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Story Publication logo February 28, 2024

Bangladesh's Textile Industry at a Crossroads: Wages and Sustainability



Manipella traveled to Bangladesh to report on the young professionals pursuing culturally and...


Workers finish rugs by cutting excess strings from the product before final checks at Beni Boonon's Savar factory. Image by Julia Manipella. Bangladesh, 2023.

In the densely populated metropolis of Dhaka, Bangladesh, businesses struggle to achieve economic and ecological sustainability, finding there isn't one without the other.

As people increasingly move to work in factories surrounding Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city with a population of some 22.4 million, a fair wage paid by environmentally and economically conscious garment factories and international brands could pave the way for increased economic viability and rights for workers.

But paying for high energy costs, providing a quality product, and fairly compensating employees is a struggle for many factories in the densely populated nation.

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It’s essential to have a consistent power source for efficiency in the workspace, as workers rely on heavy machinery for sewing and spinning. Yet they can see anywhere between two and eight or more power grid blackouts in as little as an hour.

Electricity is not only integral to the production lines of these factories, but also to the wastewater treatment machines, known as Effluent Treatment Processes (ETPs), attached to their factories.

The wastewater machines, which need to run 24/7, 365 days a year, are critical because they clean and sanitize polluted water from dyeing textiles, jute, fibers, and other products at different factories throughout the country.

Excess materials and jute products sit waiting to be sorted in Beni Boonon's Savar factory. Image by Julia Manipella. Bangladesh, 2023.

Efforts to keep up with neighboring ready-made garment manufacturing giants like China, Vietnam, and India while keeping their ETPs on, products safe, international customers content, and fair wages in their workers' pockets can leave a business in the red.

Moving to environmentally conscious, locally sourced, and ethically made products seems like the natural progression of the market, but experts note that someone or something must pay the price for mass manufacturing and development.

Right now, “the first who is paying the price is the climate,” said Sabrina Nourin, an expert on slow fashion, global value chain, and climate change issues of the garments industry data. “And it's the bitter truth indeed.”

Nourin is a senior research associate for the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) at Brac University, one of Bangladesh’s leading private universities, where she has worked on projects with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).

“You can make it [better] if you paid a better price, but the game is here, in the labor and the wages,” she said.

Sabrina Nourin, a senior research associate for the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) at Brac University, explains slow fashion, the global value chain, and climate change issues in the garments industry in the Mohakhali district of Dhaka. Image by Julia Manipella. Bangladesh, 2023.

Bangladesh is home to over 169 million people, many of whom compete for manufacturing work on the world stage. Factories in Bangladesh are up against fast fashion and other ready-made garment manufacturers in surrounding countries that sell their work and products for cheaper prices.

Currently, without solid incentives from buyers, locally enforced regulations, and international policies in place, factory owners are struggling to find the point of taking the economic hit to buy into sustainable practices.

Saadul Islam, the managing director of jute home décor brand Beni Boonon, said near his factory, which employs around 450 people, that there are at least “four to five factories or small establishments where they make similar products, but they don’t have an ETP (wastewater systems machine), and they’re not paying the minimum wage.”

The printing department works through a warm afternoon of power outages at Beni Boonon's Savar factory. Image by Julia Manipella. Bangladesh, 2023.

“Because the big companies who are always talking about climate change are actually kind of forcing us with the price,” said Rafee Mizan, a marketing specialist and business consultant. “It’s either you do it, or they will find another person or another country to do it for them. So it's survival. Right? And the problem is that the effects of climate change, you don't see it in one month, or one week, you see it in 10 years when it's too late.

Nourin said, “Because this is a supplier-driven industry, if you really want something (that) is environmentally friendly, (that) is [also] climate resilient, then you have to pay the price.”

Small businesses like one owned by Mahenaz Chowdhury, the founder and zero-waste designer of Broque, may be the key to driving Bangladesh factories to produce fashionable products in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Chowdhury’s business is an “upcycling brand that focuses on creating genuine streetwear clothing for the community of Bangladesh, and it specializes in sourcing fabrics and materials that are produced in Bangladesh.” Chowdhury clarified that they only work with surplus items and "pre-loved" materials. These ideals are at the forefront of her business.

“The fundamental value system for Broque is to work in a closed loop model and make sure that I'm able to salvage whatever I have around my community and that I have access to,” she said.

Mahenaz Chowdhury, founder and zero-waste designer of Broque, talks about her business's founding principles in sustainability and the promotion of local crafts workers. Image by Julia Manipella. Bangladesh, 2023.

It's a widespread household practice in Bangladesh “that you hand down stuff that are precious to you or that you don't fit into anymore;” many believe it’s something to “take pride in wearing those things,” Chowdhury said.

Chowdhury is tapping into a trend also being seen in the U.S. as young adults seek to stretch their dollars further but also acquire expensive designer wear for a fraction of the cost.

In data compiled by Statista, a German data company, 32 percent of U.S. respondents reported purchasing secondhand clothing in the past year. Women, aged 25 to 34, are driving most of the thrifting craze, also according to Statista.

“I think my brand is about giving me that voice and a bigger audience to talk about environmentalism and climate change and talking about fashion, not just being about looking good, but also about it being political and engaging with the younger generation, from (primary) school students to university students, to have these dialogues, of ‘how can we make fast fashion slow?’” Chowdhury said.

“How can we slow it down for us? You can't necessarily slow down the biggest source of income for this country because the entire nation depends on that economic activity.

“How as consumers—because we're not the direct consumers of these fast-fashion products; the Western countries are—but as local consumers, how do we bring in better practices for ourselves?” she asked.

Statista estimates the fast-fashion industry's worth will grow from $122 billion USD in 2023 to over $184 billion by 2027. The industry isn't slowing down as Bangladesh's clothing exports were valued at $28 billion USD in 2020 by FashionUnited, a Netherlands-based online fashion newsroom.

With growing support for solution-based production practices in Bangladesh, big fashion conglomerates will need to decide if they will commit to their previous statements on investing in the sustainability of the industry.


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