"Will the circle be unbroken?" Ada Habershon asked that question over a century ago during a funeral. She was simply seeking answers to a more pervasive human question: does the soul of the departed return, in some form, to the bereaved relatives, for instance. Environmentalists have also begun wondering lately, loudly, and similarly about our own consumer society's own soul: will life return when our "linear," value-added production-consumption addiction come to an end? Colliding with two human instincts has been our fate: greed, which pushes us to want to transform every raw material into precious products for market transactions (and profit greed); and a survival-of-the-fittest proclivity amid fierce competition that translates into wanting to "go one better" on all else. That is how progress has been defined, in terms of our materialistic gains. Strewn in its pathway, we have left waste after waste, every step of the way, so much so that survival now demands simply sustaining our neck over and above that waste. It's the clarion call for a "circular economy", may be our last chance to do so.
The 21st century begins with the human beings at a tipping point: even oceans have filled up with our waste, not just the physical space, but also in water-taste, odour, content and so forth. Plastic has emerged as the key villain. After long choking up the underwater life, it is now beginning to choke us up by making our own food-chain toxic. Even worse is packaging materials, often in plastics, like the types we carry home from the supermarket after each visit. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, this has become a massive $34 billion industry strangulating us. Contrarily, a McKinsey report proposes, by substituting "linear" for "circular," we could reap over $2 trillion worth of benefits. Since that figure was just for Europe, the continent where the "circular economy" began from about 2012 (see Nenoit Leleux and Jan Der Kaaij's Winning Sustainable Strategies, 2019, Chapter 10), the rest of the world has a windfall waiting at its doorstep.
Neither the "circular" term nor its extrapolation is unbeknown in Dhaka. Many leading newspapers have articulated its urgent consideration. This particular newspaper, for example, made the case through Shyma V. Ramani's February 11, 2018 piece. So too did the Dhaka Tribune through a visiting scholar's, Anne-Laure Pilat's, urgent portrayal of the need to go "circular" (July 19, 2018), followed, one week later, by the Daily Star's Mostafiz Uddin placating the fashion industry (July 25, 2018), as the most virulent villain. Maintaining such media pressure may be the final call before any linear-model doomsday.
How can we prevent progressing down that waste-littered highway? Clearly, if there were cash rewards, the task would get easier. As a matter of fact, there may be a pathway both sustainable and profitable. Comprehending the possibility requires disaggregating the "circular" term into operational components.
To make the most out of any product before it dies its natural death, we need to, obviously, look behind the production-consumption dead-end sequence into that product's alternate usages and possibilities. Leleux and Der Kaaij help us do so by creating a typology in terms of the value-added potential. They dub these "strategies." Ranked from the lowest to the highest value-added possibility, these include the following functions: "recover," "recycle," "repurpose," "re-manufacture," "refurbish," "repair," "reuse," "reduce," "rethink," and "refuse." For examples, we could incinerate the product and "recover" the energy, which is the lowest value-added action, or "refuse" to utilise the product by finding a substitute, in which case unspent utility leaves a huge future usage possibility.
The case against the fashion industry, in particular, but the clothing sector in general, is strong, growing, and irrevocable. It may be approaching its own tether-end. Note the increasingly robust evidences of fashion-based damages: 10 per cent of all greenhouse gases originate in this industry alone (just when Bangladesh's addiction to this industry begins to grow as we climb the middle-income country ladder); producing cotton accounts for 16 per cent of the world's pesticides, poisoning the land we live upon and farmers toiling to make both ends meet so we can look fashionable enough to imagine being a high society citizen; then there are the textile truckloads headed for burning sites or burial landfills, one every second of every day; even the seemingly innocuous task of washing synthetic clothes releases 2,000 plastic microfibres for each one, which, when dumped into the ocean, enters our food-chain, and thereby infects us, the producer of that cloth and consumer of its high-end ingredients; pushing the point, just to wash a single cotton shirt consumes 2,700 liters, that is, the amount an ordinary human drinks in 2.5 years; and similarly, washing one jean emits as much CO2 as driving 69 miles, in fact 120 million trees get chopped down annually to produce each plush-clothed individual, even as his/her surrounding environment grows more naked with each purchase (all data from Greenpeace and World Economic Forum: https://act.gp/2NzfwBd).
Before posterity crucifies us for greedily sinking the ship, we must initiate reform actions. Our RMG owners owe it to themselves, their country, and the future. They must be credited for placing Bangladesh on the world's productive map, plucking us out of abject poverty in the 1970s, and positioning us right behind China in today's RMG pantheon. They still have a few more years left of their export "magic," but it will go at some point. Automated RMG production, already introduced in some developed countries (like the United States), is set to arrive across Bangladesh, sooner rather than later, given the prolonged RMG labour restlessness.
One way to stay ahead of the curve when the industrial leadership curtain falls is to reinvent the proverbial wheel: instead, for instance, purchasing so much cotton and many other RMG inputs, "recycling" could be prioritised (much as Momtaz Uddin advocated), "re-manufacture" could also be explored. In fact, many of the other "r's" could be invoked, in one way or another: "refurbish," "repair," "reuse," "reduce," and "rethink," leaving the "refusal" option open for inevitable consideration.
Pushed, the process could end up re-christening the first RMG alphabet: instead of "ready," any of the other "r's" would prevail, creating that much needed transformation to save this planet, and thereby its inhabitants (even the most avaricious). It would not just throw Bangladesh into a different and more upward-tilted trajectory, but also feed the growing sustainability-filled global mindset, particularly in West Europe, the largest of our RMG importing regions. Not only has West Europe taken the global "greenification" leadership, but its economy is rapidly being pegged to this single pillar, including the conditions it sets for would-be global exporters. Before Bangladesh is told to make these changes, as West Europeans have done with labour rights and safety work standards, we might show the West Europeans a credential or two of our own "greenification" leadership. A "circular RMG economy" would fit that bill so perfectly, while also leaving our own RMG owners less unscathed, as they have been with recent reforms that we could remain behind the RMG steering-wheel more dominant than ever before, and for far longer than presently visible.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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