Sustainability could be explained in many different ways. Yet, for the fashion industry, sustainability means the ‘environmental protection, social justice, economic fairness and cultural validity’ (Parker, 2011, p4). Globalization and technological advancements have made a dramatic change in production and consumption patterns of the world’s fashion. This global industry started to pose many challenges for sustainability efforts as fashion has become a throw-away commodity, and rapid phase production of short-lived products have become a normality. Cultural flavour of fashion has diminished as fashion became globalized and influenced by global trends. Vast availability of cheap, low-quality clothing allows overconsumption and premature disposal of fashion products (Niinimäki, 2011).
Textile and fashion industry is well known for exploitation of resources and unsustainable manufacturing practices, where environmental and social losses are often ignored (Beard 2008; Walker, 2007). However, the growing awareness among consumers regarding the social and environmental impacts of fashion consumption has made a significant influence on the purchasing decisions towards ethical and sustainable fashion. Possible integration of craft and contemporary fashion has gained much attention in this context, mainly due to its potential contribution towards more sustainable futures (Ferraro et al., 2011). Hur and Beverley (2013) explored the role of craft in promoting sustainable fashion, in terms of both production and consumption. Cox and Bebbington (2015) insisted that craft practice and social sustainability share common aspirations, and if craft would support to meet sustainable development principles, it may help craft products to access new markets. In this regard, it is commendable that a practical approach has been taken by the Ethical Fashion Initiative, in which there is an attempt being made to connect marginalized craftspeople from developing world to the international fashion industry (International Trade Centre, 2016). It is therefore evident that the craft practices in fashion could address environment as well as other broader dimensions of sustainability, as it tends to promote the well-being of the local producers and craft communities towards a sustainable lifestyle.
Globally, Sri Lanka is recognized not only as an export-oriented fashion manufacturing base but also as a home for a rich fashion craft industry. Sri Lankan fashion craft industry, which comprises mainly of handloom, batik, beeralu and embroidery, is one of the main income generator for rural communities and differently able people. With the developmental needs of the country in the post-war era, fashion craft industry is recognized as one of the most important industries for poverty alleviation, employment generation, enhancement of rural entrepreneurship and the development of new business opportunities (Export Development Board, 2013). Gradual development of local fashion craft industry not only generates economy but also promotes sustainable production and slow consumption. Nevertheless, an increasing global demand for environmentally sustainable products holds a greater potential for expansion of the global market for craft products. However, only a limited research has been carried out to highlight the importance of fashion craft industry in the context sustainable and ethical fashion movements.
Sri Lankan handloom industry
Handloom is a traditional weaving craft, practiced by generations of artisans to make attractive textile designs. Sri Lankan handloom industry is a highly labour- incentive and a decentralized sector of which the most of the manufacturing units are located in rural areas (Export Development Board 2013). It is also an environmentally friendly, low energy-driven sector where fair-trade manufacturing practices are appreciated and encouraged (Dhingra and Dhingra, 2012). In Sri Lanka, the handloom industry maintains a significant demand since its inception, due to its cultural artefacts, heritage and design capabilities. Sri Lankan handloom textile industry reached its peak in 1970s and experienced a decline after 1978, with the onset of the open economic policies and the growth of export-oriented apparel industry sector in Sri Lanka (Gomas, 2000). However, with the raising developmental needs of the country in the post-war era, handloom industry was repositioned as one of the most important industries to launch business opportunities for the development of local economy. As handloom textiles and handcrafted products have rapidly become major lifestyle statements for both national and international consumers, this industry now carries a significant potential for expansion, employment generation with lucrative export earning opportunities.
Further, Sri Lankan handloom textiles are highly recognized both locally and internationally not only for its innovative and modern design trends entwined with traditional craftsmanship but also for its premium quality. The products are often offered to global niche markets where handcrafted items of high value are preferred. In Sri Lanka, it is estimated that around 6,500 handlooms are in operation, providing around 10,000 direct employment opportunities (Ministry of Industry and Commerce, 2012). Seven hundred seventy-one production centres are owned by provisional councils whereas 962 units scattered around the country are privately owned (Export Development Board, 2013). The industry serves both local and international markets with a wide range of product categories such as ready-made garments, soft toys, bed linen, table linen and curtain. Export markets for handloom products include Italy, Germany, Australia, France, Spain, Japan, Korea, Sweden, USA, Vietnam, Lebanon, Thailand, UK, Norway, Netherlands, etc. (Ministry of Industry and Commerce, 2012). In the year 2012, the total value of exports brought by the handloom sector was estimated as USD 870,000.
