Code Red for the Planet: A Call for Radical Sustainability – the Executive Vice President of Sustainability & Innovation at the Epic Group, Vidhura Ralapanawe

We are living in an era defined by natural disasters supercharged by global heating, rapid ecosystem degradation and species extinction, haunting our dreams of prosperity. The UN Climate Conference in Glasgow was headlined ‘Code Red for Humanity’ yet failed to achieve expected global commitments to sufficiently mitigate the same. Vidhura Ralapanawe, the Executive Vice President of Sustainability & Innovation at the Epic Group, Hong Kong, demystifies the relationship between business and ecology and the need for radical change. 

“We must dare to imagine what our organizations would look like in a zero-carbon economy and work towards that transition with major shifts in the near-term horizon”.

After graduating from the University of Moratuwa, Vidhura took his first professional turn working at IBM in New York. Upon completing his Masters in Responsibility & Business Practice from the University of Bath, UK, he worked as a climate researcher for the next five years in the USA, analysing how climate information can be used for practical applications in Sri Lanka. “I subsequently joined MAS Intimates”, he says. “I played an important role in shaping the sustainability trajectory of MAS Holdings, leading its sustainability initiatives from ideation, strategy and execution”. After completing his doctorate at the Ashridge Business School in the UK, Vidhura took a new role as the Head of Sustainability in Epic Group, a global apparel group.

Vidhura insists on addressing global heating and the resultant climate crisis as necessary preconditions to human prosperity and ecosystem integrity. He reiterates the scientific consensus that the relative stability of the climate system that saw the emergence of human civilization over thousands of years has been fundamentally altered. Our window to act is closing very fast.” The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out that ecological systems such as tropical coral reefs will die-out unless rapid reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions are achieved in the next five years. He also highlights that the possibility of attaining the Paris climate agreement’s targets of keeping the planet below 1.5 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial era appears impossible, with the current globally committed actions leading to at least 2.7 degrees Celsius rise. As per IPCC, this will result in up to 50% global species extinction, and wide scale failures in food-systems globally. 

Vidhura emphasises that we must reimagine the relationship between business and ecology to become sustainable. He suggests that companies must shift from value extraction from nature to business models that regenerate nature. He believes that degradation of natural systems will significantly impact societies and disrupt manufacturing, supply chains, and commodity prices disrupting livelihoods and businesses.

“The relative stability of the climate system that saw the emergence of human civilization over thousands of years has been fundamentally altered. Our window to act is closing very fast.”

He mentions, “Global trade and investments are now increasingly tied to de-carbonization goals – such as European Union legislated Carbon Border Tax, or the climate commitments now being mandated by global investors or customers”, which can trigger significant value destruction to companies and countries, leaving them holding stranded assets. Vidhura emphasises it’s time for the corporate sector to step out of mediocre sustainability goals and transform their businesses to reflect the scale of the climate crisis and its urgency. “We must dare to imagine what our organizations would look like in a zero-carbon economy and work towards that transition with major shifts in the near-term horizon”.

Vidhura views the current crisis as a peril to humanity and ecology —highlighting the dramatic melting of glaciers and ice sheets. The impacts will be disproportionately felt in countries like Sri Lanka, including rising sea levels and significant changes to the rainfall patterns, trapping us in perpetual poverty and misery. 

He laments the lack of real understanding of what a sustainable transformation would look like. He suggests that the fashion industry must address the thorniest sustainability challenges head-on without being in denial, including excessive consumption and its attendant resource use, compulsive focus on growth – noting that these are not compatible with a sustainable ecosystem which has limits to growth.

He urges the business leaders to act upon the climate or biodiversity crisis, noting that teenagers globally have become the most vocal advocates for the planet. “Activism saw Sri Lanka adopt a strong renewable energy target for electricity” and the voice of businesses, who would benefit from such a shift, were largely absent during this period. He adds, “as corporations, we need to create the conversations that inject urgency, re-look at our own sustainability strategies to find space for radical action”. 

“Global trade and investments are now increasingly tied to de-carbonization goals – such as European Union legislated Carbon Border Tax, or the climate commitments now being mandated by global investors or customers” 

Working with Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) from 2015, Vidhura played an important role advancing the sustainability focus of the global fashion industry. SAC, a global multi-stakeholder alliance dedicated to enhancing sustainability of the apparel and footwear industry, developed and deployed the Higg Index suite of tools that measure and benchmark sustainability performance across the value chain. Vidhura was a member of the team who developed the Higg Index facility environmental tool and has also been “a vocal proponent for a strong sustainability impact focus for the industry”. He further adds, “SAC is also a strong advocate of collective action to combat climate change and other sustainability issues in the industry”. He currently serves as a Board Director of the SAC.

As the Executive Vice President of the Sustainability & Innovation wing at the Epic Group, Vidhura introduces the organisation. “Epic Group is a USD 600 Million organisation headquartered in Hong Kong, with factories in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and operations in multiple other countries including Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt and Jordan. Epic Group is a leading manufacturer of woven tops and bottoms including denim, and an expanding portfolio of knits with over 30,000 individuals globally working for the company”. Epic’s creativity hubs and offices are located in New York, London and Dubai, and they supply approx. 120 million garments to leading consumer brands and retailers in Europe and North America. 

Vidhura elaborates on the sustainability strategy of Epic. “We have aggressive three-year targets for reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions, freshwater use and hazardous chemicals. We are revamping our effluent treatment plants to reuse 50% of treated water back into our processes – this to be completed by 2022”. He mentions the high-tech ‘low-water, low-energy laundries’ that the company is building as examples of reimagining traditional businesses. “Renewable energy, including rooftop solar and energy efficiency investments in steam, electricity and compressed air are key components of our de-carbonization strategy currently being executed.” Development of systems and processes that set the foundations for all-around environmental performance improvement are also ongoing. 

“As the corporate sector, we need to step into this vacuum, create the conversations that injects urgency, re-look at our own sustainability strategies to find space for radical action”

Vidhura points out the sustainability focus on products lead the company to shift to purchasing Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton in 2019. Epic has been “rapidly scaling recycled polyester, organic & recycled cotton in our product portfolio. We are innovating products for the circular economy – recycling used cotton garments and cutting table waste back into fabrics by working directly with innovative recyclers and fabric mills.” 

“Our tagline ‘relentless pursuit of the better’ epitomises the Epic Group, as we continuously strive to improve how we run our business, be it in employee wellbeing, sustainability or manufacturing operations”.

He is pensive about the future, “while we are rapidly scaling our sustainability investments in the midst of a pandemic, the enormity of the required transformation is always a concern. The next stage of our journey is daunting as we must curate and create the technology and solutions for the challenges we see.”

Vidhura strongly believes in the benefits of a sustainable transformation both for the present and the future generations far outweigh the costs involved. He emphasises the necessity of embracing the transition both at a corporate level, nationally and globally. Continuing to encourage businesses to build camaraderie with the notion of sustainable transformations, he concludes, “Solving the climate crisis is the greatest calling of our era. We must solve this as a global community, and to do this; we must each find the radical activist that sits dormant within us”.

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