Can Bangladesh 'climate proof' garment jobs in a warming world?
Sathi Begum works at a Snowtex Outerware garment factory in Dhamrai, Bangladesh, January 30, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain
What’s the context?
As rising heat and other climate change impacts hit workers, manufacturers are under pressure from brands seeking sustainable fashion
- Bangladeshi clothing firms under pressure to cut emissions
- Workers hit by climate impacts, lack green tech skills
- Unions say workers need training, social support to adapt
DHAKA - For Bangladeshi garment and textile manufacturer DBL Group, climate change is a growing threat it cannot afford to ignore.
Mohammed Zahidullah, chief sustainability officer for the business which employs about 35,000 workers at its factories near Dhaka, said a heatwave dented productivity last year, while riverside fabric-dyeing factories face worsening flooding risks.
"A large-scale flood like the one recently witnessed in Pakistan could spell havoc for our industry," he warned at DBL's office building in Gulshan district, which maximises use of daylight including with sensors to save on electricity.
This is one way the company - whose multinational clients include H&M, Walmart-George and Puma - is playing its part to rein in global warming, along with deploying technology that recovers heat from generators to heat water and planting trees to alleviate extreme heat for its workforce.
Yet, across the garment industry, measures to address climate change remain inadequate, said Ahmmed Zulfiqar Rahaman, a climate expert at Bangladesh's Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS).
Heat stress exacerbated by climate change can cause an average loss of 2%-2.5% in daily work hours, he noted.
In the summer, garment workers often experience symptoms like headaches, fatigue or nausea due to heat, hampering productivity in the country's main export sector that employs around 4.5 million workers, 60% of them women, according to a recent study by researchers at Australia's Griffith University.
They include single mother Shopna Akter, 27, who felt dizzy and weak in the rising heat and called in sick one busy morning last month at the garment factory where she works in northern Dhaka, even though she knew it would cost her precious income she needs to feed her seven-year old.
Providing better ventilation and cooling on the factory floor and making water available to workers are among the measures suggested in the Griffith University study.
A January report from Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO that promotes responsible business conduct, highlighted how garment workers - many of them migrants from disaster-prone rural areas - face increasingly hot and humid conditions in their urban workplaces.
Most are low-skilled and would struggle to find alternative jobs if employment shrinks in the apparel sector due to automation of manufacturing processes and efforts by Western brands to move their supply chains closer, warned the report on a "just transition" for the Bangladesh garment industry.
Pressure on clothing factories to adopt greener production methods and to protect their workers and operations from the negative effects of climate change is coming largely from global brands, as well as regulation in key export markets.
The European Union is the largest destination for Bangladesh's apparel exports, importing $13.73 billion worth of clothing from July 2022 to January 2023.
As the EU steps up climate action, companies are being required to report on planet-heating carbon emissions not only from their direct operations but also those caused by their supply chains, known as "scope 3" emissions.
A year ago, the European Commission also published a strategy for sustainable textiles, laying out a vision to boost recycling and green measures in the global textile sector.
One major brand ratcheting up such efforts is Sweden-based multinational fashion retailer H&M, the biggest clothing buyer from Bangladesh, with purchases worth $3.5 billion in 2021.
H&M spokesman Iñigo Sáenz Maestre told Context the company's biggest sources of emissions are raw materials and manufacturing.
"Decreasing our dependency on virgin materials and maximising the use of recycled materials, which represents a share of 23% today, is a priority for us," he said by email.
The World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation (IFC) runs a programme that supports factories in Bangladesh to take measures to curb their environmental and climate impacts.
The Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT) has helped more than 400 factories reduce water use equivalent to the annual needs of almost 1 million people and to cut greenhouse gases equal to taking more than 100,000 cars off the road, said Nishat Shahid Chowdhury, operations officer at IFC Bangladesh.
More than 180 garment factories in Bangladesh have received LEED certification, an international standard for green buildings, the highest for any country's garment industry.
Labour: the missing link
Since the fatal Rana Plaza disaster a decade ago, when a Dhaka garment factory complex collapsed killing more than 1,130 workers, there has been a drive for greater transparency and accountability in the industry's supply chains.
BRAC University's "Mapped in Bangladesh" initiative tracks more than 3,700 apparel factories nationwide and provides an open information system that can guide brands on how factories are approaching safety and sustainability issues.
The map's builders are now working to add an environmental dimension by listing which suppliers have green certifications such as the Global Recycled Standard and Nordic Ecolabel.
Yet, despite efforts to fill supply-chain information gaps, experts say it is unclear how growing international pressure for a greener garment sector will affect workers.
Lasse Leipola, a climate policy specialist with Finnwatch, said stronger regulation in Europe will influence the procurement needs of European companies, bringing both positive and negative changes for workers along value chains.
"For some workers, this may mean that they need new skills - for others it means that they may have to seek employment elsewhere," he said.
Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI), an economic think-tank, said new compliance requirements imposed by international fashion brands could prove a heavy burden for smaller factories in particular.
It could drive consolidation in the sector, favouring large businesses with the means to meet stricter export demands.
But growing production volumes overall will likely compensate for job losses linked to automation, digitalisation and green compliance, he added.
Chowdhury, from IFC, said companies would need to compete in global markets to attract fashion brands with their sustainability credentials.
"What this means is that green investments can create more job opportunities, some of which require new skills and can pay more," she said.
Fashion brands, for their part, could play a bigger role through actions like contributing a small percentage of their garment sales to support green reforms in Bangladesh and offer better opportunities for workers, experts said.
Some existing training programmes backed by brands and international agencies could also help. One initiative supported by H&M, for example, provides women workers with skills for a future shaped by automation.
Nazma Akter, a former child garment worker who leads the Awaj Foundation which advocates for labour rights, said such programmes are good but mostly voluntary, standalone efforts.
"We need central policies and a sustained strategic approach to properly equip workers for the coming challenges," including a bigger voice for them in decision-making, said Akter, who is also president of the United Garment Workers Federation.
Leslie Johnston, CEO of the Laudes Foundation, which supports a "just transition", said national policy would play "a critical role in how the (garment) sector adapts to the rapidly changing context of the fashion industry, what this means for workers and their families, and how, ultimately we can 'climate proof' the millions of jobs in Bangladesh".
Monjur Moin, a leader at the Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, said that without better employment terms, including a living wage, "greening of supply chains may not mean much".
Many garment workers are migrants who moved to Dhaka and its surrounding areas because they lack good job opportunities in their home towns or their local livelihoods such as farming have been eroded due to climate change, noted Rahaman of CEGIS.
Offering better housing and services like child and healthcare at an affordable rate could be a key way to help workers adapt as they relocate, said PRI's Mansur.
Even the urban areas where they now eke out a living will be hit by warming impacts in the near future, researchers warn.
A study by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute showed that, without climate action, 35% of Bangladesh's apparel-producing areas could be flooded regularly by 2030.
Experts stressed the need to prepare for emerging risks.
"The government has to think strategically and plan for addressing the problems faced by the urban poor and working classes against the backdrop of climate change," said Mansur.
(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; Editing by Megan Rowling)
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is in a partnership with the Laudes Foundation, which supports Context's coverage of just transition.
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