DHAKA – Mohammed Zahidullah is the Chief Sustainability Officer with Bangladesh-based DBL Group, one of the country’s largest garment suppliers to global fashion retailers the likes of H&M, Marks and Spencer and BESTSELLER. The group, a Better Work partner, has 43,000 employees spread across ten garment and textile factories and spinning mills in the Gazipur area, outside the capital Dhaka.
For DBL, “going green” was a must.
“We are saving over one million dollar a year in dyes and chemicals due to the interventions we carried out since the early 2010s,” Zahidullah says. “Investing in this direction is a matter of surviving in the business globally, and it is crucial for our environmental impact.”
Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest exporters of garments and textiles, making it one of the most important players in the global textile industry, with over 4.5 million people employed in the sector, the majority of whom are women. But the fashion industry is also one of the most polluting in the world. It uses huge amounts of energy and water and generates up to ten percent of global CO2 emissions.
The industry’s impact on the environment in Bangladesh is severe, affecting a country that is already acutely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels that could eventually displace millions of people in the future. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a 45 cm rise in sea levels will affect over 10% of Bangladesh’s coastal areas, potentially displacing 5.5 million people.
DBL acted quickly. To reduce its Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions and fight the country’s rising energy costs, DBL joined an International Finance Corporation (IFC)-run project about ten years ago. The project, called Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), is a joint effort of brands and factories that focuses on responsible consumption and production, and technical audits.
“We noticed we were consuming way too much water, thus wasting a lot of energy,” Zahidullah says. “Large quantities of steam are required in the dyeing sections. If the steam pipelines are not properly insulated, maintaining the temperature will require more water and energy, eventually affecting the quality of the product and increasing the production time. So, we insulated our steam lines and fixed water leakages.”
DBL immediately cut its water use in half as a result, going from 120 litres of water for 1kg of dyeing fabrics, to about 60 litres. With water consumption levels decreasing, the amount of dyes and chemicals used in production also diminishes.
DBL is not alone in its journey. The government has recently vowed to help the apparel sector transition into a green future, joining hands with the recent pledge made by the country’s sector stakeholders to reduce GHG emission by 30% by 2030.
“The transition of the Bangladesh garment industry to a green future is urgent and demands the action from all industry stakeholders,” says Better Work Director Dan Rees. “Better Work will support partnerships and interventions to address the negative environmental impacts of the apparel industry on both employers and workers. Promoting decent and productive work together with resource sustainability can lead the way to more and better jobs and accompany the sector into the future.”
Bangladesh’s pledge highlights the maturity of its industry and the efforts the country has made over the years to improve the standards of its production.
“Safety issues are still very important for factories in Bangladesh, but now there is also an increasing focus on improving the ecosystem’s health,” says Nishat Shahid Chowdhury, IFC Program Manager, Partnership for Cleaner Textile. “We have been active in the sector for over a decade. Through PaCT, we have reached about 400 factories in Bangladesh, helping them adopt efficiency practices to reduce water energy and chemicals.”
The programme helped the industry save more than half a million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG), which corresponds to taking 900,000 cars off the road. Also, around 29 billion litres of water were saved through this project so far.
“What we are seeing right now is a change in the factories’ mindset, gradually trying to improve their production processes because they know that wasting water and chemicals will cost them a lot of money,” Chowdhury says. “Factories are joining the programme to keep the business going, also in light of the new regulations that are emerging globally, especially in the European Union.”
IFC also established a Dialogue Platform in Bangladesh to discuss environmental sustainability issues with government, employer associations, factories, and brand representatives. These roundtables translate into policy papers that are later discussed within the prime minister’s cabinet.
Through the platform, stakeholders were able to successfully advocate for the establishment of a 200-million-dollar green transformation fund with Bangladesh Bank to help the industry invest in water and energy efficient technology.
As new environmental business models are emerging across the board globally, the IFC sees projects like the “Roof for Rental” as a good fit for the country. In this model, a private developer can install a solar rooftop on a factory facility and sell the power to the manufacturer, with the government acting as a private-to-private guarantor.
Top buyers and Better Work partners have also joined the pledge of reducing their GHG emissions in Bangladesh, either by joining PaCT or by directly setting up targets with their partners. One of those is H&M, the world’s second-biggest fashion retailer. The group has some 200 suppliers in Bangladesh, employing half a million workers. It plans to reduce its GHG emissions by 56% by 2030 and become a climate positive company by 2040.
“This change across the industry is vital. I don’t see the alternative,” says Masarrat Quader Syeda, H&M Regional Public Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Bangladesh. “The way in which we have worked so far is no longer feasible, sustainable and scalable, which is why we and many other leading brands have established such ambitious targets.”
The fashion giant has not yet included investment in greening as a minimum requirement for their local partner factories to implement. Rather, it uses a sustainability index ranging different issues. The higher a supplier scores in these indicators, the more business it will do with the company, creating incentives for change instead of penalising manufacturers.
H&M is also working on eliminating or reducing GHG emissions from the early stage of production by transitioning to recycling resources. Since 2017, the company started implementing waste segregation programmes, making sure that the pre-consumers and the post-production waste get segregated and sent to a recycler and then turned into yarn and, ultimately, into garments.
“We are investing a lot in this process,” Quader Syeda says. “This can be a game-changer in terms of the impact that the sector has. The technology globally is still in its infancy, but we expect a lot of investment and changes to happen into this direction over the next three to five years.”
H&M is currently supporting the use of solar rooftop systems among its suppliers, so far 20% of suppliers in Bangladesh have opted for this solution but this number is likely to go up significantly over the next few years.
Meanwhile, in Gazipur, DBL Mohammed Zahidullah is optimistic about the industry’s green transition, but also calls for the efforts of local manufacturers to be fairly recognised.
“Bangladesh factories want to turn green, but this shift has a cost that should be better reflected, calculated and shared across the whole supply chain. Returns on investment happen between six months to five years, depending on the intervention, thus our endeavours need to be accounted for,” he says. “The goal set by Bangladesh is possible and must be achieved. But we all need to work together to reach it.”