Circular fashion: Why and how Bangladesh could take the lead
In the month of May, I was invited to represent Bangladesh at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit is the most influential summit on sustainability in the fashion world. More than 2,500 international visitors and more than 100 thought leaders discussed the challenges that the fashion sector and the value chain associated face today.
Since 2014, the term “circularity” has been on the forefront of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit as the new black. Words like sustainability, green production and ethics are today basics in the world of fashion and apparel. Circularity is the latest buzzword, one which stretches beyond the fashion industry. It is a terminology that academia has been conceptualising for years and only now industries are starting to understand and put into practice. We are still at 1.0 in the new movement towards rethinking how we produce, consume and recycle, new values to protect the environment, and what business models we can develop from here that will support a circular production. It all started as a philosophy around economy. If we cannot create a philosophy around an economic model, then it is of no use to anyone.
The circular economy is an academic alternative to a traditional economy which is linear, where you produce, consume and throw away. In the circular economy scenario, you keep resources in use for as long as possible, and extract and harvest the maximum value from the products whilst in use. Then you recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life and thereby you create a new business model. Something from nothing. From no value to value.
In Europe, you have for years been able to recycle plastic, tin cans and other materials. There are cities where the collective traffic is fuelled by recycled organic waste. With great success. You dispose of your waste. You are rewarded financially for handing in waste by a deposit. Waste is turned into energy that fuels the society. A business model that rewards the consumer, the society and ultimately the environment. A full circle.
Britain alone is expected to send 235m items of clothing to landfill this year, the majority of which could have been re-worn, reused or recycled. Major retailers are coming under pressure to tackle the waste issue. The fashion world has attempted numerous tries to adapt to circularity. H&M, one of the largest fashion retail chains in the world, has set up containers in their shops where people could dispose of their used clothing. You get five pounds off your next buy once you bring in your used clothes. H&M says it has collected about 40,000 tonnes of garments since launching its scheme in 2013, which it passes on to its partner recycling plant in Berlin. What can't be reused is down-cycled into products like cleaning cloths or insulation fibres, according to an article run in The Guardian. Even Zara, which spearheads the Inditex group, and Adidas are on to the same circular idea. However, the programmes are not as successful as you would want. The main issue is that consumer behaviour dies hard. The consumers are yet not used to recycling their used clothes and would rather chuck them in the waste bin than bring it back to the stores or donate to the Red Cross.
This is where the opportunity for the Bangladesh textile and apparel sector lies. As we as a nation do not sell directly to consumers yet, we could co-create circular business models with the big apparel and fashion chains that are ready to look for a circular business model—there could be an opportunity for Bangladesh to start to investigate what we could offer to the European chains in relation to circular concepts and business models and keep loyalty and business flowing for Bangladesh. So what is circular fashion?
Bangladesh has two apparent business models to offer to the Western brands and retailers. The first option would be value adding and innovating together with the design and buying teams on development of fabrics that would be bio-degradable or have potentials for up- or down-cycling. Bangladesh could be one big innovation centre on guiding brands and retailers towards circularity. Our industry could charge extra margins for the knowledge and thereby increase the revenue as well as brand Bangladesh as a hub for circular knowledge and innovation.
The other business model is to set up a deposit system with the retailers where we charge a higher price for the units but we would then pay a deposit for clothing returned to us. The idea would be simple. Take leftover fabric or products and turn this into a new, usable piece of clothing. We can produce tees, sweaters, and pants out of excess or waste textiles; fabrics would be opened, carded, spun again and woven into new knits, and could easily be fashionable and well-cut staples. We could create a great story and create a circular business model where we go for a B2C opportunity—selling directly to the Western consumers and demonstrating leadership in circular fashion production. We would then simultaneously attract the most important global brands and retailers who look for innovation and great stories to boost their brand value with the consumers and on the stock market.
Ninety-five percent of textile fibres can be recycled. It is actually cheaper, if you work in volume, because you don't have to go through the dyeing process. Growing cotton and then dyeing it, just for one shirt, can eat up as much as 2,700 litres of water. Much of that water is then contaminated. While some dyeing houses are responsible, using GOTS certified dyes (or non-toxic dyes), not all are. And consequently, the wastewater mixes with local water sources which then pollute our water systems and ultimately the sea. Everything is interconnected. It is one eco-system. So can we not create circular business models that brand Bangladesh as an innovator, add value within circularity and at the same time grow businesses and protect the environment?
Mostafiz Uddin is the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Denim Expo. He is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.