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Interview with Sharad Amalean

Sri Lanka’s garment sector contributes 6% to the country’s GDP and accounts for almost half of all merchandise exports. The sector provides direct employment for 350,000 workers and an additional 700,000 Sri Lankans benefit from livelihood opportunities as part of the wider supply chain. Sharad Amalean, Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), talks about JAAF’s vision for the garment industry in Sri Lanka, the industry’s resilience in the face of the global pandemic and Sri Lanka’s potential to become a hub global hub for innovation in apparel manufacturing and design. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: How is the global fashion and apparel industry changing? What is the place of Sri Lanka?

A: It’s easy to think of clothing as a commodity, but take a look at the industry and the global market, and you’ll see how wrong that view can be. There is so much design, innovation and creativity that is visible throughout the industry. All of this innovation goes into products that are constantly redesigned and reinvented. There is no doubt that the industry will reach the level of US$2.2 trillion by 2025 as predicted by many experts.

China and India have become major markets and competitors, so the competitive landscape has widened. Sure, the cake has gotten bigger, but the effort required to increase the size of each slice for each brand has also increased significantly. The brands have launched several strategic actions, such as acquiring other brands and entering into regional partnerships with like-minded organizations to build supply chain strength across the globe. Bilateral and regional trade agreements between nations have also contributed to the growth of the industry globally.

As rapid as these changes are, they also offer significant opportunities for countries like Sri Lanka. If we are willing to pursue them and become a solution provider rather than just a manufacturer, we can prosper and grow with the global industry.

Q: How has the pandemic shaped the apparel industry? How are manufacturers and brands recovering from the setbacks of COVID-19?

A: The pandemic has taught us many lessons, both as individuals and as an industry. While we’ve seen consumers prioritize value and sustainability over fast fashion, they’ve also increased their focus on ethical manufacturing, sustainability, and inclusivity.

With prices squeezed and a constant search for profitability, the apparel industry is faced with competing priorities. The pandemic has brought these aspects into sharper focus; brands and companies have increased their vigilance on the social, environmental, governance and ethical aspects of manufacturing. This means that only those who take a holistic view of their production and ecosystem will thrive while those who have little regard for ethics, the environment and social responsibility will not find favor with customers.

Having earned a reputation as a sustainable and ethical manufacturing destination, Sri Lanka is well positioned to thrive in this phase of evolution. Although in the past our contribution to these external aspects has had an impact on Sri Lanka’s cost competitiveness, we now see buyers supporting and partnering with our efforts. This has allowed them to provide complete supply chain transparency to their end consumers.

Even in a post-pandemic landscape, these priority areas will continue to come under scrutiny; this is and will be the way forward for the industry.

Q: The garment industry in Sri Lanka has developed a vision for 2030. What does this vision entail, and is Sri Lanka on track to achieve it?

A: During the pandemic, there was growing doubt as to whether we could maintain our momentum as we approached 2030. Despite the challenges we faced, the industry showed tremendous resilience . The fact that we were able to achieve 2019 revenue levels despite the 2020 decline is testament to this. If this growth continues, we will be on track to reach our revenue target of $8 billion by 2025.

Our vision for 2030, however, is much more complex and ambitious, going well beyond simple revenue growth. While many of our partner organizations are making progress towards this vision, much more needs to be done to complete the plan. As an industry, we must capitalize on opportunities such as the Port City, which could be a stepping stone not just for our 2030 Vision, but for Sri Lanka as a whole. The project was presented as an opportunity for global partnerships; we need to step up our efforts to convince global customers and brands to locate in Sri Lanka. This will improve Sri Lanka’s image and help the industry to deliver comprehensive solutions, dramatically reducing the time between concept and product development.

Several partner organizations are rapidly moving towards creating a solution hub, providing customers with service offerings beyond what is currently offered. Take logistics: despite the current challenges, organizations offer customers flexibility and efficient and multiple distribution solutions, even going so far as to serve the end consumer in some cases. Given the positive customer response, we are confident that we are on track to achieve this part of our 2030 Vision.

Talent is another area we are giving considerable attention to: developing a strong talent pool that could be deployed globally and will continue to support the Sri Lankan garment industry. There is already a huge demand for Sri Lankan talent around the world, due to their expertise. We have suffered a “brain drain” because our international competitors offer better prospects. We intend to provide our employees with opportunities to work in our global partner organizations. This will support their aspirations and also help the industry retain its talent for the country as we navigate the road to 2030.

Q: Can Sri Lanka rely on its innovations and specialization in the garment sector?

A: Whether product or process, our industry has contributed to and with innovation. There are a significant number of Sri Lankan innovations that have been commercialized globally. Examples include impact protection equipment to improve performance and protect athletes in high impact sports, virtual photo shoots using 3D avatars, virtual design technology which has reduced costs and improved delivery times , as well as medical and infection control garments.

It is imperative that we foster a culture of invention and innovation in the industry, but also that we are creative and careful to maximize the potential of our ideas. Given the effort and scale we put into bringing the products to market, as well as market access constraints, we need to choose our best options and partners to ensure maximum benefit to Sri Lanka. It is this thinking that we must foster in order to make the most of our talent and our ideas and to extend them on a global scale.

When it comes to technology, big players in the industry are investing heavily to upgrade frequently. Small organizations have financial and scale constraints. This is where we need to show our customers the capabilities they can sustain and sustain to grow our technology and systems.

In all of these areas, it is critical that we engage positively with our global partners; this will be vital in helping us access new markets and grow.

Sharad Amalean is the Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) and is a co-founder and board member of MAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. After serving as CEO of MAS Holdings, Sharad has now moved on to a new phase in his corporate journey overlooking the organization’s strategic investments and diversification activities. He is also instrumental in supporting the organization to develop the next generation of leaders as the company moves into the future.

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