22.11.2014 Community

Green Rubber

Sri Lankan company leads world in certified organic latex and carbon neutral status
It's an accepted maxim of life that when you want real lasting change it has to start from the grassroots. It's something that Mahatma Gandhi understood in his statement that distils the holistic viewpoint: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

And nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in a small Sri Lankan company's achievement in becoming the world's first certified organic latex manufacturer. In a world where "going organic" is overwhelmingly the preserve of the affluent First World, those of us who have the luxury of choice and the ability to fund it rather than face the day to day grind of finding ways to put another meal on the table, Latex Green's achievement is humbling. 

The company was founded in an Export Processing and Free Trade Zone, 1.5 hours drive north of Colombo just 10 years ago. And in a country only recently emerged from a lengthy and devastating civil war and with an average monthly income of US$350.00, it's a testament to single minded determination to achieve a once-improbable vision.

Most of us have probably never given a moment's thought to organic latex - what's its significance? Bear this in mind tonight when you put your head on your pillow and stretch out for another hopefully restful sleep on your mattress - the lifespan of discarded rubber in landfill is estimated at 1000 years.  And when we consider the quantity of pillows and mattresses consigned to the rubbish heap every year around the world - just think back to your neighbourhood's last free council pickup - the scale of the environmental overload we are placing on our planet is breathtaking. 

As Latex Green's chief operating officer and marketing director Mithra Weerasinghe tells me over the phone, "Our focus from the very beginning was to become a truly natural producer. I'm glad that all our management, our principals and the director of the company shared the one set of goals and the mindset to become an icon in the industry as a natural latex manufacturer."

While the senior people have a wealth of experience in the rubber industry - 60 years between them - achieving the mantle of "world's first certified latex manufacturer" was " a hell of an effort". 

At the time, the world market was dominated by large companies producing only synthetic rubber so, as Mithra tells me, "There was no definition or criteria to measure our type of product and being able to say it was certified organic."

Determined to blaze a new "green" trail for a notoriously environmentally damaging industry, the company contacted the Control Union in the Netherlands, a body that offers a wide range of certification programs, and worked closely with it to establish guidelines for a new certification standard. Now they proudly display the badge of GOLS, the Global Organic Latex Standard. As Mithra says, in order to even apply for GOLS certification, 95% of the raw material has to be certified organic.

The task was only made possible in such a short timeframe because of the company's careful groundwork in selecting land within an Export Processing Zone designated by the Sri Lankan government to encourage foreign investment. Along with guarantees covering infrastructure and Fair Choice labour, the zone also provides access to proper effluent treatment so the run off does not impact surrounding rivers.  A key aspect is that all water supplied to businesses within the zone is purified to drinking water standard, as any visitor to the Indian subcontinent would immediately recognise, an absolute luxury!

Not that Latex Green can rest on it laurels.  As well as first having to establish the 95% latex component is from organic plantations, only possible when no pesticides or chemical-based fertilisers have been used on the land for three to four years, and which then has to pass muster with the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program or the European Union Standard, regular testing is part and parcel of keeping the treasured status.

Along with soil tests and leaf tests on the rubber trees themselves, water samples are taken "pretty much every day", says Mithra. 

"It's a very difficult process - it takes a lot of pain to achieve the GOLS certification". I can almost see his wry grin at the other end of the phone.

Five cycles of washing are carried out at the very end of the production process to remove any traces of residue or particles in the latex or the range of bedding products the company also supplies to customers. 

"Water is not just pumped from the river and then thrown back in the river.  We have to dispose of it back into the recycling plant and we have to treat it before we send it back. So it is a whole cycle of water being treated, used, treated again and then recycled back to the refining plant."

Surely there has to be a lesson for industries in our own country in this commitment to valuing and recycling such a precious commodity.

GOLS also requires that once the latex has been tapped from the trees and collected, it is stored separately from regular latex. As Mithra sums up, "The whole chain has to be certified from the very beginning of the process.

Not satisfied with its achievements to date, and to stay ahead of the game in a highly competitive industry, Latex Green has now gone one step further in gaining recognition as the world's first carbon neutral latex manufacturer. 

"If I take you back 10 or so years ago, becoming a 100% natural latex manufacturer was a hell of a big deal. Because there were so many big synthetic manufacturers and you were only a small niche. 

"But over time, we moved from natural to organic and now we are talking about climate change support. We are trying to do whatever we can in order to reduce the effects on climate change by providing a product that is carbon neutral. It is a whole big process."

Small margins make the voluntary commitment that much more impressive. But like all visionaries, Mithra and his colleagues see the big picture: "It doesn't matter because later on, somewhere down the line people will really see the value of these standards."

The social benefit to people in the local community is another impressive aspect of the company's commitment. As an accredited Fair Choice employer, it undertakes to provide jobs for people in surrounding towns and villages, a boon for families with few other employment opportunities away from major cities, and a protection against child labour. Land closer to Colombo or Galle would save in heavy transportation costs, but it's a trade off that Latex Green has been prepared to make for the undoubted environmental and social benefits of the Export Processing Zone.  The company has a workforce of 108 tappers plus a small administrative staff. 

Among the people "who see the value of these standards", the North American market is the company's strongest, absorbing 50% of their output.  Germany, Singapore, the UK and Australia also figure importantly, with our Australian market accounting for 5- 6% of sales  "and growing". 

Here, Mithra pays tribute to Andrew Macfarlane's company Sleep Made to Measure. "We were very fortunate to find a customer like Andrew who shared a similar way of thinking. He wouldn't settle for anything less than that and we wouldn't settle for anything less than that either." The collaboration has led to a range of "made to measure" products with the certified organic latex being fashioned into personalised pillows, mattresses and toppers and even products specifically for children with asthma and allergies. And in stark contrast to the 1000 year life in landfill of synthetic rubber, at the end of its usefulness, the certified organic product is good enough for your backyard compost bin!

In our super-hyped marketplace for almost any commodity, it's increasingly important that we identify and value those who make the commitment to be true to their values. The example of this small latex producer in Sri Lanka taking on the giants of the industry and driving the move towards a more ethical and sustainable product is both inspiring and a humbling wake up call.