the role of financial reporting and finance teams in achieving circularity with Samarakkody explaining that MAS Holdings, for example, has set an internal goal of generating 50% of its total revenue through sustainable products by 2025 and that this goal is considered in all financial reporting and decision making, noting that most of the time finance doesn’t connect to sustainability, looking instead at the bottom line, but an understanding of sustainability at the financial decision-making level will trickle down to companies as a whole becoming more sustainable.

Another panel, “Influence of Circularity in Textile Innovation”, also moderated by De Alwis, sat down with Eco Spindles CEO Nalaka Senaviratna, Purfi Global CEO Joy Nunn, Plexus-Cotton Head of Marketing Paige Earlam, and Stretchline Holdings Chief Operating Officer Moyne Perera. The panel discussed how textile innovation needs to consider circularity, with Senaviratna explaining how Eco Spindles works with post-consumer waste PET bottles to develop yarn from this plastic waste.

Panel on fashion supply chains from left: Moderator Chathushka De Alwis, MAS Holdings Sustainable Product Lead Pasindu Samarakkody, and Hela Clothing Strategic Brands Director Nissanga Warnapura

Fernando explained how Stretchline takes steps to be circular and minimise water use in how they dye their fabrics, and, Earlam, speaking from a textile fibre point of view, explained how 100% cotton has lost much of its market share in favour of other fabrics, but this is slowly changing with more varieties of natural fibres for fabric making such as fish skin, banana fibre, and hemp showing up more and more frequently in the marketplace. 

Nunn also discussed pioneering different fibres, sharing that Purfi Global has over 20 patents in fibre-development technology and is looking for partners around the world to help make these alternative sustainable fibres become more mainstream.

Wrapping up the discussions on supply chains and standardisation with regard to circularity was a panel featuring CFW Founder and Managing Director Ajai Vir Singh, HSBC Sri Lanka Head of Marketing and Communications Tharanga Gunasekera, Independent Quality Management Professional Didul Kodagoda, and fashion label CHARINI Founder Charini Suriyage.

The panel, “Climate of Standardising Sustainable Design-Based SMEs and Introducing the Responsible Metre”, saw the panel discuss the need for circularity and sustainability standards, especially with Sri Lanka’s SME’s, both to encourage SMEs to be more sustainable and to deter them from ecologically harmful practices.

Discussing CFW’s Responsible Metre and how it works towards holding Sri Lankan designer brands accountable for the sustainability of each of their products, Singh explained that Responsible Metre is a 10-point (a roughly 70%:30% ecological:societal split) system that tracks every product out forward for CFW and assign it a responsibility score. Singh stressed that the Responsible Metre is not about highlighting shortcomings but encouraging sustainable growth, sharing that encourages CFW designers to strive to achieve a minimum score of 1 on the Responsible Metre.

Points of view and a message of sustainability to build a secure future

The Responsible Fashion Summit wrapped up with presentations by MAS Holdings Environmental Sustainability Director Sharika Senanayake and Indian designer Tarun Tahiliani.

Senanayake presented “Detoxing Fashion”, a sobering presentation on the vast number of chemicals used in fashion and the impact these chemicals have on our environment and on us once they find their way into our waterways and into our systems, often slowly poisoning us and making us more prone to conditions like cancer.

Tahiliani presented his perspective of luxury in the pandemic, highlighting how Tarun Tahiliani as a brand really focused on supporting communities during the pandemic and working in local Indian craft into their luxury fashion offerings.

Panel on textile innovation from left: Moderator and MAS Holdings Senior Business Analyst Chathushka De Alwis and Eco Spindles CEO Nalaka Senaviratna, while other panellists joined virtually

We find ourselves at a very powerful time in our history when it comes to history. The United Nations (UN) had declared the 2020s a decade of action in fighting the impacts of climate change. Just last week we saw COP26 – the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference – take place, highlighting that failure to act now will imply failure down the road to leave behind a sustainable planet for those who come after us.

Fashion is one of the world’s biggest industries, and will always remain so – it caters to one of our most basic needs, clothing. It is, however, also, one of our most damaging industries, and one of the most powerful messages this year’s Responsible Fashion Summit imparted is that if the fashion industry, locally and globally, does not course-correct, it is going to leave in its wake a destroyed planet, and with it, destroyed people.