Bangladesh, a country known for its rich culture and history, has emerged as a global leader in the clothing manufacturing industry. As the second-largest apparel exporter in the world after China, the industry plays a pivotal role in the country’s economy. However, this rapid industrial growth has come with a significant environmental cost. This article delves into the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing in Bangladesh, the efforts being made to mitigate these effects, and the challenges that lie ahead.
The Context of Bangladesh’s Clothing Manufacturing Industry
The clothing industry is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 83% of total exports in 2020. With over 4,000 garment factories employing over 4 million workers, the industry contributes to over 11% of Bangladesh’s GDP. The major apparel manufacturing hubs are located around Dhaka, with the main export destinations being Europe, the US, and Canada.
The phasing out of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA) quotas in 2005 led to a rapid growth in Bangladesh’s apparel exports, facilitated by trade benefits like the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). However, this growth has not been without its environmental challenges.
Environmental Impact of the Clothing Manufacturing Industry
Textile manufacturing is a water-intensive process. On average, 200 tons of water are required for 1 ton of finished fabrics. The untreated toxic wastewater from textile mills, containing harmful chemicals like sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, pigments, acids, salts, and heavy metals, is often dumped directly into rivers near Dhaka, such as the Buriganga River.
In 2020, water samples from the Buriganga River were found to contain chromium levels 6 times higher and cadmium levels 8 times higher than WHO safety limits. The tannery industry, which was a major source of pollution for the Buriganga River until its relocation in 2017, used to dump more than 21,000 cubic meters of toxic waste into the river daily. This wastewater depletes dissolved oxygen levels in the water, harming aquatic ecosystems, and also contaminates groundwater, jeopardizing potable water sources.
Air pollution is another significant environmental issue associated with the clothing manufacturing industry in Bangladesh. Most factories use coal-powered boilers, which emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter into the air. More than 9 million tons of carbon dioxide is released annually from boilers used for dyeing and finishing fabrics. This pollution causes smog during winter months in Dhaka and leads to respiratory illnesses among people living in surrounding areas.
The clothing manufacturing industry also generates a significant amount of solid waste. Textile mills produce waste in the form of fabric scraps, cotton dust, and sludge from wastewater treatment. The annual volume of fabric waste generated is over 200,000 tons, with over 50% of fabric getting wasted during the cutting process. Most of this solid waste ends up in landfills or is burned in open air, leading to environmental contamination and health hazards. Proper waste disposal methods are seldom followed, and less than 1% of clothing is recycled in Bangladesh.
Improper Chemical Management
The use of toxic chemicals like acetone, potassium permanganate, and sodium cyanide during pre-treatment and dyeing is another major environmental concern. Many carcinogenic dyes are also used in the process. Improper chemical storage often leads to leaks and contamination of soil and groundwater, while volatile organic compounds are released into the atmosphere. Workers are exposed to these harmful chemicals on a regular basis with inadequate safety gear, risking their health and well-being.
Minimal treatment of hazardous textile effluents means many toxic chemicals find their way into water bodies, harming aquatic life and entering the food chain.
Efforts to Reduce the Environmental Impact
Despite the significant environmental challenges, numerous efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing in Bangladesh:
The Bangladesh government has set up a central effluent treatment plant (CETP) in Savar that filters textile wastewater from surrounding factories before releasing it into the environment. This initiative has played a crucial role in reducing the pollution load on rivers.
Many factories have installed effluent treatment plants on site to treat wastewater before discharging, further reducing the pollution load. International buyers like H&M and C&A have partnered with their suppliers in Bangladesh to implement cleaner production practices that optimize water and energy usage.
Initiatives like PaCT by IFC aim to reduce water usage, wastewater generation, energy consumption, and the use of harmful chemicals across the entire textile value chain in Bangladesh. Brands like Levi’s offer financial incentives to factories that meet sustainability targets and adopt green manufacturing processes.
Worker Training and Safety Programs
Organizations like the ILO are providing health and safety training programs to workers on how to handle chemicals properly. This not only ensures the safety of the workers but also helps in reducing the environmental impact of improper chemical handling.
Renewable Energy and Recycling Efforts
Many factories are switching to solar power and other renewables to meet their energy needs in a cleaner way. Efforts are also being made to upcycle textile waste into products like bags, rugs, and sound insulation materials. More recycling units are being set up to handle the vast amount of textile waste generated.
