Thursday, June 5, 2008

Carbon-neutral in Sri Lanka

A lingerie factory near Colombo shows how green design makes economic sense, as this week's Economist reports. The MAS Holdings bra plant, with its natural lighting, green roof, and rainwater harvesting system (to name just a few attributes), was built at the behest of U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), for which it is a sole supplier. It's touted as the world's first carbon-neutral factory; MAS also calls itself an ethical employer, providing a medical center onsite and hiring no underage workers. confessions_of_an_ecosinnger

Thanks to the MAS factory, M&S lingerie shoppers no doubt feel pretty good about their purchases. But the company's fair-trade socks present a more complex picture, as I discovered while reading Fred Pearce's new book Confessions of an Eco Sinner. In one of the chapters in which the author tries to find the origin of his clothes, he details the 12,000-kilometer journey taken by the fair-trade socks M&S sells for twice the price of the regular ones: The cotton was grown in Cameroon, then shipped to India to get spun into yarn, then taken to two locations in Turkey to be dyed and knit into socks before being trucked to England.

The cotton came from Cameroon only because the Indian supplier of organic and fair-trade cotton was overwhelmed with orders, Pearce writes, but because "Indian labour is comparatively expensive in the cut-throat world of global textiles... it cannot compete for many labour-intensive activities." Thus, "it makes economic sense to ship these products back and forth across the planet."

However, all these calculations must be placed in the context of M&S's Plan A initiative, which according to the website aims to make the company "become carbon neutral, send no waste to landfill, extend sustainable sourcing, help improve the lives of people in our supply chain, and help customers and employees live a healthier life-style" by 2012. Launched last year, it's already producing dividends. As the Economist story reports, M&S projected the initiative would cost £200 million, but already Plan A "has generated savings equal to the investments it requires." The retailer expects it to be profitable next year.

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