Does manufacturing a sustainable product make it green?
At the last edition of Bangladesh Denim Expo, held in November 2018, we had the theme of “simplicity,” with the aim of demystifying some of the terminology relating to sustainable products used within the denim and wider ready-made garment (RMG) industries and how the industry can better communicate with our end consumer about the merits of the separate terminology used.
Eco, green, sustainable, and environmentally friendly -- are all terms widely used within in all sectors including RMG industry, but does manufacturing a sustainable product actually make it green and, conversely, does making a green product actually make it sustainable? What should the RMG industry be aiming to achieve and how do we inform the end consumer of advances that have been made within the sector?
Green products are, generally, perceived as those that have less of an environmental impact than those produced using more traditional production methods. An example of this would be products made from organic cotton -- cotton that is harvested without the use of pesticides, with care for the farmland on which it is grown, and with respect for the surrounding environment.
Sustainable products, whilst quite possibly involving “green” textiles, take in a broader remit, paying particular attention to the three fundamental pillars of sustainability: Ensuring that products can be produced at a price that is economically viable for the producer and customer, environmental sustainability; ensuring products are made under conditions that respect the environment, and social sustainability; and ensuring products are made in safe conditions with respect for worker’s well-being, fair wages, and the betterment of society as a whole.
It is quite conceivable that a product made from “green” textiles does not actually qualify as a sustainable product. If that garment is made in sub-standard conditions by a workforce that is not paid a fair wage for their labour, then that product will, by default, not qualify as a sustainable product.
Similarly, if a product is finished in a non-environmentally friendly manner, using hazardous chemicals or with poor effluent control, then, this so-called “green” product would not qualify as being sustainable.
Likewise, a sustainable product can be produced not necessarily using “green” textiles. A good example is a product made using the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) certified fabrics. This institution encourages cotton production methods that are measurably better for the environment and the cotton farming communities that grow the crops.
The BCI initiative is one that champions the cause of sustainability, paying particular attention to the environmental, social, and economic aspects of cotton production. But, as I mentioned earlier, it is not one that can be considered “green,” no matter how noteworthy the progress the BCI has made, furthering the cause of sustainable cotton production.
Sustainability within the RMG sector is a topic that has been discussed at length for some time. Initially, within Bangladesh, the focus following the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 was with regards to structural safety and working conditions at garment manufacturer’s factories and worker’s overall well-being. Over the years, the focus has shifted somewhat to fully incorporate the environmental aspects of sustainability and, to a lesser extent, the economic factors involved.
Great progress has been made by the RMG sector in terms of social sustainability, with well-publicized advances in factories’ structural integrity, vast improvements in working conditions, and wholesale wage increases across the sector, but there is still more that we can do.
Collectively, we need to be looking at the materials we use and, in the case of our fabric manufacturing partners -- looking at the raw material used to produce the fabrics. We can follow the lead of international standards set by companies such as the BCI, in ensuring that any material we use is manufactured in the most sustainable manner possible.
We can consider extending the use of “green” materials for production but need to be wary of the supply and cost limitations, and need to ensure that any “green” product is produced in a controlled and considered manner, and that there is a secure supply framework to ensure the sustainable value chain’s resource consumption in production. We need to consider our use of gas, electricity, and water and be actively exploring alternative power sources and methods to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
As an industry, we need to be actively reducing the use of plastics and other non-biodegradable products involved in the production process. The use of recycled card and cartons needs to be encouraged and we need to be investigating alternative, biodegradable materials to plastic, for use is the packing processes.
Last, but not least, we need to be sure that the RMG industry is built on economically sustainable foundations. As we are all aware there are cost implications in adopting a more sustainable approach to production. Although some of these can be offset with savings made by adopting sustainable practices in the production process, we need to be actively discussing with our customers the cost implications involved, especially regarding truly sustainable raw material whether they be organic “green” fabrics or those certified by organizations such as the BCI, which carry a surcharge when compared to less sustainable materials.
Part of these discussions with our business partners should involve how we, as an industry, can inform the end consumer of the steps that have been taken to provide truly sustainable merchandise. By clearly explaining the environmental, social, and economic benefits of sustainable production -- the end consumer will be able to make a more informed purchase and appreciate the efforts being made by the garment industry as a whole.
In an ideal world, we would all have the opportunity for sustainable production to be fully green but, sadly, this is not the case today. By clarifying to the end consumer the principles of sustainable production, the costs involved, and the environmental and social benefits that can be gained, a clear message can be given. Our RMG industry can continue on its journey to becoming a world leader in sustainable production.
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]