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Apparel Innovations, Sustainable Interventions, and Ethical Aspirations: Garment Manufacturing in Sri Lanka

Monday, October 17, 2022 at 12:15pm

Uris Hall, G08
Central Campus

Talk by Denise N. Green

In 2015 I began teaching a class at Cornell about fiber, textile, and apparel production in India, which included a winter break field trip to manufacturing facilities. Inspired by the students' transformative learning experience and the connections we created, I wanted to expand the course to include Sri Lanka. Apparel is the country's leading export, making garment manufacturing one of Sri Lanka's largest industries. I began preliminary research in January-February 2022 by visiting factories, innovation centers, educational institutions, students, faculty, garment workers, industry leaders, and domestic designers. While the COVID-19 pandemic eroded revenues and significantly reduced production capabilities, apparel manufacturing was poised for a powerful comeback in 2022 when export revenues increased by 23% in January and projections anticipated 3-4% annual growth. As Sri Lanka's economic and political crisis worsened in spring 2022 and inflation in buying markets continued, manufacturers braced for a significant reduction in orders. Organizations like the Ethical Trading Initiative, Clean Clothes Campaign, American Apparel and Footwear Association, Workers United, among others, have called upon the fashion industry to support Sri Lanka with continued orders, timely payments, and price negotiations that account for rising costs of energy, raw materials, and labor. How did Sri Lanka become an exemplar of sustainable, ethical, and innovative production? The industry grew and expanded globally in the mid-late 20th century with the World Trade Organization's Multifibre Arrangement (MFA, 1974-1994) and Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC, 1995-2004), but pivoted after elimination of the quota system by creating the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) in 2002 and their subsequent “Garments Without Guilt” campaign in 2006. With nearly 90% of manufacturers participating, the industry conveyed collective commitment to sustainable and ethical production. Using examples from my recent fieldwork trip, I will consider how these commitments articulate with the aspirations, challenges, possibilities, and realities facing Sri Lanka's garment workers and apparel manufacturers today.

Denise Nicole Green is an associate professor of fashion design and management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell where she also directs the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection. She holds a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology, a Master's of Science in textiles, and a Bachelor's degree in apparel design, which has enabled interdisciplinary inquiry into the study of fashion as both an industry and an expressive medium through which individual and collective identities are produced and represented. She co-authored the book Fashion and Cultural Studies (2022) with Dr. Susan Kaiser and has written numerous journal articles and book chapters in addition to her curatorial work, design scholarship, and documentary filmmaking. 

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, South Asia Program, Anthropology, College of Human Ecology Human Centered Design


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