As M&S goes eco with its lingerie, our fashion director checks out their green new factory in Sri Lanka

The clothing industry has been getting a lot of bad press of late. Reports of children sewing our High Street bargains in appalling conditions.

 

The current mania for ever more disposable, ever faster fashion that is not only bad for our wallets, it’s devastating for the environment. But I am standing in a palm-filled courtyard filled with bird song in Thurulie, two hours’ drive from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and, to be honest, what I'm seeing has restored my faith in fashion as a force for good.

I am in the world’s first 100 per cent carbon neutral, 100 per cent green, 100 per cent ethical factory.

Funded and built by Marks & Spencer in partnership with a local, award-winning manufacturer called, confusingly, MAS, this temple to sustainability is about to produce the world’s first eco underwear: the Per Una organic cotton bra, at £14, with matching knickers at £6, available in shops in January. 

There are 'cool roofs', which reflect the sun. There are huge windows that magically let in natural light, but keep heat out. There is rainwater harvesting, which has reduced water consumption by 50 per cent, and Sri Lanka's biggest array of solar panels, reducing electricity consumption by 40 per cent. And staggeringly, every single one of the workers has a view of palm trees and the natural lake with its lily pads, flocks of pelicans and the mountains beyond.

I am taken on a tour of the effluent treatment works – my, fashion can be so glamorous – that convert waste into drinking water, and am shocked to learn that of all the garment manufacturers in the world, only M&S insists each of its factories treats its waste.

Instead of air conditioning there is an ingenious system called 'evaporative cooling', which uses 75 per cent less energy.

'The building had to work,' says Vidhura Ralapanawe, the super-enthusiastic manager of sustainability. 'We couldn’t have perspiration on the clothes.'

The factory, that will soon be making a high percentage of all M&S undies, was opened in April this year by Sir Stuart Rose, executive chairman of Marks & Spencer.

Early in 1997, having watched An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary about climate change, he came up with Plan A ('because there is no plan B'): a five-year, 100-point initiative to take the lead on environmental and ethical issues. Much has already been achieved: food carrier bag usage is down by 80 per cent; 70 million coat hangers have been recycled (staff are now trained to say, 'Can I recycle your hanger for you?' as they wrap your purchases); 90 per cent of food packaging is recyclable; fairtrade cotton sales are up 105 per cent; the 'Wash at 30’ campaign has saved over 50,000 tonnes of CO2.

M&S already bans leather from India because of its ethical and environmental issues, has recently inspected its cashmere farms in inner Mongolia (I’d have preferred M&S to inspect first, buy later), and is committed to changing all its pork to free range.  This building is a big, shiny (not that shiny; as well as the 'cool roofs' there are 'green roofs', covered in vegetation) culmination of the brand’s commitment to trading fairly.

They are very into 'empowerment' here. Women, who make up 90 per cent of the 915 workforce, are encouraged to maintain a good work life balance, and to climb their way up the career ladder: a third of management are female. The factory has deliberately been built in a rural area, so that employees can remain in their villages.

Wages are 35 per cent more than the minimum: the monthly package (including social security contributions, free breakfast, a free health clinic and counseling, a transport allowance) starts at 10,480 Sir Lankan Rupees, which is about £58 (teachers here earn about £36 per month).

Walking round the factory floor, instead of the endless monotonous production 'lines' there are 'cells', each with 24 members, who take it in turns to be cutters, machinists, packers, thus avoiding boredom.

Pregnant women, who wear white scarves for easy identification, are given lighter work loads, special food and 84 days’ paid maternity leave. There are three employees with disabilities (M&S started an initiative to employ disabled people in Asia in 2004). There is no one here under the age of 16.

What I found incredible was that whereas in West we might moan about having to recycle, about not flying abroad on holiday, the people I meet in Sri Lanka, at the sharp end of climate change, are committed to helping solve a problem they didn’t even create. Factory worker Sudhammika Herath, 27, says she finds working in the eco factory 'less hot, much more cheerful. And I take what I learn here home: I recycle, I never waste water'.

When I tell Krishan Hundal, head of technology for clothing, home and beauty and who is giving me a guided tour, that it all seems too good to be true, and ask how on Earth such practices can be economical, he explains that 'Plan A, 22 months in, is cost neutral: we put money in the budget to pay for it but we just haven’t used it.

'There is less waste, because quality is second to none; we retain our highly skilled staff, and there is less absenteeism, because people feel part of something, that the business belongs to them, that we care'.

If it makes such sound economic sense, why don’t more brands follow suit? 'Already, others are interested. The factory has just been visited by Unilever, and by several Chinese firms. But, yes, the majority of brands don’t care: they think in the short term, aren’t overly concerned about quality.'

M&S uses two other eco factories. The second, about an hour’s drive away, which makes casual clothing, has just been converted to green, and is the first in the world to receive the top-level certification for energy efficiency and overall environmental impact awarded by the US Green Building Council.

A third has just opened in Westbridge, Wales, producing furniture. When I ask Krishan Hundal how he can know that the remaining factories around the world come up to scratch if not in a green sense at least in the way they treat workers he says simply, 'We don’t sub-contract. We have 24 full-time Ethical Compliance Managers whose job it is to inspect the factories that work with us. We know every aspect of our supply chain.'

M&S produces a guide to best practice in 14 languages, shares knowledge and if a factory does fall short 'we stick around and help,' says Krishan Hundal. 'We give them a final warning. We don’t cut and run.'

When I point out that many High Street brands at the bottom end of the market often say they share production lines with M&S, he says this is just not true: 'Less than 1 per cent of our factories are used by other labels.'

But I am worried that the devastating effects of the current economic downturn – last week, M&S’s sales figures made gloomy reading: in the period April to September 2008, adjusted profit before tax was £297.8m, 34 per cent less than in the same period last year – will push the environment to the bottom of the agenda of even the most caring companies.

When I put this point to Stuart Rose at the end of last week, he assured me that, 'Plan A remains an absolute a priority - it’s an integral part of the way we do business. It might be a challenging time in the economy but Plan A makes us think about new ways of working.  We know customers expect us to take a lead on ethical and environmental issues, and we will continue to do so.'

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