Can better data protect fashion workers from climate risks?

Employees wash their hands before lunch at The Civil Engineering Limited garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Employees wash their hands before lunch at The Civil Engineering Limited garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

What’s the context?

To prepare for climate-fuelled floods and heat, Bangladesh's garment factories are using new data sources, including worker input

  • Industries need reliable, specific data on climate risks
  • Worker experiences key to accurately assessing hazards
  • Easing threats demands industry and government cooperation

DHAKA - Fashion suppliers are starting to take climate risks into account when deciding where to locate factories or how to keep workers safe in them, but a lack of good data is holding back early efforts to mitigate threats, industry officials warned.

"Climate change poses the risk of supply chain disruption so we must take such risks into account to do business in the long run," said Mohammad Monower Hossain, head of sustainability for Team Group, a leading apparel supplier in Bangladesh. 

His organisation, seen as an early adopter in incorporating climate risk into its business plans, now takes into account land elevation and potential flood risk when siting new factories - a key consideration in a low-lying country listed among the most at risk from climate impacts, Hossain said. 

The manufacturer also has two factories certified as green buildings by the U.S. Green Building Council, and three more waiting to receive a similar designation, he said. 

But Hossain said much of Bangladesh's apparel industry is struggling to similarly plan for climate risks, in large part because of a lack of easily available and reliable information on the threats facing factories and their workers.

The data gap

Bangladesh's fashion industry has in recent years focused on curbing its carbon footprint, with major brands investing in emissions-cutting changes to win over green buyers and help meet global climate goals.

But work on preparing for direct climate threats facing the industry - from extreme heatwaves to flooding - is newer. 

"The fact that we have so much attention on mitigation solutions means that in some ways adaptation is a little overlooked," said Sabina Lawreniuk, a garment industry expert at Britain's University of Nottingham who works on the impact of climate change on Cambodia's apparel industry.

In January, Lawreniuk and a team of researchers launched "Invisible Workers", a UK government-funded website that highlights the need for the apparel industry to better protect the well-being of workers, particularly women, who make up a large share of the workforce.

A study by Lawreniuk and others found more than half of Cambodian workers, for instance, have faced climate change-fuelled sweltering heat or flooding, impacting their earnings and health. 

Growing heat and flood risk could cost key fashion-supplying countries 68% of their apparel export earnings by 2050 - and slash 8.6 million potential jobs - unless they can adapt to growing threats, Cornell University and other researchers said in an article published in January.

Such studies are helping put numbers on the cost of a potential failure to adapt to climate hazards by the global fashion industry.

But such broader studies need to be turned into location-specific, factory-level data to help apparel companies act - something Dhaka's BRAC University is working on.

Its "Mapped in Bangladesh" project is gathering and mapping data for factories on environmental sustainability, labour standards and disaster risks, said Matin Saad Abdullah, the technical lead of the project. 

New international regulations, such as the European Union's corporate sustainability reporting directive and due diligence directive, aim to hold global brands to account for climate and labour risks in their supply chains, he said, and accurate, objective data will be key to helping them comply.

"We provide very granular data about a brand’s supply chain and this is independently collected and verified," he said. 

The project's data has been used by industry and the government for everything from looking at the potential for renewable energy in factories to mapping flood risks - and could help drive investment to the right places, Abdullah said.

Worker experiences

One crucial part of judging the impact of growing climate risks is listening to the factory workers themselves, researchers said.

Nasrin, for example, a 40-year-old garment factory operator in Gazipur, near Dhaka, told Context that heavy and erratic rainfall sometimes clogs the roads with muddy water, making it hard to walk to work, while ever-hotter summers make being at home unbearable.

Organisations such as the Global Worker Dialogue (GWD) gather such stories, aiming to feed them into decision-making by brands sourcing clothing in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. 

Most companies understand that installing cooling systems to keep factory heat bearable is a good investment, said Guy Stuart, executive director of the GWD.

But they may not understand the risks workers with limited income face outside the factory from heat and other threats that could affect their productivity, he said.

"Protecting workers at home - that’s a real challenge," Stuart said.

Many low-income factory employees live in small, crowded and hot rooms - a reality that often remains invisible to regulators, consumers and investors who care about issues in the industry.

"If we are to properly adapt to climate change, we have to create avenues for workers to articulate their needs, have a seat at the negotiating table, and voice their own concerns," Stuart said. 

From data to action

Some manufacturers are working to take the new data available - including the perspectives of workers - into account in their decision-making.

Last year, workers at a Team Group factory in Savar, near Dhaka, pointed out that 40% of workers at the plant arrived via a footpath that flooded during heavy rains, leading to worker tardiness or absences. 

The company then paid to construct a bridge at the chokepoint, making the trip to work safer and more reliable, said Hossain of Team Group.

"Without sustaining workers we cannot sustain business," he noted.

But addressing larger threats facing factories and workers will take coordinated effort and spending, said Stuart of the GWD.

Governments, for instance, could invest in climate-proofed homes and roads in communities, with the apparel industry paying sufficient taxes to support such changes, he said, while buyers could help ensure suppliers and workers are paid a decent wage.

Mobilising enough finance to tackle climate hazards will depend on having reliable information for industry and government about them and how they might be managed, he added, noting that putting appropriate regulation in place will also be key.

"I think new-era entrepreneurs have no lack of good wishes - it's about how you convince them with the right data," Hossain said.  

(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; Editing by Laurie Goering and Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

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