How this government facility is saving Philippine textiles

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The Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) is the textile and research arm of the Department of Science and Technology, and it envisions a “circular economy” to make the clothing industry sustainable. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Think of the shirt you’re wearing right now. Where did it come from?

The answer might be any of these things: an ukay-ukay store, a big international chain, a local brand, and what with the renewed interest in indigenous textiles — a social enterprise.

Few people care to ask about the industry that provides the clothes behind our backs. But today, people are becoming more aware of what has been called a “sunset industry” that is now setting its sights on a revival.

The local textile and garment industry is looking into “closing the fashion loop,” through the efforts of the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI), which promises to bridge the gap between raw materials production and the distribution of apparel. The PTRI is the textile and research arm of the Department of Science and Technology, and it also envisions a “circular economy” to make the clothing industry sustainable.

“It’s about making sure Filipinos have enough to clothe ourselves,” says PTRI Director Celia Elumba. “It’s about adding more value into products, adding more jobs.”

Photo-6.jpg The PTRI promises to bridge the gap between raw materials production and the distribution of apparel. “It’s about making sure Filipinos have enough to clothe ourselves,” says PTRI Director Celia Elumba. Photo by JL JAVIER

The Philippines was considered a pioneer in the ASEAN region in terms of textile production. Large-scale textile manufacturing started as early as 1906 and peaked from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. The garment manufacturing industry also highly contributed to Philippine exports: in the 1980s, it was the second highest non-traditional export, with the first being semiconductors. “We were experts in children’s wear,” says Elumba.

What happened in the interim? For one thing, since 1974, the Philippines was governed by the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA). The MFA, according to the World Trade Organization, “established quotas limiting imports into countries whose domestic industries were facing serious damage from rapidly increasing imports.”

Photo-25.jpg The Philippines was considered a pioneer in the ASEAN region in terms of textile production, but the removal of quotas limiting imports into smaller producing countries like the Philippines greatly impacted the textile industry. Photo by JL JAVIER

The MFA was phased out starting 1995, however, leading to the removal of the quotas. For some, this opened up the textile trade for developed countries, “which could produce huge volumes at lower cost, eventually affecting the smaller producing countries, including the Philippines.”

While meant as a short-term solution to protect the stability of the textile industry, the MFA itself “did not promote development in developing countries,” says Elumba. In the Philippines, while skills were upgraded, some manufacturers closed shop and there was no incentive to upgrade equipment. Nowhere was the impact felt more than in the development of our textiles, which suffered because of the relatively high cost of labor here.

Photo-22.jpg The PTRI's Innovation Center for Yarns and Textiles (ICYT) in Bicutan, Taguig is targeted towards addressing the needs of micro, small, to medium-sized enterprises and students. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-20.jpg As of the moment, the Philippine cotton industry is undergoing its own sort of revival, with the Philippine Fiber Development Authority (PhilFida) gunning to plant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton all over the country. Photo by JL JAVIER

Today, the PTRI aggressively promotes its various programs as well as its Innovation Center for Yarns and Textiles (ICYT) in Bicutan, Taguig. The center does not mass-produce, as it is targeted more towards addressing the needs of micro, small, to medium-sized enterprises and students. In fact, the center can only produce around 150 to 180 kilograms of cotton yarn at the outset, says Elumba.

Not that the PTRI banks heavily on producing cotton yarn. Cotton yarn is not environmentally sound to produce (it consumes a lot of water) and as of the moment, the Philippine cotton industry is undergoing its own sort of revival, with the Philippine Fiber Development Authority (PhilFida) gunning to plant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton all over the country.

In an interview with CNN Philippines Life, Elumba outlines how the PTRI plans to elevate the Philippine textile and garments industry, and how we should focus more on export competitiveness on other local resources and the inclusivity of the industry.

Photo-11.jpg Instead of competing with major cotton producers like the U.S. and India, Elumba says the Philippines would benefit from focusing on other resources it can produce easily, such as abaca (we are a top producer) and other fibers such as pineapple. Photo by JL JAVIER

Focus more on the development of abaca and other vegetable fibers.

