May 10, 2022
DHAKA – Everywhere I go I hear the same maxim: sustainability is the only word forward for the fashion industry. Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) issues are at the forefront of investors’ minds. I am not sure about that, as I think sometimes investors don’t have the requisite knowledge to know what sustainability means when it comes to clothing production. That said, when the investment community begins to discuss these issues on a regular basis, we—as suppliers—must sit up and take notice.
Is sustainable clothing production even achievable? I certainly think it is possible to produce clothing with less environmental and social impact.
But what do we mean by the phrase “sustainable clothing production”? I’d like to explore what I believe this means and outline my own vision for how Bangladesh could become a blueprint for sustainable fashion value chains.
First, sustainable means more environmentally benign, in terms of our direct impact on the environment. This includes negative externalities, including the effluent our factories release. Is our effluent being treated properly before being released into the environment? Huge technological advances have been made in regards to effluent treatment in recent years, and many have been implemented in Bangladesh. But there is always more we can do, and there is no reason why every single garment factory in Bangladesh should not be integrated with state-of-the-art effluent treatment processes.
The second area for Bangladesh to pioneer in is direct production processes. The use of dyes and chemicals has historically been linked with high environmental load in garment supply chains. But there’s no need for this. The past few years have seen huge advancements in the development and use of safer, less toxic dyes and chemicals, and the use of completely natural dyes.
As always, cost is an issue. Safer, cleaner dyes and chemicals are often more expensive. I am generalising here, but the point is that when a new, best-in-class range is launched, it is often charged at a premium. But to achieve cleaner supply chains, we must invest in these areas.
The third area is energy and water saving techniques. Bangladesh has yet to shift to renewable energy to any great degree in garment production. For our garment industry to shift to renewable energy, we need infrastructural investment at the national level. While renewable energy in Bangladesh is slowly picking up pace, its share in the total energy mix remains negligible. A recent report showed that, for 2020, wind and solar account for just three percent of the local electricity production.
We can and must change this picture. ESG investors are heavily focused on green investment. This has huge ramifications for fashion supply chains, and renewable energy is an integral part of this. So, our government and energy companies need to now be setting the most ambitious targets possible to boost renewable energy’s share in our overall energy mix.
Bangladesh can also lead the way in terms of the actual clothing we produce. For every major fashion retailer, recycling and circularity are the main goals right now. How can we support our customers on this journey? For this, Bangladesh needs to invest in textile recycling. Why can’t we aim to become a global hub for new textile recycling technologies? Clothing is our lifeblood. And since we already have so much manufacturing infrastructure in place, why not take advantage of it to move more heavily into textile recycling—before a competitor does?
Quality and durability will likely become key issues in clothing production moving forward. There is an argument that our industry should focus on quality, not quantity, if it wishes to improve its environmental footprint. We have heavily focused on cotton clothing throughout the history of our garment industry, but perhaps we need to broaden the amount of other fibres used in clothing, including viscose, wool and other fibres.
Finally, the other side of sustainability is a social one. As well as 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 pay, carried out in poor conditions with no career prospects. We should be aspiring to do much more for garment workers. There is still a huge room for improvement in garment pay and conditions, and supply chain costs would not have to increase hugely to accommodate these gains.
We’ve spent two decades talking about garment worker pay, yet 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.