Board Interview: Vidhura Ralapanawe, Future-Proofing Factories, Unifying on Goals

  • Leadership
Photo of Vidhura Ralapanawe
May 31, 2024

As part of a recurring series, Cascale details the involvement and vision of its Board members. Here, Vidhura Ralapanawe, executive vice president, Epic Group, shares his perspective.


Cascale: How did you get involved with Cascale? 

Vidhura Ralapanawe: I remember getting engaged with Cascale from 2015 when the new Higg FEM version 3.0 was being developed. Throughout that period, I was on the steering committee for the tool, and I played a role within Cascale’s formative stages including working in the Social & Labor Convergence Program [SLCP, now a separate entity], as well as being on the steering committee for the Higg Brand and Retail module (Higg BRM). I was also one of the initiators of the facility Improvement council, which evolved to become the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii).

Cascale: What is your role at Epic Group? 

VR: I am the head of sustainability for the Group. I formulate strategy as well as lead execution of our ambitious sustainability strategy. This includes cutting absolute emissions and fresh water use by 50 percent by 2030, against the 2019 baseline. We are a company that grows very fast, which makes absolute reductions extremely difficult. So part of our strategy is blueprinting, designing, and building factories that are going to function as net-zero carbon and net zero water.

In addition to that, I also have responsibility in the product space, improving the sustainability of the fibers that we use in our products and offer to customers, and also a sharp focus on step changes in how we design and operate our laundries. That’s the largest impact in our business. Innovations – in process, machinery and chemistry, as well as fabric technology – goes into how we run our washing plants better.

The last part is looking at how the fashion industry transitions towards a more sustainable setting because we firmly believe that we as a company cannot be sustainable by ourselves unless the community around us becomes sustainable. So we want to contribute to that too.


Cascale: How do you balance aims for growth with sustainability progress? 

VR: I think it’s much more difficult for manufacturers to decarbonize with growth than brands because of structural issues in some of the countries where manufacturing is concentrated. These could be legislative or regulatory, availability of renewables, the status of the grid or simple things like availability of technology and skills.

These issues are  also very geographically predetermined where what is possible in one country may not be possible in another country.

This also poses an interesting challenge about how we grow. If your target isn’t net-zero in your new factories, then this is no longer enough. This forces us to completely rethink how a factory should be designed and operated. Epic is building a new set of factories in India building from these concepts. We believe these factories will be a global blueprint for others to draw inspiration from and adapt to their own needs. I want to emphasize that we approached this unique factory design within a partnership with one of our brand customers – a real life example of collective action.


Cascale: How do the Higg Index Suite of tools complement those net-zero aims and ambitions? 

VR: To me this is the foundation of sustainable factories because it looks at all of the different impact areas, and it creates a platform where impact reduction can happen. It sets up the measurement systems, it sets up the target setting, and it looks at individual practices to identify improvement areas. It also looks at how we are organized as a company and where sufficient focus, skill, and organizational structure exists for the tedious long-term road of decarbonization and major improvement as an industry.

Cascale’s Impact reduction programs will sit on top of that, and that’s where Cascale’s future is – in terms of working together with members and the larger industry of ecosystem partners to drive impact.


Cascale: What’s your advice to leaders to future-proof their companies and organizations? 

VR: Before I joined the apparel industry, I was a climate researcher. My focus on climate action predates my engagement in the fashion industry. We must first understand that we are in a very deep and urgent climate crisis. It is much much worse than most of us imagine and visualize. The ocean and land heat waves that we saw in the last 12 months are something even climate scientists are struggling to understand. We see it impacting apparel manufacturing countries globally in the last 3 months. We are already in a deep crisis, whether we acknowledge it or not. So, the first part is to recognize the urgency and the way these impacts are  affecting our industry.

The second part is thinking of the value chain rather than our individual organizations. Take decarbonization as an example. The way we think about it (separated by tiers) and individualized action, is not going to be enough for us to actually hit any of our targets. We need to think about how we come together as a value chain and an industry to decarbonize – rather than sitting in our individual boxes or ordering others.  It is a mindset and a paradigmatic shift, without which we will fail.

A lot of the challenges we have in terms of climate action is based on our business models which are hierarchical, optimized for speed and cost. We cannot easily switch them into versions that also deliver sustainability. So we need to reflect as an industry, and ask, “Does the way we work support sustainability?” And if not, what do we need to do to change it?

The third part is climate action and sustainability is not only about decarbonization – it is also about adaptation. We need to understand how the climate crisis is impacting our businesses. We are a very people-centric industry. We have millions of apparel and farm workers around the world who are part of our value chain. They are the ones, most of whom are women, who get affected first, when climate related disasters strike. They are the ones who are under dire conditions. They are the ones whose houses get flooded or get blown by cyclones – whose kids suffer during heatwaves, even at night. So if we don’t take an honest approach to look after them – who are the real drivers of this industry – we have no right to make any claims about sustainability.


Cascale: What’s the future for Cascale? 

VR: Simply that we need to come together and work together. We cannot be saying, “This is the target I’m giving you. You do this.” We have tried that path, and it has failed to deliver the scale of the impact needed.

So we need to take a hard look at ourselves and bring people together so that we can drive impact collectively. In my opinion, this is the most important task in front of Cascale because we – I say we as a Cascale Board member – are the most suited organization to bring this industry together. Because we represent brands, manufacturers, service providers, NGOs, and academics. We have equal partnership as a principle of organization (though we have some work to do here). We have the correct group of people and the correct mindset to create that platform for collective action. There is no one else, and we must succeed.

And collective action, where we share risks and resources together, is the path we can solve our sustainability challenges, together.

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