Aspiring to have a net zero carbon footprint requires a transition towards a low carbon economy, which is easier said than done. While the move necessitates in-depth analysis, changing energy resources and industrial processes, amongst other areas of focus, a key aspect that needs emphasis is change management.
The Star Garments group is one such entity that embarked on a bold journey of reducing its impact on the environment and has made being carbon neutral a top priority. The entity, which recently became Carbon Neutral certified, is a world-class apparel sourcing, design and manufacturing company and is determined
to step up its efforts in conserving nature.
Mirror Business recently sat down with Star Garments Group Managing Director A. Sukumaran, who provided fine insights into the group’s new focus, its determination and aspiration in reducing its carbon footprint.
Following are the experts from the interview.
‘‘We do not see being carbon neutral as the end goal; rather we are focused on maintaining this status while bringing down our carbon footprint year-on-year
Star Garments Group Managing Director A. Sukumaran
Pic by Nimalsiri Edirisinghe
Could you provide a brief snapshot of the group and its position in the industry among its peers?
Star Garments was founded in 1978 by a US company, with the objective of capitalising on Sri Lanka shifting to an open economy. Star was the first apparel manufacturer to be set up in Katunayake, Sri Lanka’s first export processing zone.
Starting with a humble beginning of one factory and 300 employees, the company grew to six factories and 5,000 employees by the year 2015. We were and continue to be a key apparel exporter to major markets in the USA and Europe.
Star’s ownership changed hands in 2016 with the acquisition of Star by Charles Komar and Sons Inc., a US-based global leader in design, marketing, sourcing, manufacturing and distribution. This acquisition enabled us to expand our operations, drive innovation and use state-of-the-art technology.
Komar’s worldwide expertise and infrastructure synergised with Star’s skill and talent was the ideal formula for success and further growth. Since 2016, Star’s skill set and Komar’s vision have seen the firm grow to 10 manufacturing facilities with an employee base of over 8,000 people.
Komar is an industry leader for sleepwear, intimates, kids and layering brands. The company is proud to represent nearly 100 lifestyle brands and licences through its retail partners who sell worldwide. Having a network of factories in 12 different countries, sourcing partners in Hong Kong and distribution centres in the US, Europe and Canada, Komar was able to steer Star towards the ideal path.
‘‘Ethical and responsible business practices are inherent in our culture, including the importance of operating a sustainable company. We, at Star, decided that we needed to take tangible and meaningful action to take account for and to compensate for our own company’s contribution to global warming
How has the group contributed to the ethical standard and initiatives along those lines in the industry?
Star’s ethical practices focus on two different aspects: community and environment. When I say community, I refer to the people we employ and the communities around which our factories are located. Star adheres to the strictest labour standards and is proud to uphold Sri Lanka’s reputation as a ‘no sweatshop, ethical environment for a highly educated and multicultural workforce’.
Further, we offer comprehensive programmes meant to uplift our workforce and their quality of living. From executive and management development programmes that empower our employees to the ‘Star Sisudhiri Scholarship’ programme offered to children of our employees, we go above and beyond in ensuring a humane, pleasant workplace, where productivity prospers and people are happy. In terms of environment, we are committed towards becoming an icon of sustainability.
Star Garments was recently certified as Carbon Neutral. What drove that effort?
Every news cycle today tends to be dominated with the impact of climate change. So much so that it has sadly become part of everyday life. In the wake of these events, we, at Star, put our heads together to determine what we, as a manufacturer, can do to minimise our contribution towards the deterioration of the planet we live in.
We realised that we can no longer sit back and passively observe the impact we were having on the planet we live in. So, therefore, with the full support of the management team, we brought forward our commitment on greenhouse gases by over three years, from 2023 to 2020 and we commissioned a comprehensive greenhouse gas assessment of all our factories and offices by The Carbon Consulting Company.
Having commissioned the assessment we took a step further and decided to completely offset our carbon footprint and commit towards maintaining this status in the future while bringing down our year-on-year carbon emissions.
What measures and changes were made to accommodate that?
Ethical and responsible business practices are inherent in our culture, including the importance of operating a sustainable company. We, at Star, decided that we needed to take tangible and meaningful action to take account for and to compensate for our own company’s contribution to global warming.
