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Inside Sri Lanka M&S supplier's 'green' factory
18 May, 2008 05:55:34
By Harshani Weerasinghe
May 18, 2008 (LBO) - Built on the naturally sloping ground inside the 180-acre Thulhiriya Fabric Park, north of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, surrounded by patches of greenery and pools of water stands a building.
At first glance, the MAS group's new lingerie factory that manufactures exclusively for Marks and Spencer looks like any other.

But the plant is a 'green factory' inspired by Marks and Spencer’s five year plan to make their operations more environmentally friendly.

The company says the green surroundings of the factory helps to reduce the overall temperature by two to three degrees.

Eco Transformation

Neil Hackett, former Country Director for Marks & Spencer, says the firm has an eco plan that would change the way that it does business over the next five years.

"By 2012 we will be carbon neutral and send no waste to land fill, extend sustainable sourcing and set new standards in ethical trading."

Hackett was addressing Sri Lankan ready made clothes makers in Colombo who are under pressure to improve their industries' environmental record.

Marks and Spencer has convinced their suppliers like Sri Lanka’s MAS Group to adopt environmentally friendlier manufacturing processes.

"One of the things they wanted us to do is to build an iconic plant which will be exceptional and M&S is already sending other manufacturers in other countries to look at it," says Vidura Ralapanawe, Sustainability Manager at MAS Intimates.

Consumers abroad increasingly care about the environment and the potential damage to it caused by things they buy.

A survey of Marks and Spencer customers found that 78 percent of them wanted to know where, how and what material went in to products they buy.

The MAS group’s new 7 million US dollar Thulhiriya factory, located at an industrial complex managed by the MAS group, was made to meet these new customer concerns.

Factory designers have gone to great lengths to minimize energy use and its environmental impact.

The firm tried to see whether it could cover the whole plant with renewable energy as opposed to the grid energy that has a 65 percent thermal component.

The plant has one of the largest solar power systems in the island which was financed by M&S, explains Ralapanawe, the Sustainability Manager at MAS Intimates.

Some of the remaining electricity needs come from a hydro plant that supplies renewable energy to the grid.

Factories use electricity mainly for air conditioning, lighting and running machinery.

Low Energy

However, the MAS factory has cut electricity use by 40 percent from levels used in a comparable plant of the same size.

In a conventional manufacturing plant half the electricity used is consumed for air conditioning due to the tin roofs used in factories that let the heat in and traps it inside.

Unlike in a conventional factory, the MAS plant uses two types of roofing to prevent the heat transfer from the roof in to the building.

"Green roof is a one with vegetation on top of it. It absorbs the heat but does not pass it inside to the building," explains Ralapanawe.

"The other is called a cool roof where we use a special roofing material on top of it that reflects solar heat as much as possible."

These high solar reflectivity roofing sheets bounce off up to 80 percent of the heat helping keep the inside cool.

Green roofs are best for office buildings with smaller span and cool roofs for factory areas.

"Green roof requires much more structural support because here you have a concrete slab, water proofing, then soil - so there is a huge weight that comes into the building."

Because the interior is cooler the factory doesn’t have air conditioning and the little heat that’s left inside is pumped out by special evaporating ducts.

The need for lighting during the day has been reduced by the large windows and the lights in the factory are either fixed to a pole that can be moved while a small LED bulb circuit is fixed on to the machines.

"We use LED lights to get the correct lux level to the needle point," says Ushaan Abeywickrema, General Manager at MAS Intimates.

"There are Individual switch-able lights. Each light can be switched on and off when we need it. The lights can be moved as they are on hooks. This gives the flexibility of moving the machines."

Natural Environment

Brighter and cooler interiors have created a comfortable working environment for the factory's 500 strong workforce.

"We feel like we’re working in a natural environment. There are trees around and good ventilation though there is no air conditioning," says Harshini Maheshika, a machine operator at the MAS Intimates factory.

Two new energy efficient buildings, already under construction, will expand the workforce by another 800 people by the end next year.

The factory, which is one of eight owned by MAS intimates and one of 28 factories under the group, also has new equipment that can reduce production time.

The factory, called 'Thurulie' (meaning trees) will treble production to 4.5 million units by the end next year with expanded capacity and higher productivity.

The production floor's open design, which helps keep the inside cool and bright, also lends it self to higher productivity.

"We made it very open so we can see if there is any problem happening any where. There is very high visibility. We also work in a just-in-time principle," says Paul Bowes, Project Director of MAS Intimates.

"That is, as the raw materials are delivered to the company, finished goods are taken to the customer at the same time."

The system is also called lean manufacturing.

"The lean manufacturing and green manufacturing go hand in hand because we are saving on resources, machines are new.

"We spent more money on construction," says Ralapanawe, the Sustainability Manager at MAS Intimates.

"Therefore we expect high efficiency through lean manufacturing that would balance out to give us a sufficient amount of return so that the actual expense is not a burden on our operations."

Marks and Spencer, who will sell the lingerie in their 600 stores across Europe, says these garments will cost the same as similar ones produced in other factories.

Ralapanawe says it would at least minimize the impact of climate change.

Customers might prefer to buy them over a similar product made at another factory because Marks and Spencer plans to put special labels identifying them.

Tackling climate change however will need many more trailblazing innovations.

"A lot of people do not know the implication of climate change to Sri Lanka," says Ralapanawe who has been involved in climate research in New York for a few years.

"There has been a shift in the climate change within the last 20 years. For example, the south west monsoon has declined by 20 percent. We actually saw some significant changes in the rain fall patterns even when we were doing the plant which actually curtailed our construction."

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