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Asian Garment Hubs Facing Existential Threat: Climate Change

Pushed up by climate change, rising sea levels over the next decade could submerge vast garment-producing regions in Asia, forcing thousands of suppliers to relocate or sink, a new study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation has found.

Despite the imminent losses, the scenario is one that has received scant attention, wrote Cornell University’s Jason Judd and J. Lowell Jackson in a report published Friday. While larger, transnational suppliers may be able to safeguard production in high-risk areas by moving facilities to higher altitudes or further inland, smaller suppliers have no such flexibility. Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China, “appears particularly vulnerable.”

“It appears some of apparel’s production centers representing a significant percentage of current output will not escape the projected acceleration of the climate crisis,” they said.

The analysis, which arrived as deadly floods tore through Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg—another symptom of worsening global warming, experts warn—looked at several Asian cities, including Dhaka in Bangladesh, Jakarta in Indonesia and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Judd and Jackson took a map of factory locations from open-source factory database the Open Apparel Registry and overlaid it with climate models predicting where elevations will fall below the level of a coastal flood at least once a year by 2030.

The most critical areas, Judd and Jackson found, were in Guangzhou in China and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of factories are poised to be underwater by the end of the decade.

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In interviews conducted in conjunction with the study, buyers—that is, brands—expressed no plans to mitigate possible large-scale losses of jobs and income due to changing sea levels.

“For buyers, the relative lack of attention to sea level impacts on suppliers and their workers underlines the nature of the relationships,” the authors wrote. “Buyers with very few exceptions do not own factories and risks such as catastrophic flooding belong to their suppliers.”

But flooding isn’t all the apparel industry will have to contend with as temperatures continue to soar unchecked. Extreme heat, too, is also worsening in major Asian apparel nerve centers.

“Sea-level rise and government efforts to mitigate the job and investment losses from sea-level rise are, naturally, not focused on the apparel industry but economic life more generally,” they wrote. “Apparel buyers can focus on its likely impacts, whether out of narrow concern for loss of production capacity or, more broadly, the dictates of sustainable fashion, the plight of its workforce and the demands of partnership. But it appears that some of apparel’s production centers representing a significant percentage of current output will not escape the projected acceleration of the climate crisis.”

High heat, Judd and Jackson said, brings serious long-term health risks from dehydration, heatstroke and a greater risk of poisoning from the evaporation of workplace chemicals. It could also increase absenteeism and loss of income from illness, lower productivity and longer hours.

A 2017 United Nations Development Program report found that that climate change has “already altered thermal conditions in the workplace, and additional warming is a serious challenge for any worker or employer reliant on outdoor or non-air-conditioned work.” The world’s warmest regions, the tropics and sub-tropics, are worst affected because of pre-existing heat extremes and the high concentrations of exposed sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.

“Sea-level rise and government efforts to mitigate the job and investment losses from sea-level rise are, naturally, not focused on the apparel industry but economic life more generally,” they wrote. “Apparel buyers can focus on its likely impacts, whether out of narrow concern for loss of production capacity or, more broadly, the dictates of sustainable fashion, the plight of its workforce and the demands of partnership. But it appears that some of apparel’s production centers representing a significant percentage of current output will not escape the projected acceleration of the climate crisis.”

Climate change could also damage one of the industry’s most important crops at the source, creating a domino effect that upends the rest of the supply chain and potentially reshaping the geographies of sourcing.

According to the world’s first global analysis of climate risks to global cotton production, published last month, climate change could leave half of the planet’s cotton-growing hubs highly vulnerable to temperature increases, changes to rainfall patterns and extreme weather events by 2040.

All six of the top cotton-producing countries—Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey and the United States—will face increased climate peril from wildfire, drought and extreme rainfall, according to climate-risk firm Acclimatise, which is part of Willis Towers Watson’s Climate and Resilience Hub.

Cotton exposure to heat stress, defined as temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, will be an increased risk across 75 percent of cotton-growing regions, with the prospect being high or very high across just under 5 percent of regions. Some 40 percent of cotton-growing regions are projected to experience a decrease in growing season as temperatures spiral beyond the optimum temperature range for raising the fiber. One-fifth of those regions could face an uptick in fluvial flooding by 2040, and 30 percent of them could see a higher degree of landslides. More than half (60 percent) will be exposed to extreme wind speeds, and up to 10 percent will have to weather worsening storms.

Under a “worst-case scenario,” all cotton-growing regions will be exposed to increased danger from at least one climate hazard over the next two decades, though some areas could see high or very high exposure to up to seven climate hazards, the analysis found. The worst-effected regions, it added, are likely to be northwestern Africa, including northern Sudan and Egypt, and western and southern Asia.

“This analysis is a wake-up call for the cotton industry, on which much of the apparel sector is currently hugely reliant,” Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, the sustainability think tank that commissioned the study, said in a statement. “In order to build resilience for a highly disrupted and uncertain future, the widespread shifts to sustainable forms of cotton production must be bolstered by ambitious and aligned action to reduce carbon emissions while also preparing the industry to operate in a very different world.”