The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc within the global apparel industry and its supply chains and continues to have a devastating impact on sourcing hubs such as our own. In every country where apparel is sourced, orders will be down by 20 or 30 percent over a 12-month period and, collectively, millions of jobs will be lost in our industry on a global level. In Bangladesh, we do not yet know the full impact of the pandemic as orders are still being cancelled and our customers are not yet fully back up and running.
Despite all of this, our industry faces a threat which is greater than the coronavirus: global warming. Bangladesh is exceptionally vulnerable to climate change due to its low elevation, high population density and inadequate infrastructure. Our country is already experiencing different types of natural disasters almost every year because of global warming and climate change impacts, including tropical cyclones, change in wind flow pattern, rainfall, flash floods. This frequent change in climate may lead to food insecurity, river erosion, bio-diversity loss, climate induced migration and many other unseen crisis in the days to come.
These will only get worse in the next few years if the world continues along its current growth trajectory. What is more, our largest industry—ready-made garment production—is a contributor to climate change. It is part of the global apparel industry—an industry which researchers claim is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, boasting greenhouse gas emissions that exceed both aviation and shipping!
As part of commitments to reducing their carbon footprints, apparel brands have in recent years begun to adopt Science-Based Targets in line with UN Paris Agreement's pathway to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
How will they meet these commitments? The only way is by working with supply chains. Various estimates suggest that more than 90 percent of the emissions associated with the product occur in the supplier and manufacturer ends—in clothing processing and production, dyeing and finishing and so on. And these suppliers are mostly from the developing part of the world Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. Though these countries are generating emissions, the final goods are being used by the developed part of the world.
Indeed, a recent report from the USA by Stand.earth claims the fashion industry will fall way short of climate targets unless it takes dramatic action to eliminate fossil fuels from Asian supply chains; it is worth mentioning that the report claims Bangladesh is one of several sourcing countries which has plans to dramatically increase its use of fossil-fuel based energy resources in the next few years, which is a real worry.
What is notable about this and other studies is that they suggest we only have a few years to act—perhaps less than a decade—if we are to avert a global environmental catastrophe. That is why climate issues are far more serious than the coronavirus pandemic. Some day or the other, perhaps next year even, we will get a vaccine for Covid-19. But there is no single solution for a dead planet, and scientists have warned that all industries need to act collaboratively to save the planet.
The worry, of course, is that the coronavirus pandemic will derail the sustainability efforts of the industry. It is commonly accepted that one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon impacts in apparel supply chains like Bangladesh is to switch to renewable sources and technologies that are less harmful to the planet. It is a matter of regret that countries like us don't have such eco-friendly technologies available at home and therefore we have to mostly import this from the developed part of the world.
But who will pay for these costly technologies? Even before coronavirus, there was a reluctance among suppliers to invest in more sustainable methods of production. In most cases, this was due to the lack of feasibility of the technology—mismatch between investment, bank interest and ROI—while in others it was simply that they did not view sustainability as a priority.
Due to the global pandemic, suppliers are now fighting for survival—only no one was actually ready for it and therefore the supply chain has been failing to show its resilience to this sudden shock. Even giant suppliers with strong fiduciary capacity are eroding their contingency funds, reducing staff counts and generally looking at every possible way to cut costs and survive. In such a dire situation expecting them to invest in new and sustainable technologies with minimum or no feasibility being ensured is not very smart.
Will brands and retailers foot the bill for suppliers to switch to renewables? They have never shown much of an appetite to do so in the past, and there is no reason to expect them to do so with a global pandemic hammering their profits. Brands and retailers, if they have not already gone bust, are in many cases on the brink. The biggest names of all—H&M, Zara, Nike and so on—will be drastically cutting profit forecasts for 2020. In such a situation suppliers and manufacturers will lose appetite to invest in sustainable technologies with long term payback.
That poses a great threat on the continuous stride of attaining sustainability in the apparel supply chain. This urgency to absorb the shock of the pandemic has pushed sustainability on to the back seat. But our planet does not have the luxury of ignoring all these issues. We have to continue our efforts to save the industry and the planet from the till now unseen future catastrophe.
The only solution I see against such a backdrop is collaborations and agreements among the apparel supply chain actors which look to "build-in" pricing and costs for sustainable production. Could clothing include a "sustainability tax"? This might sound like an outlandish, extreme idea, but we are living in extreme times. Nothing should be ruled out at present. Actually, now might be the best possible time to look to such a tax as part of a raft of changes that will surely sweep through our industry as a result of this dreadful pandemic.
One thing is for sure: the sustainability changes needed by our industry to hit climate targets will not happen if they are left to market forces—certainly not in the current cash-strapped climate. The market needs a helping hand here, for sustainability is far too important an issue to push to one side while the industry finds it financial feet again—which could take years which the planet does not have.
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).