In the past 12 months, we have seen overwhelming commitments made by the global apparel industry towards circular economy and making fashion circular. We all know that we cannot continue along the present "make-consume-dispose" business model and circularity appears to offer us a way out of that. There has been a major growth in the number of initiatives in this area and, in this space more than any other, investment appears to be flowing.
The discussion around recycling has not really involved Bangladesh very much—until now. That changed recently with the launch of a new partnership by Global Fashion Agenda with the BGMEA and funded by P4G Partnerships. This is a collaboration project and call to action to initiate and scale up the recycling of textile waste in Bangladesh. The first signatories of this new initiative include Bestseller and OVS. In all, the partnership aims to invite 10 brands in the programme who would all, as one of their first commitments, introduce three first suppliers in Bangladesh to start segregation of waste at source and tracing it to recycling.
I will not go into the more specifics of that programme, other than to say it looks very promising. Instead, here is what I believe Bangladesh needs to do as a garment sourcing hub to lead the world in the textile recycling revolution.
One: Education. If we want to shift the linear economy to the circular, we have to start right from the beginning—and that means sensitise and educate our youngsters about these issues. The basics of recycling—the recycling hierarchy for instance—should be drilled into the minds of young people from a young age. As children get older, why not teach them more about circularity, about how new processes are being developed to recycle old fibres into new ones. Perhaps this could even be introduced into the science syllabus—in chemistry and physics. Further, it is time our universities and colleges embraced recycling issues in terms of their learning and training. We should aim to be leading the world in research textile separation techniques. And, of course, links should be built between recycling learning in universities and industry.
Two: Collecting waste. If we want our industry to go circular, we have to get the logistics right. What is the current state of our textile and clothing collection services and how could it be improved? Do we know and understand the difference between different grades of fibre? Many other countries are lightyears ahead of us on this, and that is obviously a concern. But why not bring in some outside consultants to look at what we are doing wrong in this area and where we can improve? This includes textile waste from the public but also textile waste from our RMG industry, huge quantities of which is discarded each year—what is happening to this? We need far more traceability on this issue.
Three: Waste sorting. This is a challenging area which goes hand in hand—or works alongside—textile waste collection services. Sorting textiles into different waste streams has traditionally been done by hand, although new, infra-red sorting technologies are being introduced in this area. My guess is that the cost of such technologies would be prohibitive and that, given Bangladesh's low wage rates, manual sorting will be the best bet for now. Again, we may need to consider outside expertise to support us here.
Four: Getting owner buy-in. At present, I would say there is a lack of understanding about circularity and recycling issues among the RMG sector in Bangladesh—and that needs to change. This space has moved on at a huge pace in the past 18 months. Every time I travel or pop in a Zoom call, circularity is one of the issues being discussed. If Bangladesh is going to be at the head of the queue on these issues, our industry leaders need to be embracing it now. They need to be getting an understanding of the technologies involved, exploring ways in which they could partner with some of the leading technology providers in this industry, and seeing if there are opportunities to put out one-off pilot lines to test the waters in this area. They also need to understand how the technology works. There is already talk of recycling technologies being licensed to fabric makers—but how would that work and what are the economics of it? My message to my fellow factory owners is that circularity is here to stay—embrace it, for if you do not, others will.
Five: Marketing and promotion. This is arguably the most important area of all. I look around at our competitors in terms of apparel production—Vietnam, China, India and so on—and I do not see them as having made very much progress in terms of recycling. Let us be realistic—so far, this has been a discussion which has mainly taken place among brands and their technology partners. The time is right for manufacturers to come on board and the opportunity is there for Bangladesh's RMG manufacturers to lead the way. But to do that, we need coordination and teamwork. We need to get the message out within our industry that circularity, in all likelihood, is here to stay. This is where the investment is taking place, this is where the money is flowing, and this is where the opportunities lie.
So what are we waiting for?
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).