Fashion is ‘Sleepwalking’ into a Climate Catastrophe. Bangladesh is in the Bullseye.

For Monira, a 30-year-old garment worker living in Ashulia, a suburb near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, the weather has become her defining concern.

She first moved from her village, she said, “because of the floods.” Every time it rained, the water would rise and the roads would be inundated, forcing people to skim distances by boat. But even in the densely populated city, where she stitches clothes for brands like H&M and Jordache, conditions whipsaw from one extreme to another. If flooding isn’t creating floating barges of trash that emanate a “horrible smell,” then the searing heat is causing piles of fabric and even entire buildings to spontaneously burst into flames.

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All that sprawling concrete and iron has created an urban “heat island” effect, rendering an already steamy clime veiled in perpetual traffic, construction and industrial pollution even hotter, muggier and more difficult to bear.

Monira said she doesn’t understand much about climate change, which scientists say is increasing the frequency and duration of intense weather events, but that she has been slowly learning from people who do.

“It’s because the climate is getting hotter,” she said. “This is even affecting the electricity supply in the city and that is making everyone’s life harder.”

The effects of climate breakdown are already changing the character of Bangladesh, with internal migration among the driving factors.

The South Asian nation, which sits above the Bay of Bengal, is interlaced throughout by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and their myriad tributaries. Whenever monsoon rains cause them to swell, the resulting floods threaten the agriculture-based livelihoods strewn across its 360-mile-wide coastal zone with encroaching saltwater that submerges trees and poisons cropland. The storms have been getting progressively more catastrophic. Last year, unprecedented torrents, the worst in 120 years, engulfed huge swaths of the country, submerging millions of homes underwater.

Over the past decade, the number of people living in Dhaka has jumped by nearly 44 percent from 16 million to 23 million, straining roads, schools, utilities, housing and waste services. By 2050, they’re expected to surpass 36 million.

“A lot of people are coming to Dhaka,” said Fahima, 28. “When I came to the city, at the time many others came at the same time. What else can they do? They are escaping the damage the floods have done to their homes and lives.”

Fahima’s family made the reluctant decision to move to the city from the Shimultala area of Mithapukur in Rangpur several years ago after flooding destroyed their paddy fields, making village life untenable, she said. Now she makes clothing for the likes of Next, Marks & Spencer and Kmart.

“The area I live in now [has] problems,” Fahima said. “We have a main road which is constantly getting flooded. The rain does that but also when it’s not raining it still gets flooded. Sometimes it’s impossible to even use the road; the water is dirty and polluted. The factory and local businesses dump their liquids here. There is no decent system to get rid of this liquid waste. So that is why the road gets so dirty, polluted and floods so easily and it stays like that all year round.”

Bangladesh climate
Fahima walking on a flooded road.

In Dhaka, 20 percent of garment factories, or roughly 1,155, can be found at low elevations within easy reach of rain-swollen rivers, according to the Garment Worker Diaries, an initiative of Microfinance Opportunities, in collaboration with the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, that compared factory lists compiled by Mapped in Bangladesh and the Open Supply Hub against data from Climate Central in 2021. Many slum worker homes are also located in these flood-prone zones.

The protracted heatwaves that are increasingly wracking Bangladesh are just as dangerous. In June, temperatures in Dhaka surpassed 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest in six decades, causing road surfaces to melt, schools to shutter and hospitalizations for heat exhaustion and heat stroke to multiply. A fuel shortage led several power plants to shut down.

But still, people continue to flock to the city because their hometowns can no longer provide what they need.

“Because people are having to migrate to the city the city is getting too busy and populated,” said Esabnur, 32, who went to Dhaka to work for a Uniqlo and Walmart supplier after the Karatoa river burst its banks and deluged his village. “Most of them are coming here to work in the garment factories. These people have lost everything in the floods. They have to come. You travel to the city because there is work here.”

Anna Bryher, policy lead at Labour Behind the Label, the U.K.-based workers’ advocacy group that helped Sourcing Journal compile the interviews with the assistance of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, said that she was interested in learning about what climate change looked like from the garment workers’ point of view and what centering their perspective would mean for the so-called just transition. Money, after all, provides resilience in a way that poverty—abject, in the case of Bangladesh—doesn’t.

“It’s not necessarily that Bangladesh is causing its own climate chaos, but everywhere else in the garment industry,” she said. “All the things that the West is doing is really having a human rights and environmental impact on global South countries.”

The climate crisis is causing many to lurch from one state of precarity into another, said Bryher, who spoke with roughly 20 workers altogether. The minimum wage for garment workers, for instance, has stagnated at 8,000 Bangladeshi taka ($73) for the past five years. To meet rising costs steered by relentless inflation and provide something akin to a decent quality of life, the country’s unions say it needs to be closer to 24,000 Bangladeshi taka ($218.70).

