Bangladesh: A plan for sustainable supply chains
Everywhere I go, I hear the same maxim: sustainability is the only word in the fashion industry. Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) issues are at the heart of investors’ concerns. I’m not sure, because I think sometimes investors don’t have the knowledge to know what sustainability means when it comes to clothing production. That said, when the investment community begins to regularly discuss these issues, we as providers need to sit up and take notice.
Is producing sustainable clothing even feasible? I certainly think it is possible to produce clothes with less environmental and social impact.
But what do we mean by the term “sustainable clothing production”? I would like to explore what I believe this means and lay out my own vision of how Bangladesh could become a model for sustainable fashion value chains.
First, sustainable means more environmentally friendly, in terms of direct impact on the environment. This includes negative externalities, including effluent discharged from our factories. Are our effluents treated correctly before being discharged into the environment? Tremendous technological advancements have been made in effluent treatment in recent years, and many have been implemented in Bangladesh. But we can always do more, and there’s no reason why every garment factory in Bangladesh shouldn’t be integrated with state-of-the-art effluent treatment processes.
The second area where Bangladesh needs to pioneer is in direct production processes. The use of dyes and chemicals has always been linked to a high environmental load in apparel supply chains. But it is not necessary. Recent years have seen tremendous progress in the development and use of safer and less toxic dyes and chemicals, as well as the use of all-natural dyes.
As always, cost is an issue. Safer, cleaner dyes and chemicals are often more expensive. I am generalizing here, but the fact is that when a new, best-in-class range is launched, it is often charged at full price. But to achieve cleaner supply chains, we need to invest in these areas.
The third area concerns techniques for saving energy and water. Bangladesh has not yet widely embraced renewable energy in garment production. For our garment industry to switch to renewable energy, we need investment in infrastructure at the national level. While renewables in Bangladesh are slowly accelerating, their share in the total energy mix remains negligible. A recent report showed that, for 2020, wind and solar represent only 3% of local electricity production.
We can and must change this image. ESG investors focus heavily on green investments. This has huge ramifications for fashion supply chains, and renewable energy is an integral part of that. So our government and our energy companies must now set the most ambitious targets possible to increase the share of renewables in our overall energy mix.
Bangladesh can also lead the way in terms of the garments we produce. For every major fashion retailer, recycling and circularity are the main goals right now. How can we support our customers in this adventure? For this, Bangladesh must invest in textile recycling. Why can’t we aim to become a global hub for new textile recycling technologies? Clothes are our life force. And since we already have so much manufacturing infrastructure in place, why not take the opportunity to get into more textile recycling, before a competitor does?
Quality and durability are likely to become key issues in garment production in the future. There is an argument that our industry should focus on quality, not quantity, if it wants to improve its environmental footprint. We have had a strong focus on cotton apparel throughout our apparel industry’s history, but perhaps we need to expand the amount of other fibers used in apparel, including viscose, wool, and cotton. other fibers.
Finally, the other aspect of sustainability is social. Besides becoming a leader on environmental issues, Bangladesh can show the world that working in a garment factory does not have to be a job with poverty wages, done in poor conditions with no career prospects. We should aspire to do much more for garment workers. There’s still huge room for improvement in compensation and apparel conditions, and supply chain costs wouldn’t have to rise hugely to account for these gains.
We’ve spent two decades talking about compensation for garment workers, but progress has been painfully slow. Bangladesh can lead the way here, with factory owners, unions, rights groups and workers implementing a process of continuous improvement.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).