Globally, the green movement and fair labour movement are steadily getting momentum. Consumers are increasingly demanding products that are ethically made and environmentally safe (Lewis and Potter, 2011; OECD, 2008). While the modern consumers are concerned about the social and the environmental impact of the product they purchase, they incessantly criticize traditional manufacturing processes with highly pressurized production environments and poor labour conditions (Koszewzka, 2011). This shift in consumers’ mind has led to a change in buying habits towards environmentally sustainable and ethical products (Shaw et al., 2006).
Fair trade represents an ethical approach to product manufacturing. This is also an important approach to alleviate poverty in the global south while contributing to build a socially and environmentally sustainable international trade (Taylor et al., 2005; Raynolds et al., 2004; Shreck, 2002). Fair trade aims to support farmers and craftsmen who are socially and economically marginalized. Community improvement, women empowerment and mitigation of environmental impact of the production process are some of the key aspects of fair trade (Andorfer and Liebe, 2015; Bassett, 2010). Access to fair-trade business models not only guarantee higher income levels but also promote collaboration and positive cultural bond among associates. Moreover, people who engage in fair-trade supply chain add value to their own culture, their identity, environment and also to the product (Belgian Development Agency 2012). One essential feature of fair trade is to support local community to organize and operate collectively, which enhances trustworthiness among local communities. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) represents a global network of fair traders who are committed to the WFTO fair-trade standards. This network may include manufacturers and retailers who are driven by fair-trade values. They signed up to follow a set of compliance criteria based on ten fair-trade principles that focus on fair prices, good working conditions and minimizing environmental impacts (World Fair Trade Organization, 2014).
One of the key focuses of fair-trade practice is to minimize environmental impact of production. Application of sustainable production methods and reduction of waste generation are among key priorities. Waste is a growing problem associated with environmental and social impacts, which remain unresolved to date (Sinha et al. 2016). Waste can also be an indicator of an inefficient process (Pongrácz, 2009) which ultimately makes monetary lost in two stages: first when raw materials are purchased and then at the time when waste materials are discarded. Moreover, waste, when dumped in open areas, causes several environmental and health issues. It is essential to decouple the waste growth from the economic growth to minimize environmental impact and also to conserve resources. In response to the waste issue, a zero-waste approach has been committed by many industries. This is based on the central notion that prevention of waste is more desirable than treatment of waste (Greyson 2007).
According to Zero Waste International Alliance (2015), zero-waste strategy aims at designing products and processes to avoid waste, i.e. eliminations of all discharges to land, and conservation of resources. Zero-waste system reuses discarded materials to make new products. This process reduces the exploitation of natural resources, avoids pollution, and saves the environment. Textile and apparel industry uses tremendous amount of materials and energy resources and produces a massive quantity of waste, leaving a huge negative environmental impact. Therefore, achieving zero material waste is one of the greatest challenges of the apparel manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, zero waste, potentially a preventive approach, is often misunderstood as unrealistic and impossible target to achieve within the boundary of today’s economic conditions (Greyson 2007). However, if zero-waste system is properly implemented, apparel manufacturing industry could possibly convert waste into something useful and economical. Rissanen and McQuillan (2016) highlighted that the concept of zero waste in fashion design addresses the inefficiency in fabric use and provides opportunities to explore new forms of creation.
Handloom industry could be a powerful sector for developing local economy, promoting ethical trade and sustainable communities in Sri Lanka. However, there is a little empirical research done to date regarding the actual benefits, especially when the industry is engaged in an environmentally conscious production and ethical trade. This paper draws a case study from Sri Lankan handloom textile industry to illustrate an enviornmrentally and ethically responsible manufacturing approach.