“We’re seeing agricultural workers being put out of their livelihoods and then moving to cities in a vulnerable way, where they don’t have any savings back-up and so they’re ripe for exploitation in many ways,” she said.

Bryer said that while the migrants may not attribute the anger and sadness of leaving their homes to global warming, they know for certain that it is changing Bangladesh, potentially forever, as rural existence becomes more unviable.

As the threat creeps closer to the heart of Bangladesh’s garment industry in Dhaka, the brands that rely on this massive engine of production but don’t own any of their own factories are still nibbling around the edges by looking at plastic reduction options or switching out light bulbs at their offices instead of grappling with what’s happening at the manufacturer level. Possibly because their supply chain isn’t bolted down.

“Maybe it’ll just mean they’ll source from factories that are farther away from the rivers,” Bryer said. “I know that a lot of brands are very nimble and that they’ll just move everything around. But I think the impact of the removal of some of that economy from places like Bangladesh would be huge.”

Bangladesh climate
Esabnur observing the wastewater being dumping into the local water source.

But cutting and running doesn’t make a lot of sense because other sourcing locations are just as climate-vulnerable, said Jason Judd, executive director of the ILR Global Labor Institute at Cornell University.

Speaking at the launch of twin reports—one about the effects of climate breakdown on garment workers and the other on climate resilience and fashion’s cost of adaptation—that the school compiled in collaboration with asset management firm Schroders, Judd noted that there just aren’t many other alternatives.

“And the capacity that’s been built up in China [and] Southeast Asia over the last 20-plus years is not easy to replicate in other parts of Northern Africa, Central America, etc.,” he said.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China. One in 10 garments exported to the United States, or roughly $9.74 billion worth in 2022, hails from the country. In the European Union, the ratio is nearly one in five, with the bloc receiving nearly $22.9 billion worth of Bangladesh-made apparel last year.

What is clear from the research, however, is that brands are almost wholly focused on climate mitigation, meaning that they’re pouring their efforts into making the impacts of global warming less severe rather than adjusting to the bruising reality that has already reared its ugly head.

“It is rare in our experience, having done this work, to find detailed and fully thought out adaptation plans that deal with the risks that we have identified [that are] associated with extreme heat and flooding,” said Angus Bauer, head of sustainable research at Schroders. “Oftentimes, heat and flooding have been identified by companies in the supply chain, but they’re most often focused on the effects on raw materials rather than necessarily the effects on suppliers and their workers. So we think that this is potentially a little bit of a blind spot.”

And the cost of business as usual can’t be overstated. By the researchers’ estimates, lowered productivity driven by mounting temperatures and worsening flooding could see four of the world’s top garment-producing countries, including Bangladesh, miss out on $65 billion in export earnings—the equivalent of a 22 percent drop—and 1 million new jobs by 2030. The prognosis for 2050 is even bleaker, with a 68.8 percent nosedive for earnings in a non-climate-adaptive scenario and a 34.5 percent contraction in employment, or 8.64 million fewer jobs.

“One thing that we want to stress is that our assumptions here are conservative,” Judd said. “ Every time we had to make a choice in terms of our estimates, we chose a middle-of-the-road climate scenario.”

The supply chain, after all, is only human, and the floors of many garment factories in Bangladesh lack air conditioning or even sufficient ceiling fans. Sweltering heat and suffocating humidity can tax even workers used to toiling under the most grueling of conditions, resulting in headaches, nausea, dehydration, fainting and other indicators of heat stress.

The ILR Global Labor Institute and Schroders used a measure of environmental heat and humidity called the wet-bulb global temperature, which is read by a thermometer covered in a wet cloth rather than in open air. A wet-bulb reading of 30.5 degrees Celsius (86.9 degrees Fahrenheit) will induce moderate symptoms of heat stress, requiring as much rest as work in an hour in order to maintain safe core body temperatures. A reading of 32 degrees Celsius (89 degrees Fahrenheit) signals high heat stress, making labor difficult even for acclimatized workers. At temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), most workers will suffer severe effects of heat stress even at low-effort levels, resulting in heat stroke or even death.

By their estimates, Dhaka will experience nearly 65 days that exceed a wet bulb reading of 30.5 degrees Celsius in 2030 and more than 104 in 2050, a 63 percent increase from 2004-2014 levels.

“Every 1-Celsius increase in the temperature above 25 Celsius equals a 1.5 percent decline in productivity,” Judd said. “So using that, we can calculate, factory by factory and day by day, the decline in productivity [and] earnings, and then we can convert that into losses in the numbers of jobs both for 2030 and for 2050.”

Coastal and river flooding data offered no solace, either. A projected 36.9 percent of Dhaka’s population will be at risk of riverine flooding in 2030 and 37.1 percent in 2050. Another 14.6 percent is in danger of coastal inundation in 2030 and 17.9 percent in 2050. In terms of garment factories, some 32 percent are potentially under threat.

