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Why Factories Should be Sustainability Leaders, Not Followers

The fashion industry is among the most polluting industries in the world, and demand for inexpensive fast fashion products is increasing the burden on the natural environment.

Globally, environmental scientists, researchers, watchdogs and activists are exerting pressure on fast fashion retailers to be more responsible and sustainable while producing clothing. What’s more, sustainability and climate change issues are now at the forefront of all global environmental accords like the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is not surprising, then, that all major apparel brands are now addressing climate issues⁠—and rightly so. Many have their own initiatives and targets on these issues, while others have signed on to industry-wide initiatives, like the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action which, among other things, includes a pledge to reduce 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions along their value chain by 2030.

This is positive news, in theory. But how will brands meet these commitments?

Well let’s put it this way: they won’t meet it by turning a few lights off in their own-managed retail stores.

We all know the real environmental impact with regard to the fashion industry happens in the East not the West. It happens in supply chains, whether it’s the coal-fired boilers that power so much of the Chinese textile industry, the excessive water use in textile wet processing, or the often wasteful and inefficient nature of many ready-made garment manufacturers, which have been far too slow in implementing technological upgrading to operate more efficiently and sustainably.

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Apparel brands have attempted to address these issues in recent years, and there are several exciting and innovative initiatives in Bangladesh, for instance, led by brands and aimed at reducing water, cutting down energy use and generally reducing suppliers’ carbon footprint.

But the question is this: why are brands always taking a lead on these issues? Why does a brand to come along to encourage suppliers to act? Many of these issues lie with manufacturers themselves, and they are the ones with the power to act. So what are they waiting for?

There is actually so much manufacturers can be doing, and while this might take time, resources and investment, it will be paid back in spades. Operating sustainably is essentially about operating efficiently. It is about good housekeeping, which, as any factory owner will tell you, is the essence of good business.

There are all manner of actions that manufacturers can take, and none require any support from brands. Most actions are aimed at improving efficiencies by cutting down on the use of water, energy, chemicals and other resources.

A manufacturer can replace low-efficiency boilers with more modern ones, often driving huge efficiency gains in the process. It can look at improving water efficiency by recycling wastewater. There are a wealth of technology options available in this area, and if manufacturers are serious about sustainability issues, addressing their excessive use of water should be a No. 1 priority. In many cases, 80 percent (or more) of wastewater can actually be recycled, leading to huge environmental savings, and potentially financial savings if the government were to one day begin charging for water, which certainly isn’t out of the question.

There are actions manufacturers can take in denim effects, for instance, by replacing manual denim processing techniques with laser machines. Technology is moving at a rapid pace in this area. And there are actions they can take in the laundry by, for instance, switching from traditional washing machines to modern ozone machines. Again, some of the new equipment available on the market is light years away from what large swaths of the industry continue to use.

The question everybody will rightly ask here, of course, is: what about the cost?

It is often the case that manufacturers look for brands to support them on these issues due to the high initial capital outlay. While it’s true technological upgrading doesn’t come cheap, manufacturers would do well to think beyond cost and consider potential benefits.

There have been various initiatives carried out within textile supply chains globally where mills have partnered with brands to implement energy and resource saving measures. Often, these initiatives have a pay back of between 12 to 24 months. This means the initial investment quickly pays for itself and, after that, the savings last the business a lifetime. Greater operational efficiency has serious bottom line benefits.

There are other factors to consider, too. Many manufacturers have been able to attract new buyers having implemented new sustainability measures, and this is understandable. Brands right now are, in many cases, rationalizing their supply chains. We know they want to work with factories where employee relations are good, as they can’t afford to have controversy on their hands. But increasingly, brands are looking at factories’ green credentials. Put another way, if a brand has to choose between two suppliers, both with a similar offering but one of which has introduced green and efficient manufacturing methods, we know which factory it will choose.

The world’s environmental challenges will not go away, and if anything they are getting worse. The source of environmental issues are, in many cases, found in supply chains, and ready-made garment factories are the root cause of many environmental problems. Factory owners can’t wait around for brands to come and tell them what to do about these issues. They need to act, and act now, for the future of their own business–and the planet.

Sustainability cannot be addressed in a reactive manner. It’s time for supplier factories to learn how to integrate sustainability within their business. It’s for them to take the lead on these issues and be proactive.

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).