Sustainable Fashion

Everything you want to know about the sustainability of the textile and fashion industry

Transitioning Bangladesh’s textile industry to sustainable development

HEJSupport Interview with Dr. Shahriar Hossain, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO).

Textile production is not just a local issue but a global concern. It is responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products. A single laundry load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibers that can end up in the food chain. Substantial evidence shows that cotton production involves the extensive use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, with most of these chemicals ending up on the land during the application process. Furthermore, textile manufacturing units are known to release hazardous waste into the surrounding land, contributing to environmental pollution. 

Over the past two decades, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment and textile sector has experienced continuous growth, making it the world’s second-largest manufacturer of textile clothes. This growth has significantly contributed to the country’s economic and societal development while at the same time substantially negatively impacting the environment.

What are some key environmental challenges associated with textile manufacturing in Bangladesh?

Major environmental challenges include water pollution from the dumping of untreated textile effluents, water scarcity from excessive use of fresh groundwater, air pollution, and soil contamination due to improper textile waste disposal.

The textile manufacturing industry in Bangladesh encompasses five main processes: spinning, weaving, knitting, wet processing, and apparel production. Each of these processes has its own unique contribution to pollution. Spinning and weaving, for instance, are major sources of air and noise pollution.

Water pollution is a significant challenge in Bangladesh’s textile manufacturing. Wet processing, for example, which includes dyeing, printing, and finishing, contributes substantially to water pollution. In addition, the production of materials like viscose (also known as rayon or artificial silk, made from wood) requires a substantial amount of water, particularly to dilute waste generated during processing. 

Understanding the industry’s pollution sources is crucial for developing effective prevention measures in BangladeshEfforts are needed to address regulatory gaps and enhance institutional capacity to ensure stronger sector-specific regulatory support, implementation, and monitoring.

How do these challenges affect local communities and the environment?

Environmental pollution caused by textile industry in Bangladesh leads to health issues such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Individuals with lower incomes are more likely to reside in polluted areas and have access to unsafe drinking water. Additionally, children and pregnant women are at a greater risk of experiencing health problems associated with pollution.

For example, the dumping of untreated textile effluents into rivers and water bodies contaminates water sources, making them unsafe for drinking, cooking, and bathing. This pollution affects aquatic life, disrupts ecosystems, and poses health risks to communities dependent on these water sources. Water pollution from wet processing, including dyeing and finishing, can lead to harmful chemicals and dyes in the water, which can cause skin diseases, respiratory issues, and other health problems in humans.

Moreover, excessive use of fresh groundwater for textile production exacerbates water scarcity in Bangladesh regions that are already facing limited water resources. Groundwater depletion affects agricultural activities as farmers struggle to find sufficient water for irrigation. Local communities also experience reduced access to clean water for daily needs, leading to increased hardship and potential conflicts over water resources.

Air emissions from spinning, weaving, and other textile processes contribute to poor air quality, causing respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, and other health issues among local populations. Air pollution also affects vegetation and wildlife, disrupting local ecosystems.

In addition, improper disposal of textile waste leads to soil contamination, impacting agricultural productivity and food safety. Contaminated soil can result in the uptake of harmful substances by crops, which can enter the food chain and pose health risks to consumers.

What are the main health and safety concerns for workers in the textile industry in Bangladesh?

Many health issues experienced by garment workers result from occupational stress, such as low wages, long working hours, limited leave, unhealthy working environments, crowded premises, supervisor misconduct, and a lack of adequate health facilities. These issues include exposure to chemicals from material processing and dyeing, cotton and other organic dust, musculoskeletal stress, and noise exposure.

Efforts to improve the health and safety of textile workers in Bangladesh include:

Establishing onsite clinics and ensuring workers have access to regular health check-ups and necessary medical care. Providing comprehensive training programs on workplace safety, proper handling of chemicals, and ergonomic practices. Ensuring factories are equipped with adequate ventilation, noise control measures, and proper sanitation facilities.

Non-governmental organisations play an important role in collaborating with community groups to monitor working conditions and advocate for workers’ rights, and advocate for fair wages and better working conditions to reduce occupational stress and improve overall well-being.

How does the industry manage and mitigate these health risks? Are there any emerging trends or technologies that are helping to improve the environmental and health impacts of textile manufacturing in Bangladesh?

Environmental concerns have arisen due to the excessive use of water, chemicals, and energy in the production process of Bangladesh’s garment sector, a textile and apparel industry that is well-known for its environmental impact. Some manufacturers are investing in eco-friendly technologies and processes to reduce their carbon footprint, but the total textile industries in Bangladesh are still not fully impacted by the efforts to adopt sustainable practices.

How can consumers, both locally and globally, contribute to promoting sustainability and better health outcomes in the textile industry in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is committed to sustainability, which includes using eco-friendly materials such as recycled cotton, recycled polyester from plastic, sustainable viscose, and other man-made fibers. This shift reduces the demand for new resources and effectively addresses textile waste. Sustainable waste management and strategies are crucial in the garment industry. Advertising plans and procedures must aim to increase consumer loyalty and motivate manufacturers to incorporate recycled materials into new products.

Are there any notable initiatives or practices in place to address these health and environmental issues?

The Government of Bangladesh, through its Department of Environment (DoE), has been strengthening environmental regulations specific to the textile sector. Efforts include stricter enforcement of effluent discharge standards, promoting the use of Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs), and encouraging the adoption of environmentally friendly technologies.

In addition, Bangladesh Water PaCT (Partnership for Cleaner Textile) was adopted in 2013 as a multi-stakeholder partnership involving brands, factories, government agencies, and development partners. It promotes cleaner production practices in the textile sector, particularly in water management. PaCT has helped many factories reduce water consumption, improve effluent treatment, and adopt energy-efficient technologies.

Many Bangladeshi textile manufacturers are part of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Programme, working towards achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals through improved chemical management and wastewater treatment processes. This global initiative aims to eliminate hazardous chemicals from the textile supply chain by 2020.

Several Bangladeshi factories also use the Higg Index, an industry-wide group of over 250 leading apparel, footwear, and textile brands, retailers, suppliers, and NGOs. Companies use the Higg Index to assess and improve their environmental and social impacts.

By adopting these initiatives and practices, Bangladesh is making strides towards mitigating the environmental impact of its textile industry, promoting sustainable development, and protecting the well-being of its communities and ecosystems.

Looking to the future, what do you see as the most important steps or developments needed to make the textile industry in Bangladesh more environmentally sustainable and health-conscious?

Making the garment industry in Bangladesh sustainable is crucial for people and the environment. Therefore, there is a need to adopt a comprehensive plan to advance this sector as a leading industry for environmental sustainability and health. It is important to take key initiatives such as

  • Access to the technical skills and experience required for conducting favourable environmental health and occupational safety performance.
  • Availability and quality of baseline data for identifying and quantifying environmental impacts;
  • c. Mass awareness and experience among industrial proponents regarding the importance of meeting environmental health and occupational health safety requirements and the need to mitigate environmental impacts, and how this relates to sustainable development;
  • d. Effective regulations for Environmental Impact Assessment in the textile and garment sector in Bangladesh.