“Thousands of factories in these neighborhoods will be touched by floodwaters in 2050 in the absence of any adaptation efforts,” Judd said.

Not one brand, whether sportswear or luxury or fast fashion, will be immune from these headwinds, which can eat into the cost of goods sold by several percentage points. And even this small fraction could begin to compound materially over time.

“They are in our view significant enough for investors to be engaging on these topics and the brands themselves to be working with suppliers to address the the acute need for action,” Bauer said. “And we do believe, following a fairly extensive investigation of the adaptation solutions with different experts, that there are potentially some quite positive ROI equations associated with the investment in adaptation. But what that requires is action from multiple different stakeholders.”

This includes treating heat and flooding events as health hazards and making changes to workplace standards and protocols, which researchers found are either vague or missing altogether.

And in Judd’s case, it means putting rules not just on the books but also enshrining them in national policy and private regulation wherever apparel production happens.

“Having said that, we’re not talking here just about codes of conduct, given the seriousness and the urgency of climate adaptation,” he said. “What I really mean is not voluntary programs, but binding agreements that include workers, suppliers and brands.”

Bangladesh climate
Dumped fabric and waste, which creates a “horrible smell” when it floods, according to Monira.

Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, said that the heat levels in Bangladesh have been increasing every year, as have symptoms of heat exhaustion that were previously uncommon. Some workers don’t even have the strength to walk into a room, she said. While heat sickness-related absenteeism is punished with the loss of attendance bonuses at best and wage cuts at worst, any broader conversation about the issue is simply “not there.”

Amid the rumbling and steaming factory equipment, temperatures can sometimes feel even higher on the production floor.

“​​If it is 35 degrees Celsius outside, you should add on another 10 degrees in the factory,” Akter said.

But if brands are focused on mitigation over adaptation, Vidhura Ralapanawe, executive vice president at Epic Group, a garment manufacturer with four hubs in Bangladesh, isn’t seeing much of it translate on the ground.

Decarbonization is a critical issue in Bangladesh, but it isn’t easy for most suppliers to secure the funding necessary to make the retrofits required, he said. With global inflation remaining stubbornly high and consumer confidence crumbling, Ralapanawe doesn’t expect the kind of order volumes that will allow factories to invest in sustainability. And without a sense of “shared ownership” of the problem, brand negotiations over price frequently don’t take into account the cost of upgrading equipment or switching to cleaner sources of energy.

“We [really need to] address the elephant in the room: How do we build a collective strategy for decarbonization that does not simply pass the full responsibility of decarbonization to manufacturers,” Ralapanawe said. “Because that will only work for a very, very small amount of manufacturers and it will not lead to the scaling at the pace that we want as an industry.”

Then there’s domestic policy, which is also misaligned with the country’s decarbonization needs, making funding requirements larger and the payback periods longer.

“Steam traps and insulation carry high import duties, as [do] solar systems and efficient motors,” Ralapanawe said. “What I would love to see is the government really back the decarbonization move as a national priority. We need to create supportive regulatory and incentive schemes.”

Ralapanawe said that the industry still views the climate crisis through a very brand-focused lens. As a manufacturer, if he wants to talk about climate, his “real conversation” would be centered around three aspects. First, decarbonization, which is mitigation; second, the resilience of the factories and supply chain, “just to make sure there’s business continuity,” and third, ensuring employee welfare.

“But this conversation starts and ends with decarbonization,” he said.

Mostafiz Uddin, managing director of Denim Expert, a denim factory in the coastal area of Chittagong, southwest of Dhaka, said he worries about more immediate concerns.

“We have everyday worries around orders, our workers, etc.,” he said. “Of course, we try to do our bit in terms of greener operations. But if water levels rise around us this is beyond our control. I try to worry more about things I can affect.”

Factories aren’t thinking about relocation, though this would be especially burdensome for smaller businesses.

“You have to remember many people in Bangladesh have very immediate problems such as poverty and these are things they see every day,” Uddin said. “So far climate change is more of an abstract threat and concerns around it are kept at arm’s length. For now, anyway. For workers, the immediate threats are income, family, education and also access to medical care.”

Uddin agreed that money is one of the biggest challenges to Bangladesh’s decarbonization efforts. But so are logistics, government support and access to sources of renewable energy.

“There is a will from factory owners but they can’t do this alone,” he said. “Lots of things need to slot into place to achieve reduced emissions and hit climate targets.”

For Bryer, discussions around climate need to include workers and workers’ organizations to ensure that change is “co-produced” rather than based on a top-down approach that doesn’t account for the needs of those bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. And while any kind of policy or legislation on the issue is still at its nascent stage, there needs to be something “that’s on the table now” in terms of an enforceable agreement about how a just transition will happen and who will finance it.

“I fear that probably everybody’s sleepwalking into a catastrophe that is coming, including the brands,” she said.

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