Elumba imagines an industry that capitalizes on its most plentiful resources, such as abaca and vegetable fibers, in which we are “trade positive.” This means we export more than we import. The same cannot be said for cotton, in which we are “trade negative”: we import more than we export.

“It’s a captive market,” adds Elumba. The cotton trade is dominated by four major cotton producers: U.S., India, Brazil, and Australia. So instead of competing with these producers, the logic is to focus on other resources the Philippines can produce easily, such as abaca (we are a top producer) and other fibers such as pineapple.

Elumba enthusiastically talks about the potential of abaca and what the PTRI has been doing to maximize it. Hybrid abaca, for example, is more resistant to typhoons, thus mitigating losses in a typhoon-prone country such as the Philippines. The PTRI has also developed technologies for better abaca fiber production, which it shares to various workers all over the country via trainings (on softening the fiber and appropriate dyeing techniques, among many others) to upgrade their skills.

Photo-1.jpg The PTRI has also developed technologies for better abaca fiber production, which it shares to various workers all over the country via trainings to upgrade their skills. Photo by JL JAVIER

DSC_4189.jpg PTRI’s vision for a textile industry is based on ecosystems: where local stakeholders in communities are involved, and whatever is treated as waste may hopefully find some other use in the future. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Empower communities and highlight a ‘circular economy.’

The PTRI’s flagship program is TELA: Textiles Empowering Lives Anew. It highlights “PTRI’s researches and textile technologies that make intelligent use of natural and indigenous resources, all for the benefit of MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises) and communities throughout the country.”

Following the campaign, PTRI highlights products such as naturally handwoven and dyed textiles, “smart” mosquito-repellent, water-repellent, and self-cleaning textiles, therapeutic handlooms (for the differently-abled), and naturally-occurring dyes, among many others.

DSC_4159.jpg “Smart” mosquito-repellent textiles are among some of the products PTRI highlights under its TELA campaign. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

These are all interconnected to PTRI’s vision for a textile industry based on ecosystems: where local stakeholders in communities are involved, and whatever is treated as waste may hopefully find some other use in the future.

The latter, in fact, was the subject of DOST’s forum on the ‘circular economy’ held during National Science and Technology Week in July 2018, where enterprises such as the Cebu-based Anthill Fabric showed how to elevate scrap textiles by turning them into new, smartly-designed garments, following the mantra that “waste is a design flaw,” according to Anthill Fabric director Anya Lim.

In Iloilo, PTRI has tapped the Iloilo Science and Technology University as a regional yarn production center, in order to make sustainability and inclusive innovation in the textile industry a reality. PTRI will provide skills training to the local weavers, as well as infuse funding for textile development using local fibers and dyes, prototyping machines, and for the conduct of eco-tourism studies on the potential of a “textile village” to generate local income.

Miag-ao, Iloilo is also the site of the first micro-scale spinning community which works with endemic raw materials, and are provided with full-scale equipment for handloom weavers all over the region. The goal here is to enable a system of supply.

Says Elumba: “It’s about the capacity of people to produce materials for their own purpose.” Large swaths of land won’t even be needed, as weavers can use wastes to spin new textiles.

DSC_4194.jpg Elumba says there needs to be less emphasis on products that highlight Filipino heritage as “niche” clothing but as mainstream, everyday wear. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Move away from the concept of weaves and indigenous clothing as ‘costumes.’

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge in opening up the textile industry is the shift of mindset in both consumers and producers.

While there are existing enterprises that highlight Filipino heritage in their products — such as Anthill, Akaba, Inabel, or Narda — there needs to be less emphasis on this as “niche” clothing but as mainstream, everyday wear. “We don’t like costumes,” says Elumba.

Another challenge for producers is to team up with designers who can bring the most out of the textiles even as they preserve and document its roots. There needs to be more efforts to draw or duplicate the patterns of indigenous textiles, adds Elumba.

Photo-3.jpg Another challenge for producers is to team up with designers who can bring the most out of the textiles even as they preserve and document its roots. Photo by JL JAVIER

While the high price tags remain because of the cost that goes into the process, Elumba hopes they see “value more than cost,” that to produce just a single roll of yarn takes a whole community, each working on a specific part of the process, just to bring durable textiles and garments that Filipinos can be proud of.