Is Bangladesh better off without the fashion trash?
It is everywhere, in fashion shows, influencers promoting a brand, seasonal sales, we are talking about clothing. Our looks have gotten a very important factor for a lot of people. We like to buy our clothing as cheaply as possible, who doesn’t. Fashion can be offered to you cheap if they are produced for cheap. A country known for that is Bangladesh. Many of the pieces you wear are made there or somewhere else in Asia.
It is a manufacturing country with fashion as its biggest industry (TradingEconomics, 2015). You could say it has great economic benefits when it comes to this, but did you ever think about the negative effects this sector might have on the country?
An example is Rana Plaza, a building with five factories that collapsed and took the lives of more than 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,500 others (ILO, 2017). This was the result of insufficient safety regulations and no inspection. Besides, the industry comes with tons of waste and environmental harm.
So, taking into account the benefits it could have but also the negative effects it brings to the table, would the country be better off without the industry, or is there too much to lose?
History of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a country that knew a lot about colonization. Starting in 1757, the country was colonized by the English empire. The English empire ruled for a long time, almost two hundred years, ending its rule by 1947. Directly after the decolonization of the English empire, two newborn countries took over Bangladesh. India took the Western of the country and Pakistan the Eastern. Although Bangladesh was colonized by different countries all over time, there were also some positive points. The time of the English colonization provided Bangladesh with inland railways, which improved international trade and transportation. Furthermore, the time of the rule of Pakistanis provided Bangladesh with newborn industries and businesses, which stimulated the production of the country. However, when Bangladesh turned independent in 1972, the country got confronted with a lot of problems. Some of these problems were the restoration of infrastructure, communication, and international trade networks, and the resumption of agricultural and industrial production (Britannica, 2022).
After the independence of 1972, Bangladesh was one of the poorest countries in the world. Nurool Quader Khan changed this. In the 1980s he started with his readymade garment industry. He had sent trainees to South Korea to study the production of readymade garments and made an industry out of it. He succeeded very well in this, which can be resulted from the 83% of all export of Bangladesh that consists of readymade garments (BGMEA, 2020). But since the world developed a lot lately, focussing on turning more sustainable and caring more about the citizens of a country and employees in the industries, does Bangladesh still really depend on the export of the ‘fashion trash’?
Western companies are pretty much the cause of the fast-fashion factories e.g. in Bangladesh. Companies would like to produce their products as cheaply as possible so they can make higher profits themselves. To maintain the low prices of the products, production is placed elsewhere which results in eco-colonialism. Eco-colonialism can be explained as ‘The ways in which colonial practices have affected the natural environments of indigenous peoples’ (Bramwell. L, 2020) In other words, the Western countries are part of the cause of our polluted earth because they want to have their products as cheap as possible in less developed countries. And in the meantime, the Global west is trying to become the face of sustainability.
The colonizers in this ‘story’ are the western companies. And what is interesting is, that the fast-fashion companies mirror the same route as our ancestors did more than 500 years ago with the world trade routes. The VOC collected spices such as cinnamon and pepper from Asia and now hundreds of years later, cheap fashion is being collected. Factories and suppliers are being pushed by the west to produce mass production with low wages despite the speed of the production. While the west is trying to ‘work’ on sustainability even though a huge part of the waste is a reaction of their practices in Asia.
Import of Garment Industries
We all know that Bangladesh is the second largest fast fashion producer in the world, but where does Bangladesh actually import their materials from? Well, 60% of its woven fabrics originate from China. Just like 15 till 20% of all raw materials used in the garment industry and 80 till 85% of dyeing chemicals and accessories of the knitwear sector. Additionally, 40% of raw materials for garment accessories and the packaging manufacturing industry, on a yearly basis, originates from China as well (Bangladesh correspondent, 2020). Which makes China a very important trade partner for Bangladesh. If the fast-fashion industry would fall away or become less, it will not only have huge consequences for the economy and employees but also for International Trade.
Other important trade partners where Bangladesh imports its raw materials from are India and Pakistan, former colonisators of Bangladesh. Anually, Bangladesh imports around the $1,9 million from India and $0,6 million from Pakistan. But still, China remains the largest trading partner with an annual import of $4,1 million (WITS, 2015).
So, would it be a wise choice for Bangladesh to abandon the garment industry and thereby lose their international trade with big countries like China, India and Pakistan?
What about the waste?
