The apparel manufacturing industry in Bangladesh has emerged as a major export industry since the 1970s. Employing around 3 million people directly and indirectly, it has been a key driver of Bangladesh’s economic growth. Apparel exports make up over 80% of Bangladesh’s total exports. However, the industry has faced criticisms over poor working conditions, low wages for workers, and a lack of attention to sustainability issues.
The Turning Point
The turning point came with the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, which killed over 1,100 workers and brought global attention to the unsafe conditions in the industry. This incident led to a surge of initiatives by the government, international organizations, NGOs, and brands to improve sustainability in Bangladesh’s factories.
Government and International Initiatives
In response to the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government took actions such as increasing minimum wages, forming a wage board, and establishing workplace safety committees. The Department of Environment set effluent treatment guidelines to control pollution.
International organizations like the ILO, UNDP, UN Women, IFC, and other UN agencies launched projects to improve workplace safety, empower female workers, and implement cleaner production processes.
Prominent international brands also joined safety initiatives like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Some of these brands include:
Accord on Fire and Building Safety:
- Inditex (Zara)
- PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger)
Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety:
- Gap Inc.
- VF Corporation (North Face, Timberland)
- Hudson’s Bay Company (Saks, Lord & Taylor)
- J.C. Penney
- L. L. Bean
- The Children’s Place
Sustainability Initiatives in Factories
Many factories in Bangladesh have taken significant steps towards sustainability. These initiatives include:
- Installation of rainwater harvesting systems to collect and reuse rainwater.
- Adoption of efficient washing machines and rinse processes that use less water.
- Establishment of effluent treatment plants to treat and reuse wastewater.
- Use of technologies like pressure reducers, auto shut-off valves, and leak detectors to reduce water wastage.
- Transitioning from traditional boilers to energy efficient boilers for steam generation.
- Use of natural gas generators instead of diesel generators.
- Installation of solar panels and use of solar water heating systems.
- Use of energy efficient lighting and occupancy sensors.
- Insulation of steam pipes to prevent heat loss.
- Energy audit programs by BEMP, GIZ, and other partners.
Safer Chemical Management:
- Inventory of chemicals and training workers on safe chemical handling.
- Phasing out restricted chemicals and using alternate chemical formulations.
- Establishment of proper chemical storage facilities and secondary containment.
- Collaboration with organizations like ZDHC for best practices.
Better Process Control:
- Digital tracking of inventory and monitoring key performance indicators.
- Use of automated fabric cutting machines to optimize fabric use.
- Implementation of right-first-time quality practices to reduce rework and waste.
- Adoption of lean manufacturing practices for production efficiency.
- Pursuit of ISO certifications for quality, environment, and occupational health & safety management.
Impact of Sustainability Initiatives
The sustainability initiatives have had a significant positive impact on both the environment and workers in the Bangladesh clothing industry.
- Reduced water usage through rainwater harvesting and efficient machinery has helped lower the burden on groundwater resources.
- Treatment of industrial wastewater before discharge has reduced pollution in water bodies.
- Energy efficient equipment and use of renewable energy has lowered greenhouse gas emissions associated with factories.
- Safe disposal or recycling of hazardous wastes and transition to safer chemicals has lowered toxicity levels.
- Good housekeeping practices have reduced air, noise, and solid waste pollution within factory premises.
Impact on Workers:
- Improved electrical, fire, and building safety measures have directly reduced risks of accidents for workers.
- Training on topics like fire safety, first aid, and chemical handling have made workers more aware of safety practices.
- Anti-harassment policies and committees have reduced cases of workplace harassment and abuse.
- Minimum wage increases and regular pay have improved workers’ financial condition and labor relations.
- Better quality of facilities like drinking water, sanitation, medical care, daycare etc. have benefited workers.
- Overall, workers have gained from a safer, more dignified, and more responsible working environment in compliant factories.
Role of Consumers
Consumers play a crucial role in supporting sustainability efforts in the Bangladesh clothing industry. Here are some steps consumers can take:
- Look for brands that have joined safety initiatives like the Accord and Alliance which inspect factories and help remediate issues.
- Choose brands that disclose their manufacturers and are transparent about working conditions.
- Support brands that use eco-friendly and organic materials like sustainable cotton, recycled polyester etc.
- Avoid purchasing excess clothing. Consider mending existing clothes rather than discarding them.
- Donate or recycle unwanted clothes responsibly to prevent them ending up in landfills.
- Ask questions to brands regarding their sustainability practices through social media, emails, or at stores.
- Use mobile apps like Good On You to find how ethically and sustainably brands rate on various criteria.
- Write reviews on brand websites mentioning sustainability asks and suggestions.
- Share positive news when brands announce sustainability commitments and partnerships.
- Support local clothing brands using sustainable production systems and fair wages.
- Spread awareness on social media about issues in the fashion industry and solutions.
- Join campaigns calling for improved regulation, working conditions, and environmental policies.
Challenges and Solutions
Despite the progress made, the Bangladesh clothing industry faces several challenges regarding sustainability:
- Lack of financial resources of suppliers to invest in green technology upgrades.
- Training the large workforce on topics like energy/water conservation, safety practices etc.
- Difficulty getting some suppliers to buy into sustainability initiatives that need upfront investment.
- Compliance monitoring and auditing the large number of factories spread out across the country.
- Developing systems to reliably track and share sustainability performance data across supply chains.
- Managing and reducing the huge volumes of textile waste generated by production.
- Eliminating unauthorized subcontracting to unsafe units by suppliers.
- Remediating old buildings not originally built for industrial purposes to meet safety codes.
- Insufficient wastewater treatment infrastructure and issues with proper chemical disposal.
- Power shortages hampering consistent production scheduling and process efficiency.
- Prevalence of bribery/corruption diluting enforcement of environmental regulations.
- Lack of technical knowledge of green production processes among smaller suppliers.
- Difficulties getting policy support and incentives from government agencies.
- Reluctance of consumers to pay more for ethically produced clothing.
Overcoming these challenges will require coordinated efforts between industry stakeholders, government bodies, international partners, and consumers.
Despite these challenges, there have been several successful sustainability initiatives in the Bangladesh clothing industry:
- Tesco’s partnership with WaterAid to implement rainwater harvesting systems in their supplier factories, reducing groundwater usage by over 40%.
- H&M’s supplier training programs on topics like waste management, energy savings, and worker rights that have reached over half a million workers.
- Target’s investment in two utility scale solar projects that together provide over 20% of the renewable electricity powering their supplier factories.
- Nike’s partnership with IFC for cleaner production training that helped 78 suppliers save over 2.5 billion liters of water annually.
- Primark’s deployment of modular effluent treatment plants at key supplier hubs, enabling localized wastewater recycling.
- C&A Foundation’s support in establishing a gold-rated LEED Platinum garment factory in Bangladesh with multiple sustainability features.
- Walmart provided over $1.6 million in grants to suppliers for renewable energy projects, benefitting over 25,000 workers.
- Inditex’s worker wellbeing and engagement programs covering areas like health education, financial literacy, and grievance mechanisms.
- Marks & Spencer’s training of 508,000 workers of diverse supplier factories on topics like energy management, health & safety, and rights.
- H&M and IKEA were early adopters of recycled PET and cotton from textile waste in their products manufactured out of Bangladesh.
These success stories show that collaboration, training, innovation, and financing partnerships can contribute to impactful programs owned by the industry itself.
The journey of the Bangladesh apparel sector, evolving from the tragic circumstances of the Rana Plaza disaster to embracing sustainable practices, is indeed a story of transformation. Various initiatives focused on improving working conditions, minimizing environmental impact, and fostering a socially responsible work culture have been integral in this journey.
Nonetheless, challenges persist, yet the steps taken towards overcoming them are promising. The evolution of cleaner production methodologies, the creation of safer workspaces, and the fostering of a social responsibility ethos are some of the significant accomplishments.
Consumers have an instrumental role to play in the ongoing transformation. By consciously choosing to support brands that prioritize sustainability and workers’ well-being, they can contribute to the industry’s continuous evolution.
Furthermore, the inspiring success stories within the industry stand as a testament to the potential of collaboration, innovation, and unwavering commitment. Brands like Tesco, H&M, Target, and Nike have demonstrated that sustainability and profitability are not mutually exclusive, setting the stage for the future of the industry.
In essence, the Bangladesh apparel industry’s sustainability journey is an ongoing process that reflects its commitment to protecting both the workforce and the environment through cleaner production practices and a dedication to social responsibility.
Our article, “Sustainability Initiatives in Bangladesh Clothing Factories”, offers a comprehensive exploration into the strides taken, challenges confronted, and the path forward for Bangladesh’s apparel industry in its quest for sustainability. It stands as a testament to the industry’s resilience and dedication to change, urging all stakeholders to continue their supportive efforts.
At Brandex Sourcing, we are proud to be a part of this ongoing transformation. Our commitment to quality, affordability, punctuality, and the fair treatment of the environment and our workers, aligns with the core values echoed in this article. If you are interested in partnering with a manufacturer that prioritizes these values, reach out to us for a quote today.
To better understand the broader context of this transformation and the complexities of sustainability, compliance, and environmental considerations in Bangladesh’s clothing industry, we invite you to read our main article. It provides a comprehensive insight into the industry’s journey towards more responsible practices.