In fashion, “sustainability as usual” may no longer be enough

Can we decouple business growth from climate impacts? That’s the thorny question that no politician wants to answer right now, and it’s easy to see why. On the one hand, all of our leaders recognize that “business as usual” is no longer an option on a planet where we are already seeing signs of global change on a daily basis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for assessing the science of climate change, says many of the changes seen in the global climate are unprecedented for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. . He says the changes are widespread and the role of human influence on the climate is undisputed.

At the same time, if you consider the above argument in light of Bangladesh’s most successful export industry, it is obvious that we may have a problem. Fashion creates millions of jobs in less developed countries like Bangladesh. If the “fast fashion” tap was turned off, in the name of environmental protection, many of these jobs would disappear and the societal impact would be enormous.

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Our leaders recognize this enigma, this balance between societal and environmental impacts. This is why the idea of ​​decoupling economic growth from climate impacts is so appealing. Such decoupling would mean that economic growth would become a sustainable goal for all of society.

Is it even possible? Until relatively recently, decoupling of this nature was considered a fanciful notion. Indeed, the majority of historical data and projections illustrate the intrinsic link between the use of materials and energy and the resulting carbon emissions / climate impacts.

As a result, many people find it difficult to reconcile the sustainability goals of a business model – fashion, in this case – that depends on selling more and more business units. In short, they say that we cannot have our cake and eat it.

I personally have a foot in this camp, and I think the idea of ​​”sustainability as usual” may no longer be an option, given the urgency of the situation on our planet. What do I mean by that? I mean, essentially, the traditional, voluntary approach to sustainability in our industry – by that I mean fashion buyers and us, their suppliers – may no longer be enough if we are to avert a climate catastrophe. There may come a time when we need more ‘stick’ and less ‘carrots’, when national and international regulators will be forced to step in in industries like ours and create laws on issues. such as clean production, waste disposal and other areas.

On the other hand, I see a potential solution where we can separate traditional GDP growth from climate impacts. Within the textile industry, this involves recycling and the circular economy. I’ve written about this before, but I think it deserves growing attention in countries like ours, which rely so heavily on labor-intensive manufacturing industries, such as clothing production. It’s in our own best interests to adopt solutions that can separate growth from the impacts of climate change, given that our industries are so dependent on carbon-intensive manufacturing.

How can we do it? One of the solutions is to switch to the use of renewable energies, as I already mentioned in my column.

But a complete overhaul of our RMG manufacturing base may also be necessary, if we are to evolve towards a less resource-intensive operating model in accordance with the principles of the circular economy.

The three main principles of the circular economy are: smarter use and manufacture of products; extending the life of the product and its parts through reuse, repair, refurbishment and refurbishment; and the useful application of materials such as material reuse, recycling and recovery.

While not all of these ideas are easy to apply in the RMG manufacturing space, many of them could extend the useful life of clothing. For example, textile materials can be repaired and refurbished, and alternative markets can be found for them. Is our clothing industry ready to explore these ideas?

If this all sounds drastic enough, that is the intention. I said that sustainability as usual might not be an option moving forward, and as manufacturers we need to think about what this new landscape might entail if we are to remain relevant to our buyers of. fashion. Have no doubts: our buyers are looking for solutions in these areas. When they talk about “going in circles”, it is on us, their manufacturers, that they are relying to enable them to achieve their goals.

What can we do now to prepare for a less resource-intensive circular environment, where GDP growth is decoupled from carbon emissions?

Most experts agree that several steps will be necessary for textile manufacturers. One is to phase out the use of hazardous materials and the rejection of microfibers (another major issue for our customers). It will require more innovative clothing design and smarter production processes.

The second is to change the way clothes are designed, a step to be taken in collaboration with our buyers.

The third step is to design products with recycling in mind, so that the products are recoverable at the end of their “life”.

Together, these actions would begin a major step forward for our RMG sector. At some point, we may need to think very differently about our business models as part of a larger societal shift that is moving away from a linear business model. These are tough questions, but now is the time to think about their answers.

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).

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