Something that is not only negatively affecting Bangladesh but has consequences for the whole world is waste. As mentioned earlier, the industry has a huge impact on the country. To verify this, the tons of waste coming from the textile sector has been around 570.000 tonnes of waste from Ready Made Garments, almost half of this waste was 100% pure cotton in 2019 (Globalfashionagenda, 2021).
What is the impact of all this waste on the country?
The impact may seem less obvious, but it certainly is there. Offering cheap clothing is because of producing cheap and fast. However, what you may not think about is the harm of this type of production. The cheap manufacturing process comes with toxic dyes and chemicals. It is not difficult to conclude that working with toxic materials every day causes damage to the health of the workers. If not because of direct contact, it will reach the Bangladesh citizens indirectly since parts of these toxins come into the rivers surrounding the factories, which will eventually reach the daily drinking water of the citizens.
Drinking this will increase the diseases among these civilians (Thelwell, K, 2021).
This is only a small aspect of the negative consequences fast fashion production comes with. Not only does it affect the country of production, but it also impacts our whole world. Even the places that you buy the clothes in.
Other effects are that the industry is contributing to water scarcity and small bits of plastic come into our oceans each year and is also the second biggest water polluter (Magnusdottir, A. 2020). On top of that, it contributes to around 10% of the global carbon emissions which is more than flights and freight shipping combined. In other words, since Bangladesh contributes to a huge part of fashion exportation and waste, it will make a positive impact if production processes and waste is managed and inspected better (McFall-Johnsen, M. 2019).
Reading about all the waste, and negative impacts of the industry gives the impression that the country is suffering under it. However, developments can be made everywhere, also within this industry, so what can Bangladesh do to turn its impact towards a more positive one?
How to turn this waste into something positive for Bangladesh
All waste from the Ready Made Garment industry is valuable and revenu-generating because every single part can be recycled. The main waste products are fabrics, paper, plastic, thread, sludge, metal, and wood and consist of yarns, cutting scraps, roll ends, overproduction, rejected pieces, and garments. Recycling these products after they are no longer of use, brings environmental benefits to us all – both locally and globally.
Currently, the RMG industries produce some 500.000 tons of waste a year, which sometimes can account for more than 47% of the total raw material input of the garment production. However, at the moment, Bangladesh is outsourcing the recycling to India and China due to their more advanced recycling technology. To turn the huge amounts of waste from the garment industry into something positive, Bangladesh should invest in its recycling technology. This can result in an added revenue of $4 billion (Uddin, M., 2019).
Ways to recycle the garment waste are upcycling, downcycling, closed-loop, and open-loop recycling. Indicating that recycling the garment waste can create new products, materials can be used for other products, and the recycled waste can be used in a more or less identical product. Recycling offers environmental sustainability, a great opportunity for an industrialized country like Bangladesh.
The video below explains how garment waste could be recycled:
If Bangladesh considers implementing more advanced recycling technologies, the country will provide from the revenue of the readymade garment industry and the recycling revenue. In this way, many people will be provided with a job, the industry will gain Bangladesh a lot, and there is a significant reduction in environmental harm (Juanga-Labayen, J.P., Labayen, I.V. & Yuan, Q., 2022).
Let’s talk money
The reliance on the industry now is huge as 80% of the countries’ total export earnings are from the garment industry (Fathi, N. n.d).
After the Rana Plaza incident, steps were taken to help improve the safety of the building. An Accord that was created is the Accord of Fire and Building Safety which included the installation of fire alarms, fire doors, sprinkler systems, and improved building foundations (Paton, E. 2020).
This stimulated growth within the industry and contributed to large growth within the last years. As the industry currently contributes to around 11% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a certain period – the improvements will account for an even larger increase in the future (Kathuria, S. 2021).
However, when looking at statistics released in an article of The Global Economy.com (n.d), the value of exports as a percentage of the GDP has severely decreased in the last years. Does this mean Bangladesh is learning to stand on its own feet?
Looking at the future of Bangladesh, it is even expected to leave the status of “least developed country” in 2026.
This low position will give the country privileges and preferences in terms of tariffs, loans, and development grants from the World Bank, which is beneficial and will enable Bangladesh to develop where needed (Kathuria, S. 2021).
Unfortunately, the country still is one of the Asian garment production countries with the lowest wage rates (Statista Research Department, 2021).
As shown in the statistics, garment workers in India earn the most monthly basic wage at 243 USD. Cambodia has 190 USD, Myanmar 157 USD, India 105 USD, Sri Lanka 104 USD, and then the lowest of them, Bangladesh with only 95 USD per month.
Underneath there is a global estimation of what the average monthly basic wage of garment industry workers was expected to be worth, which was 200 USD per month. Thus, India is far above the average estimation and Bangladesh has a long way to go to come closer to the average.
All in all, with several agreements and accords to stimulate development within the industry, it is expected to grow. This will result in more demand for employees and will offer more employment opportunities. The question to ask ourselves here is: what is the effect of the industry on workers?
Workers within the industry
The fast-fashion industry plays a very big role in the economy of Bangladesh, More than 4.4 million people work in the industry, which is mostly women (Bynum. G, 2021).
You could say that the stability of the nation of Bangladesh depends on the fast fashion industry. Because of the industry, many Bangladeshi have a job. If the sale of fast fashion were to decrease, a lot of labor would disappear, resulting in a high unemployment rate. Which in turn, results in more poverty.
On the other hand, it would be silly not to tell you about the different sides of the story. The industry harms its workers as well. Workplaces are unsafe which leads to bad working conditions (Bynum. G, 2021). The employees are forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for very low wages; 25 to 75 USD a month. Next to that, The buildings of the factories are unsafe with no ventilation which results in diseases (Sustainyourstyle, n.d.). A good but at the same time sad example is the Rana Plaza incident as mentioned earlier where many peoples lives were taken. Outside that, there is an estimation that there are 1.4 million garment store injuries within the workplaces, inside the factories every year Even if employees would complain to their bosses or would strike, they will get fired because there are many others willing to have a job. Which makes it a responsibility for the western countries which outsource their production to Asia.
Even though the fast fashion industry is good for the economy and the unemployment rate of Bangladesh, it has a downfall on the side of the people who are working in the factories.
‘Currently, Bangladesh's economy is overdependent on a single factor, the ready made garment’ – USAID Daily Star –
The risk about this is that any international or external shock to the industry can slow down the domestic economic growth. Millions of people can lose their jobs or get paid even less. This will result in hunger, even higher poverty, and a higher death rate. Luckily, there are alternatives Bangladesh could think of. According to a study of USAID in the Daily Star (2019), there are sixteen alternatives worth implementing:
- Agricultural business
- Automotive/truck/bus assembly
- ICT and outsourcing
- Leather and leather goods
- Light engineering
- Medical equipment
- Plastic business
- Renewable energy and energy-efficient technology
- Shrimp and fish business
- Tourism and leisure
Implementing these alternatives will result in the creation of more than six million jobs and an annual revenue of $50 billion from domestic and international markets (The Daily Star, 2019).
Currently, the readymade garment industry makes an annual revenue of $34 billion from domestic and international markets. Meaning, it would be a positive contribution to the economy of Bangladesh (Fathi, N., 2022).
So, is Bangladesh better off without the fashion trash?
There are some clear negative effects the industry comes with. However, there are positive opportunities that could turn the industry towards a more positive approach.
As for the economical position of the industry, thanks to accords that were established after building and safety accidents, improvements are on the horizon. Nevertheless, there will be always room for improvement within the industry. Especially in terms of working conditions such as wages and working hours. Once every part has undergone improvement, the industry could expect growth which will result in more job availability in Bangladesh and in the end a higher GDP as well.
However, maintaining high-quality inspection would be required to prevent the country from falling back into old patterns regarding unsafe manufacturing. That would not only be bad for the health of the workers, but the whole world. If such disasters would happen again, supply chain disruptions would happen everywhere within the industry. Thus, everyone should maintain a better-quality production so that Bangladesh can positively enjoy the economic benefits the industry brings. It can be said that economic-wise, the country relies on the industry a lot and would lose too much without it.
The industry also creates opportunities for Bangladesh. They could invest in their recycling technologies and gain an extra revenue of $4 billion annually. This extra revenue benefits the country as it possibly increases the minimum wages of the employees. On the other hand, there are also a lot of alternatives for Bangladesh to establish a good and wealthy economy in the future.
So, is Bangladesh better off without the fashion trash? The answer is yes and no. It all depends on the willingness of the government to invest and improve the industry. It would be better for the employees currently working in the garment industry to work in another, safer and healthier, environment, like the alternatives provided in this blog. But overall, with the necessary changes, the country has a hopeful future with the industry and would certainly not be better off without it.
This blog was written by:
Madelon van Calker, Lize Themmen, and Judith Wartenhorst
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