If we don't do it now, it will become far more expensive later. With one of the biggest shopping moments forthcoming this month, Bangladesh is set to be hit by a whammy. No, it is not any Hurricane Fani sequel, but a force far subtler yet more devouring: purchasing new clothes will push us over the hill just as European RMG (ready-made garment) importers begin to turn on the screws on our laggard environmental controls over those factories. Memories of the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza factory collapse were not fully quenched by the Accord/Alliance reforms, leaving so much up in the air that a gap wide enough to admit the devil actually.
That devil is the secular force of producing clothes, in particular fashion products. Clothing may be bad business, but has become the hallmark of our social status: the more types and styles one can boast adorning, it seems, the merrier we become; and the fewer times a particular dress is worn, the classier our status gets stamped. Former Filipino First Lady Imelda R. Marcos's 2,000 pair of shoes (which she reportedly never wore a second time) comes to mind as demonstrating the arrogant show of extravagance when her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was evicted from power in 1986. Her nouveau riche constitution speaks more for clothes than shoes in our case.
Everything is wrong with garment-production. First comes the obvious: the race and relish to exploit poor workers with dirt-low wages. That becomes more incongruent the higher the social ladder we climb, particularly with a 'developed country' rendezvous fixed for us by 2040. We might not be around by then, or if we are, the clothing and fashion industries, as they presently stand, certainly will not. The more fashionable the garment produced, as the second ailment affirms, the more likely they will not be naturally produced fibres, like cotton. How the plastic industry (especially polypropylene) has permeated clothing through polyester fabrics makes each item manufactured either a killer or an accessory to a killer, if not of humans, then of maritime species: as it is, by mid-century there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, with three-quarters of even deep-sea fish having some plastic element in them, meaning inside our own gastro-intestinal system, havoc will be wreaked every time that plastic mixes with gastro-acid, enzymes, or hormones. If these are not enough, it seems the third beast, that naturally-produced fibres also exact an unsustainable toll on Mother Nature, will become the coup de grace of our existence. For example, that it takes 2,500 litres of water to wash a typical tee-shirt exposes how indiscriminately we have been tightening those same screws upon ourselves. Excesses, egotism, and waste have become our middle name, if our most dominant dynamics speak for who we are.
With over a billion staggering pieces of garments produced annually, we know how to jump from the frying-pan to the proverbial fire: only 1.0 per cent is ever recycled, the rest either swallowing away oceanic freshwater or the fish within it, or buried in typically fertile land, with toxics wasting it irreversibly. That is modern civilisation, built upon and by a specie that has killed one million other species (out of eight million on Mother Nature's scorecard) on this planet. We have wasted land, polluted the air and water, and legislate in such a way that grassroots people and Main Street citizens get punished for being what they are in order for secretive, surreptitious, and scandalous businesses to thrive. Adding to that, the higher up the income-ladder we climb, the blinder we become to these ills, with the result that our complicit companionship in a gluttonous relationship leaves no one to stem the tide.
With Great Britain embarking on a mammoth environmental "Clean Up" campaign on the back of a formidable social movement that occupied the world's most historically pre-eminent capital, London, only last month (the "Extinction Rebellion"), we can sense and see that movement spreading to West European countries. These are our top RMG importers, and many have not been too happy with the ambiguous ending of the Accord/Alliance reform exercises. They seem as set to launch a crusade to force our own producers to bite the bullet, something even the suddenly noble Chinese producers and government have started doing (for instance, adopting the Environmental Protection Tax in January 2018, although a spate of legislations in 2014 were the first adopted in 25 years).
Drawing the line with this Eid's shopping season may be our most graceful exit from this degenerative, dehumanising, deadly business, ostensibly powerful because of our sine qua non desire to be fashionable. The more we buy sarees, shalwar kameezes, and many other Eid-special items not made of renewable fibres, the more we feed this vicious cycle. There is a lot to be said about reinventing old clothes: redoing them, adding a new design, or even making a collage out of a few items. Not buying a new one, then delaying washing it few more days, should become the new commandments of each and every shopper: not only does that leave a few extra takas in our pocket, but it also delays that rendezvous date with a vengeful destiny. It can be done by conscious citizens if greedy producers are not up to the task. Great Britain's Triad social group leads this campaign that deserves more local resonance. If, in the process, we lose a few million dollars of RMG exports, it is useful to keep in mind what we may gain: a longer future shadow, more time to fix our bad behaviours, and the impetus to turn on the innovative juices inside us, so we can prepare more renewable alternatives (for us, say, with jute admixtures). This window has been staring at us for years now, but it is high time we opened and utilised it to regain world RMG leadership, this time genuinely, legitimately, and honourably.
If we don't, we must face up to the costs: some of our RMG producers have been eyeing automation, and one report even predicted by 2030 a bulk of production will be from that mode. Syed Almas Kabir, President of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) posits how up to 60 per cent of our RMG workers stand to lose their jobs by 2030 owing to automation. Fortunately, some groups promoting "gamification" (teaching digitalisation to RMG workers), took the May 02 Bangladesh Apparel Exchange "Fashionology" Summit in Dhaka to advertise the start-up, Shimmy Technologies (Brooke Robert Islam, Forbes, May 09, 2019). Unemployment pressures blinks us in the eye. Another, and more obvious threat, is of our RMG importers enacting tough measures upon us. It will be a case of damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't whichever way we turn unless we take the bull by the horns.
Getting out while we are still ahead may be the most face-saving exit from what has unwittingly turned out to be a disgraceful business. For the pious among us, this Eid can be the occasion heeding this critical lesson, if, and only if, we stay at home and dig out our past worn-out clothes for refurbishing instead of racing with neighbours or relatives to the latest fashion-store or just engaging in the "shopping until dropping" stereotypical action of the time. The "dropping" part may come anyway, so let's see if we are capable of delaying its onset. Our posterity will depend on it.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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