World Half Full
Bangladesh's fashion sweatshops reborn
When Shefali Akter first sought a job at a garment factory near Bangladesh’s capital, the crowding, heavy workload and poor salary led the 19-year-old to resign after a year and return to her rural home in northern Bangladesh. However, when she came back to the garment factory region west of Dhaka with her new husband a few years later, she found conditions at some factories had dramatically changed for the better.
At the Snowtex Group plant where Akter, now 26, works, she earns 13,500 taka (US$1,350) a month, gets extra pay for overtime, a nutritious free lunch and a day off a week.
The well-ventilated factory — along with a sister facility nearby — now sports solar panels, cutting energy costs in half. Rainwater storage and measures to cut waste have reduced water consumption by 30%, factory officials say. The plant’s grounds — heavily planted with trees — also have their own vegetable gardens, offering employees the chance to buy inexpensive organic tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and red amaranth.
For many years, Bangladesh’s garment factories were infamous for producing low-cost garments in often harsh working conditions. But, now, international pressure for more sustainable clothing production is beginning to change that.
To date, Bangladesh has 186 factories certified as green by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard; there were just three in 2014.
Of those, 62 have earned a platinum rating, 110 a gold rating and 10 a silver, for progress toward lowering water and energy use and waste, and making transport and materials more sustainable, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Points are also awarded for improvements in worker health and the quality of indoor work environments.
Business analysts say that after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, which killed more than 1,130 people in 2013, factory owners facing foreign and domestic criticism have stepped up efforts to provide a safer working environment. As part of that push, some have also become interested in creating greener factories — a shift that’s spreading, particularly as international buyers try to meet their own green commitments.
Today, Bangladesh has the highest number of eco-friendly factories among the world’s garment-exporting countries, according to the BGMEA.
At Snowtex Group’s pair of LEED-platinum-certified factories about 25kms west of Dhaka, workers now enjoy grounds set with a water-storing pond, nutritionist-approved free lunches, salaries paid online and well-ventilated factory floors.
“We ensure the safety and security of workers,” says managing director S.M. Khaled. Snowtex sells to brands such as Colombia, Decathlon and C&A and has 19,000 workers and an annual turnover of US$250 million. Workers, using an app can message management if they face problems and “we investigate the issue with the highest priority”, he notes.
Khaled says going greener also saves money, with energy use 50% lower compared to more traditional factories Snowtex Group owns. Solar panels provide about 10% of the energy used to run the factories; another 86% is bought from other solar providers, with the remaining 4% from fossil fuels such as diesel, he adds.
While building greener factories is 30-35% costlier than building a traditional factory, he says, utilities are then cheaper each year and buyers easier to line up.
Other garment factory owners are also making changes.
Fazlul Haque’s Plummy Fashions plant south of Dhaka, for instance, has one of the largest factory solar plants in Bangladesh and transparent glass walls and skylights that cut lighting costs and create more natural light for workers. Pollution is down by 35% compared to a more traditional factory, and water-saving taps and rainwater tanks have reduced the factory’s water demand by 40%, he reports.
“The Rana Plaza incident shocked me. At that time I promised that if I started a factory it would not be a high-rise building but it must be a green factory”, Haque says. A larger number of clothing brands seeking greener and more worker-friendly products are also making investments in better factories pay off, he adds. Plummy Fashions sells to such labels as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Next. “Big brands are interested in buying clothes from green factories.” Now, “we are in an advantageous position in bargaining,” he says.
Shima Akter, a labourer at the Plummy Fashions plant, says her workfloor wasn’t “suffocating like other factories around” and other parents in her community envied her job at a “green factory”.
Md. Ashraful Al Amin Khan, Bangladesh manager of GIII Apparel Group, a buyer for fashion brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, says his firm had signed long-term contracts with some of the green factories. “We often visit those factories and are satisfied with the workers’ wages and the working environment,” he says, noting that “every prominent brand is considering the green garments issue and Bangladesh is really doing well.”
BGMEA president Faruque Hassan says Bangladesh already had more LEED-certified garment factories than any other country with 52 out of the top 100 rated factories. One, a Green Textile Limited factory in Mymensingh, in February was named the highest-scoring LEED-certified garment factory in the world, according to the BGMEA. Altogether, Bangladesh is now home to nine of the top 10 LEED-certified garment plants in the world, the association reports.
Ridhwanul Haq, a business administration professor at Dhaka University, says manufacturing of ready-made garments had dominated Bangladesh’s economy for four decades but greener plants were positioning the country “for the next level of competitiveness” and helping Bangladesh meet its own environmental goals.
ABOVE Shefali Akter
PHOTO Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain