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Embracing circular economy in Bangladesh’s apparel industry

Circular economy is a model of production consisting of resource conservation, eliminating waste and enhancing efficiency within the production chain and improving the sustainability of the system

Update : 12 Jan 2022, 11:56 AM

In the run to save the world during the ongoing pandemic, causing the biggest paradigm shift, humans have come to realise how they have taken the blessings of the Earth for granted.

The needed change greatly starts from policy-making of the larger states to avoid large-scale environmental damage. Hence a cleaner, greener and circular process of industrialisation back the game, namely the new model of a circular economy. 

It targets a model of production consisting of resource conservation, eliminating waste and enhancing efficiency within the production chain, improving the sustainability of the system. 

Bangladesh is one of the leading garments manufacturers in the world. Ranked as the 2nd largest global RMG exporter, the industry accounts for more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) earnings. The application of a circular economy within the Bangladeshi manufacturing industry is in a progressive stage. 

A circular economy ensures the optimization of resources, reduce the consumption of raw materials, and recover waste by recycling or giving it a second life as a new product. 

To draw a balance between progress and sustainability, where waste becomes a new resource, circular economy bases its application on 3 basic principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; regenerate natural systems, the main aim being decoupling economic growth from an increase in resource use and reduction of environmental impacts. 

Additionally, there are some other crucial add-ons – repair, renovate, recycle and recover. All of these are executed with the intention of promoting the best practice in waste management. 

To date, the world has lived on a conventional paradigm of linear production models: production, consumption and discarding - where the raw material is turned into a product, which is then discarded at the end of its useful life. 

A unanimous consensus expresses fear of this method causing the world production chain to lose its ability to sustain itself. The next best model being resorted to is circularity in the production process, as the name suggests keeping the scarce raw material for a long term and repeated usage in the production process, thereby generating much less waste, for all industries.

As industrialization is becoming the norm, manufacturers naturally tend to consume large volumes of resources through raw materials, which in turn shall cost the Earth. 

Hence circularity shall intend for such manufacturers to not simply just create reusable products, but also responsibly procure and use raw materials for longer periods in the production chain. 

However, the implementation of such a model depends heavily on the prevalence of collaborative efforts from entrepreneurs, researchers, industry users, government, civil society, and legislators, but most importantly, it will require technological and creative innovation. 

Together with younger generations of learners and equipped with beyond-human-centred values towards awareness of the material and natural world, novel circular futures can be imagined.

The Bangladeshi government is working along with the industry to make as much use of reusable materials as possible. In this circular economy, there will be no more waste, as resources will be reused again and again. 

A circular economy is needed to ensure the world has enough raw materials for all forms of necessary production; to decrease dependence on other countries for raw material sourcing; to try and reuse products that used to be discarded and incinerated, as a source of raw materials in the future, to reduce a negative impact on the environment. 

It further benefits the local economy by encouraging production models based on the reuse of nearby waste as raw material. It further drives employment growth by stimulating the development of a new, more innovative and competitive industrial model, higher economic growth, and more employment.

Bangladesh is on the verge of graduating as an LDC by 2027 following a decade of progressive economic growth. This achievement will require the government to make concessions on its current duty-free and quota-free market access to selected markets. 

Without a doubt, exports’ future will be difficult if the country is not well prepared to deal with this shift; additionally, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic adds another layer of complexity. 

With these changes to adapt to, the shift to a circular economy is the only best possible option available that can be applied to close resource gaps and boost Bangladesh’s pursuit of achieving its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Circular models of production shall concentrate on the production leftovers, which at the moment, an average Bangladeshi RMG factory generates between 250 and 300 kilograms of waste fabric every day. 

The pricing varies upon the quality and size of the waste fabric, starting at Tk10 and rising to Tk300 per kilogram. The catch lies in the fact that any scrap of cloth can be recycled. 

In fact, large scraps of the wasted cloth are sold to local vendors for making items that are mostly marketed within Bangladesh, some are shipped to India. Additionally, Dhaka’s bedding sector is reliant on these scraps for items like mattresses, pillows, cushions, seat filling and cushioning in automobiles, public buses, and rickshaws.

