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Clothes that don’t stain the environment

  • Published at 01:36 am April 8th, 2019
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Profit and sustainability are not mutually exclusive Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

How can we make our RMG sector more sustainable?

The Bangladesh ready-made garment (RMG) industry is now, quite rightly, experiencing increased demands from international customers to address a broader spectrum of issues related to the sustainability of the sector.

We are all familiar with customer requirements regarding building safety, workers’ welfare, and environmental concerns, but a growing number of customers are beginning to make preparations to expand the levels of compliance to cover areas that will require better waste management, recycling of product and the components used, strict control of carbon emissions, and greater control of micro-plastics.

The emerging two-fold question facing the RMG sector today is: Are we ready for this increased level in sustainable targets being set by our customers and where will the necessary investment to implement the necessary upgrades to our industry come from?

It is important for us to realize that the RMG sector cannot ignore the rising demands of our customers for higher levels of sustainability. More important than simply complying with our customer’s wishes is the simple fact that increasing the sustainable credentials of the sector brings environmental benefits to us all -- both locally and for the world at large -- but also offers an untapped opportunity to increase revenue for the sector. 

Alongside the topics of carbon emissions and micro-plastics, the issues surrounding better waste management and recycling are coming to the fore.With customers seeking to put more requirements on their suppliers in order to achieve their own objectives of establishing a more sustainable, circular economy.

We are all aware that the RMG sector and the nation as a whole need to address the issue of carbon emissions. We should all be investigating ways that reduce our carbon footprint, from harnessing natural resources through to the adoption of hydrogen fuel cells for our public transport system and vital goods transportation services. This is not an area that is the sole preserve of the RMG sector, but one that requires greater investment at a national and local government level.

The issue of micro-plastics is another example of a by-product of our lives today that affects us all. The RMG industry needs to take steps to minimize the impact of plastic pollution on the environment, whether that be the introduction of more stringent filtration control of effluent from weaving and washing plants through to the day-to-day house-keeping of any waste that we produce.

We are not alone in this.

Again, national and local government bodies need to be actively involved with the issue of plastics in the environment, from the collection and disposal or recycling of waste through to education of the general public of the dangers that plastic pollution carries.

One area that those of us involved with the RMG industry can throw our weight behind is that of the recycling and re-purposing of waste product that our industry produces. This is an area that is worthy of serious investigation. Currently, the Bangladesh textile industry’s garment units produce some 500,000 tons of waste material annually, comprised of yarns, cutting scraps, cut pieces, roll ends, overproduction, rejected pieces, and garments, which can sometimes be as much as 47% of the total raw material input of garment production. 

The small proportion of recycled fibres, that do not find their way to landfill or export, are generally used domestically in the manufacture of low-end garments for the local market or as filling material for furniture, mattresses, and car seats, all of which represent very low returns for the fibres used.

According to Recover -- a Spain-based textile company that produces recycled yarns -- as much as 95% of all textile waste that is in landfills can be recycled, reducing carbon emissions as a significant amount the waste is not incinerated and reducing dramatically the environmental impact involved with the manufacture of virgin yarns. 

In a recent study, Reverse Resources -- an Estonia-based software company that has set up an online track and trace system and an intelligent management process of garment waste in Bangladesh, ensuring maximum utilization and better value for the waste -- found that the country could significantly benefit from adopting more initiatives for recycling the waste from RMG industry for reuse as export-ready product.

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The current practice of garment scraps being passed onto a chain of traders, eventually being transported to India or China, whose recycling technology is far more advanced than here in Bangladesh, means that we are both missing an opportunity to use the waste product effectively but also passing that opportunity onto other nations.

I find it ironic that, having imported a large percentage of the material we as an industry use in production, we then re-export our waste product for it to be transformed into recycled yarns and fabrics, that can then be used for export grade products by third-party suppliers or our direct competition.

The time is right for us to take control of this process and nurture a healthy recycling culture within the RMG industry, which would provide the opportunity of turning our so-called “waste” into a financially contributing area for the sector.

The Reverse Resources report estimated that the so-called waste product the industry produces could generate an estimated $4 billion for the RMG sector -- if fibres were re-purposed into higher grade textiles, fit for the export market.

Over and above this fact is that the adoption of this form of approach would contribute significantly to the environmental impact of fabric production. The growing and dyeing of cotton to produce one simple T-shirt alone can use as much as 2,700 litres of water, causing with it the risk of effluent being deposited into the local waterways in addition to the power usage in heating.

Due to the processes involved, mechanically recycled products don’t require any dye, chemical applications and minimal amounts of water, making it a sustainable solution to pollution from garment production. Fabrics are broken down and mixed together to create different colours. The fibres are carded, spun, and then turned into completely new material, often offering a 15-30% price advantage versus fabrics made from virgin yarns.

There are a variety of other new recycling technologies already available, with companies setting up or testing their first industrial plants (Worn Again, Circular Systems, Tyton, Evernu, Re:newcell, Moral Fibre, Refibra from Lenzing, for example) that take the recycling of fibre to a completely new level of quality and enables the recycling of up to 85% of different compositions.

These are very different technologies, with some requiring a bigger investment. The environmental impacts are various, and the market potential is different, but all of these technologies have one thing in common -- they require support to thrive and to reach bigger market volumes.

It is one of the RMG sector’s biggest market opportunities to work hand-in-hand with those early innovations and invite them to carry out their research in Bangladesh by opening up the market data to them to allow them to operate effectively and introduce systems that would benefit the industry as a whole.

The material in question are not waste. We need to rethink our approach to the waste product we produce and consider how we can best utilize it both for the sake of the environment and to put a halt to the resources flowing out of our industry on a regular basis.

It is now time for us as an industry to take the lead and investigate ways that we can finance and embrace these changes to the sector. It makes sense, both for increasing the sustainability and circularity of our business, but also because they offer potential financial streams that will otherwise go ignored.

With a wholesale change in approach towards garment waste, Bangladesh would be able to show to its RMG industry customers that we are taking the initiative when it comes to a sustainable circular approach to the fashion industry. 

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]