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Dhaka Tribune

Technology and sustainability in RMG

It would be unwise for Bangladesh to ignore need for innovation

Update : 23 Mar 2019, 08:12 PM

Technology is an ever-increasing presence in our lives today, shaping the way we communicate, and contributing in increasing ways to our everyday lives -- from smartphones and tablets through to smart technology in homes controlling lighting, heating, and domestic appliances. 

Yet, technology can bring far greater benefits to us all involved in the garment industry, particularly in Bangladesh, where the sector is of such vast importance to the nation both as an employer and as a contributor to the national GDP. 

We are all familiar with the benefits that technology is already providing in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector. Systems exist that can be employed to benefit the whole supply chain cycle; from the purchasing of raw materials and trims, to CAD tools that expedite the whole product design and development process, maximize fabric utilization, reduce standard minutes in garment manufacture, and reduce laundry costs.

What I would like us to consider is how advances in technology can actually further contribute to the sustainability of the RMG sector, not necessarily in forms that we would normally consider. 

It is largely recognized that technology and sustainability make for a natural marriage -- and that both should be a part of the ongoing conversation for anyone involved in the fashion industry. As Stella McCartney, world-renowned designer and recent signatory of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action states: “We are now really looking at tech as a company. We are probably more aligned with what’s happening in San Francisco than what’s happening in the fashion industry.”

Advances in the preparation of base raw materials are one area that can benefit hugely from technology contributing to the whole sustainability of the garment supply chain. A simple cotton t-shirt requires some 700 gallons of water to grow, produce, and transport with more water being used in the dyeing process.

Systems that allow the efficient growing and harvesting of crops, monitoring water usage, and minimizing the use of fertilizers and pesticides are increasing in number globally, and are endorsed by a number of international institutions, including the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

Radical thinking has led to the development of innovative new dye techniques. Take, for example, the recent development of CO2 dyeing by DyeCoo -- this innovative process uses pressurized, reclaimed CO2 as the dyeing medium in the dyeing of fabrics, eradicating the need for chemicals and water to achieve finished fabrics and resulting in a massive reduction in the consumption of energy. But technology can take us further still.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston USA-based biotech company specializing in the use of genetic engineering to produce bacteria with industrial applications, is working on a method that uses bacteria-secreted pigments to dye fabric. The technique dramatically reduces water usage, requiring less than seven ounces of water to dye a one-pound piece of silk, and the pigment itself is naturally, and non-toxically created by the bacteria. Whilst still in the development stages, the project is indicative of how technology can benefit the sustainability of the future fashion industry. 

The pursuit of a closed-loop, or circular fashion system -- in which every component of a garment can be re-used at the end of its life -- is gaining traction with our Western customers, with numerous retailers and brands, keen to push the cause of sustainability, encouraging customers to bring in old clothing for recycling. 

The sad truth is that the technology doesn’t yet exist to completely reuse old garments in their entirety, especially if the fabric is in a poor condition, meaning that clothing collected by these organizations doesn’t always find its way into the recycling system, although thanks to advances in technology, this may well be soon set to change. 

A recent breakthrough made by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in partnership with the H&M Foundation, a non-profit organization, funded by the same Swedish family that founded H&M, may begin to address this issue. HKRITA announced in September 2018 that it has successfully developed a method for separating out the cotton and polyester in poly-cotton blends that would allow both materials to then be recycled into new yarns. The process uses heat, minimal amounts of water and less than 5% biodegradable green chemicals to separate the fibres. The polyester, in particular, experiences no quality loss as a result of the process.

The innovations above are just some of the many examples of how technology is enabling sustainable initiatives to be fully integrated into the garment supply chain with respect to the raw materials used. The use of technology in the design process is well-documented -- computer-aided design systems now allow the development of virtual samples for customers to select from, eradicating the need for the costly, time consuming, prototype development sample process. 

This has been taken one stage further with brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, operating virtual showrooms for presentations to their customers and GAP offering customers augmented reality changing rooms to see how their purchases will look from the comfort of their own home. 

Embracing technology in the physical garment manufacturing process brings huge sustainable advantages. Over and above benefits to be gained in terms of fabric consumption and usage, manufacturing efficiencies and logistics, technology can offer alternatives in terms of power supply through the use of solar, hydro, or wind energy, alternative forms of transportation to carbon-emitting vehicles, massive reductions in the use of water and hazardous chemicals in the laundering process of garments, and substantial reduction in energy usage through innovations including smart lighting and heating. 

Undoubtedly, technology within the garment supply chain can offer huge benefits in terms of sustainability and the environmental impact of our industry on the planet -- from fibre through to finished product there exists a plethora of initiatives and products that allow the development of up to the minute designs, fabrics and finishes, with minimal impact to the environment and worker’s conditions. 

Innovations in dyeing methods, manufacturing processes, and garment processing techniques offer huge benefits in terms of water and power consumption, with the added advantage of minimizing the inherent negative health and safety aspects of our industry upon our employees.

With all the technological advances available, it would be foolish for the Bangladesh RMG industry to ignore the benefits to be gained from innovation -- whether it be at a commercial or creative level, technology offers the opportunity for the sector to advance in a sustainable manner to its next chapter. 

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). He can be reached at [email protected]

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