Challenges and Limitations of Current Efforts
While these efforts have made a positive impact, there are still significant challenges and limitations:
- The central effluent treatment plant in Savar has been able to treat about 20% of the wastewater generated by surrounding factories. This has reduced pollution in nearby rivers, but capacity needs to be expanded.
- Many factory-level effluent treatment plants are not operated or maintained properly. Monitoring by regulators is also weak. As a result, untreated wastewater continues to be discharged by many factories.
- Adoption of cleaner technologies by factories has helped reduce water and energy footprints, but the scale remains limited. The costs involved are prohibitive for many factories.
- Recycling efforts currently deal with only a fraction of the total textile waste generated. Most fabric scraps still end up in landfills.
- Compliance with environmental regulations and global sustainability standards remains low. For many factories, profits take priority over investing in green measures.
- Lack of financing, technology, awareness, and training constrain sustainability initiatives for smaller suppliers.
- Water pollution in major rivers like the Buriganga continues to be extremely high as capacity lags behind the scale of the industry.
- Air quality in urban manufacturing hubs continues to deteriorate, especially in winter. Respiratory disease burden has not declined.
- Safe disposal of hazardous textile waste and sludge remains a challenge. These contribute to contamination of water and soil.
- Exposure of factory workers to toxic chemicals continues to be a concern due to weak enforcement of safety practices.
Cleaner Technologies and their Potential
Despite the challenges, there are numerous cleaner technologies that have been adopted by some factories in Bangladesh. These technologies have the potential to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the industry:
- Waterless dyeing techniques like CO2 dyeing and foam dyeing eliminate the use of water in the dyeing process, reducing water usage by up to 90%.
- Digital printing methods like inkjet printing apply dye only where needed on the fabric, significantly reducing dye wastage.
- Laser engraving machines etch patterns on denim using lasers rather than conventional abrasive techniques, eliminating the wastewater from stone-washing.
- High-pressure jet dyeing machines dye fabrics using less water and energy than conventional machines.
- Automated dye dispensing systems optimize dye use by mixing precise dye formulations, reducing dye wastage.
- Membrane bioreactor systems filter and recycle process water, reducing freshwater intake.
- Green boilers use biomass like rice husk as fuel instead of coal, lowering air emissions.
- Solar panels installed on factory rooftops generate renewable energy and reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
- Ozone treatment systems use ozone gas for bleaching fabrics and reduce the use of chlorine bleach.
- Energy-efficient lighting systems like LED lights lower electricity consumption.
- Cogeneration power plants produce both electricity and usable heat from the same fuel, raising overall energy efficiency.
- Heat recovery systems recapture waste heat from processes like steam generation to pre-heat water.
- Improved pipe insulation reduces heat loss and energy wastage during steam transportation.
However, the upfront costs of these cleaner technologies pose a barrier for many factories. Access to financing and government incentives can accelerate the adoption of these technologies.
Our journey to creating a sustainable clothing manufacturing industry in Bangladesh is far from over, but it is one we are dedicated to taking. It demands collective commitment, collaboration, and implementation of robust regulations and incentives to promote eco-friendly practices. Cleaner technologies hold the promise of significantly reducing our industry’s environmental footprint, yet their widespread adoption calls for financial support and incentives.
At Brandex Sourcing, we firmly believe in the power of concerted efforts to reshape our industry into one that fuels the economy while simultaneously respecting and cherishing our environment. As a leading Bangladeshi apparel manufacturer, we place a high premium on quality control, affordability, timely delivery, and fair treatment of both our environment and our dedicated workforce. We are not just involved in creating clothes, but in weaving a future where our industry leaves a minimal environmental footprint.
This is a transformative journey that demands a reimagining of practices and partnerships, and we invite you to join us. Reach out to us today to obtain a quote, and let’s collaborate to make sustainable fashion the norm, not the exception. For a more in-depth understanding of the challenges and opportunities surrounding sustainability, compliance, and environmental considerations in our industry, we recommend you delve into our thorough discussion on “Sustainability, Compliance, and Environmental Considerations in Bangladesh’s Clothing Industry”. Together, we can shape an industry that mirrors our collective commitment to a more sustainable and equitable world.