We altered our strategic plan to have a positive impact first and then reworked it to constantly target improved environmental metrics. We have set some ambitious goals and have obtained the buy in of all levels of the company to ensure that they are successful. Star’s outstanding achievement is the result of collaboration, managerial focus and the desire to do business in a positive way.
The most important change we have seen as an organisation is a commitment from all levels to be considerate about the environmental impact of every decision we make. This varies from thinking twice about something as simple as taking a printout to management-led initiatives like becoming carbon neutral. I think a good example of buy in from all levels is the group’s reduction in paper usage by 20 percent over the last year.
Having embarked on such efforts, what are the implications observed on the bottom line?
At Star, we believe that sustainable initiatives are not measured based on their bottom line implication; rather it should be measured based on the social cost negated through the contribution we make towards making this planet we live in sustainable. That is why we are committed towards doing the best we can to minimise and negate our impact on the environment irrespective of the financial cost involved. We see this as our responsibility towards the planet we live in.
Further, the worldwide consumer perception on sustainability has been shifting over the years, with increased awareness, more information being shared and more questions being asked; transparency has become an important element of how an apparel company operates.
We believe that our consumers and conscientious global brands want us to be greener and cleaner and these important steps we have taken in the right direction will not only help us leverage ourselves and stand out but also establish and cement global partnerships.
Where is the room for improvement in this regard?
One of our brand pillars is ‘being curious’ and we are constantly improving ourselves through learning. While this can be challenging at times, it is something we engage in enthusiastically. The group’s strategic sustainability focus remains on improving the sustainability metrics of our manufacturing operations and building design.
We have set an ambitious goal of obtaining the LEED certification for three of our facilities by 2021 and even further to have LEED certifications for all other Star-owned factories by 2024. The Star group will also benchmark ourselves against the HIGG Index (an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain) developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
With regards to sustainable initiatives, we do not see an end as such; rather we see a journey of continuous environment. We do not see being carbon neutral as the end goal; rather we are focused on maintaining this status while bringing down our carbon footprint year-on-year. The only way we can achieve this is through conscientious business practices that focus on the environmental impact of decisions at every stage of the process.
Why do you think it is important more companies follow these steps?
The ever-increasing impacts of climate change through human activity and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate is now a daily newsworthy event. Companies, as significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions should use our global scope of resources to support responsible climate action.
This duty and responsibility to protect the environment that we rely on for our operations should begin by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses. Climate change is real and is happening right in front of our eyes. It’s imperative that companies take accountability for our actions.
Future plans along these lines?
For us, now that we have taken the first step, it is to improve ourselves day by day, year by year. We will continue to explore ways to reduce our carbon emission further. A number of initiatives are being taken. Currently three factories are LEED certified and our goal is that by 2024, to have all our 10 factories to be LEED certified. That will make a substantial impact.
Also the end consumers are well aware, informed and so demand for their produce in processes and methods that are ethical and sustainable. In a world that is increasingly becoming transparent, we need to stay ahead and deliver.
Certainly change management would have been one of the key areas towards being more sustainable. What efforts were taken to facilitate the transition?
In the past, typically our five-year plans have been all about numbers. There was the social side of it as well but sustainability was not in focus until recently. We made sure that our latest five-year plan has sustainability as one of the key objectives.
For each of our objective, we have a group of people, across all levels, who are educated on what this entire means. Certainly our people didn’t buy into it 100 percent initially but an impact was made. We took a step at a time and we have come this far.
Where do you suppose Sri Lanka stands amongst its regional peers in this regard?
In the apparel sector, Sri Lanka does not have a competitive advantage on its own since we depend on imported raw materials, our labour is not as competitive as other countries and a few other reasons. However, we have been successful in increasing our years. Reason being, we, as an industry, have always looked at ways in creating
a competitive advantage.
With our innovative efforts, we have always been ahead of the curve. Now the buzz word is sustainability. There are many factories that have embarked on this journey before us. The difference between them and us is that they have only some of their factories carbon neutral while we have all.
With us, our clientele doesn’t have to pick and choose. I am sure many companies will move in that direction. My personal take is that Sri Lanka has to benchmark on this and I am positive it will happen.
Any advice for your peers embarking on this initiative so that the entire local apparel sector would stand to benefit?
This is not a choice. There is no escaping this. No question of whether we should or should not do. We need to ensure that we reduce our carbon footprint. So, if everyone starts doing that, eventually we will make a difference. We all have to wake up for the sake of the future generation.