Editor’s blog: In search of Sir Stuart’s green underpants

It’s hot, sweaty and frenetic on Colombo’s streets at this time of year, as the monsoon rain sheets down. The scene inside the Brandix eco-factory, however, is one of calm, quiet industry in a carefully temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Piped music of tropical birds fills the air to accompany the gentle whizz and whirr of the sewing machines.

The Brandix plant at Seeduwa, in Colombo’s suburbs, is Sri Lanka’s answer to the call of Sir Stuart Rose’s Plan A. Ashroff Omar, the far-sighted CEO of Brandix, can see which way the sustainable wind is blowing and has just spent 1.25m converting one of his older apparel factories into this ‘green’ establishment; as a result, carbon emissions are down by 75%, energy usage by 45% and water consumption by 60%. There’s a new a/c system, natural lighting, rainwater is collected and none of the waste goes to landfill. To celebrate the opening, Lasith ‘the Slinger’ Malinga from the national cricket team was hired to show Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ movie (with Singhalese subtitles) to the entire Brandix workforce of 1600.

Sir Stuart, who visited in April to cut the ribbon, is pleased – and so is Mr Omar, who generously described the M&S knight as ‘probably the world’s most potent warrior saving the environment’. The (mostly female) 300 employees at Seeduwa earn about 80 per month for a 57 hour week and get 90 days paid maternity leave. In a Bangladeshi sweat shop, says one Brandix manager, the figure is only 25 per month.

As the slowdown bites and pressure on suppliers by UK retailers grows ever stronger, this sort of endeavour will be put to the test. Brandix turns over 170m a year and operates above the cut-throat basement market – it does shorter orders of more complicated items and can turn batches round quickly. But the eco-factor is now one of the new forces in globalization. With fuel costs rising so rapidly, Brandix knows this eco-refit will pay for itself in 4 years. And who knows, maybe Plan B will eventually demand that suppliers adopt environmentally friendly working practices. Brandix also produces garments for Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap, while its biggest customer is Victoria’s Secret – but so far it’s the Europeans who have shown more interest in sustainability.

But the Sri Lankans are now anxious. After the tsunami wrecked its eastern coastline, they were given an exemption from EU import tariffs on textiles (40% of Lankan exports go to Europe and tourism has been dealt a blow by the unpredictable security situation, as the bitter war with the Tamil Tiger LTTE continues in the North). This tax exemption is now up for review and could, if removed, add 10 per cent to the cost of a pair of Sir Stuart’s underpants.

Tomorrow, by the way, I meet a reformed Tiger boy soldier just made a Chief Minister…