Interestingly, the nation houses a very high demand for t-shirt waste, namely the rejected t-shirts. A number of clusters have developed around the nation with Pabna identified as a prominent one, with numerous local entrepreneurs in villages who have created jobs for between 25,000 and 30,000 people and annually make 18–20 crore units of apparel, predominantly t-shirts, valued between Tk1,200 crore and Tk1,500 crore.  

This surely states how such apparel can simply not be just counted as a waste but also be used in upcycling in adapting the new order of a circular economy within this industry.

Whilst the execution of a circular economy depends greatly on government policies, research and industrial practices, the main initiative is on the part of the consumer and conscious consumption. 

This model is based on the philosophy of prevention as opposed to cure and consists of actions that are to be performed prior to recycling – namely the precycling habit. 

With the ever-changing trend in global manufacturing models, the previously applied linear method manufacturing while displaying its inherent deficiencies was proposed to be replaced by a new circular vision of an economy in the textile industry, which shall minimise waste and pollution by reusing items. 

The next generation businessman involved in running the heritage of the RMG industry of Bangladesh has gladly welcomed the change, while addressing the environmental concerns which it entertains, alongside a progressively altered consumer behaviour alongside an added incentive of the customers who are prepared to support the sustainable items as well. 

The nation’s apparel sector has readily passed the message around the globe that the sector is ready to embrace the change. 

The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), Reverse Resources, P4G, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) have formed the Circular Fashion Partnership (CFP) to combat waste and resource depletion caused by textile manufacturing by fostering the growth of Bangladesh’s recycling industry. 

The GFA has identified two workstreams for the initiative: The first workstream involves the production of new garments from recycled waste, while the second involves the establishment of a circular fashion stock marketplace for overstock garments that have accumulated as a result of cancelled orders over time. 

The partnership aims to draw a dialogue between major fashion brands, textile and garment producers, and recyclers, to capture and repurpose post-production waste. Additionally, in the post-Covid-19 period, it aims to address the dead-stock piled up from the cancelled orders, besides addressing other economic hurdles and prospects. 

A textile waste tracking and trade network promoting the circular economy concept is conceivable to replace 40% of waste materials from garment manufacturing with recycled fibres by 2030. 

Waste management is inefficient due to the mixing of garbage with industrial waste that lowers the value of the trash. Additionally, waste is physically sorted and sold by a network of intermediaries, requiring recyclers to pay about 30% more than the market rate. 

For a nation like Bangladesh, the choice had not been an easy one to shift from linear to a circular model of production, and this ambitious transition comes with its own set of challenges, where the nation needs to be supported to adhere to the continuous development of a circular economy.

Bangladesh has the asset of a competitive wage labour group, and hence the circular economy model’s labour market implications need to be analyzed beforehand. 

The shift to a more circular economy is contingent upon repositioning clothes as a durable rather than a throwaway commodity and so, instead of launching numerous lines and collections each year, fashion businesses will now have to redirect their focus on designing and producing higher-quality garments in a circular economy. 

All this while, Bangladesh has been the hub for fast fashion and with reduced output in production, the new shift in paradigm may mean subsequently reduced working hours and/or job losses. 

Additionally, the adaptation of new circularity policies may involve the successful implementation of digitalization and technical advancements in the apparel sector, which may overall complicate the nation’s labour market. 

Hence the nation can be seen transitioning from its comparative strength – competitive cost labour to high value-added production. As much as the new transition shall add value to the brand image of “Made in Bangladesh” products, the country might lose on its competitive price advantages. 

There shall be a new cost of research and development as none in the apparel and textile sector reserves the knowledge and/or expertise to make the shift seamlessly without expert opinion, hence the cost of hiring specialists will possibly increase the short term costs thus affecting the competitive advantage of the nation.

In a nutshell, the overall state of the economies, the shift in practices of the world market, the post-Covid-19 anticipated state and the graduation from LDC, requires the shift to a circular economy from the linear model of production. The shift shall not be a smooth one but the challenges must be faced with the most progressive attitude. 

Barrister Shehrin Salam Oishee is a Director of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Director of Envoy Group and an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.

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