Improving water stewardship in textile industry

Bangladesh’s history, culture and religion is symbolised by water. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin and 230 inland rivers act as lifelines for food, transport and livelihood for the majority of the population in Bangladesh.

In 2014 Bangladesh experienced the highest temperature in 54 years, which has led to an acute water shortage in rivers and low lying areas. It is not only the dry season affects the country; heavy rainfall within short periods also causes severe floods and river banks to erode and overflow. Due to the extremely flat topography, the country often has too much water flowing in its 57 transboundary rivers connected to the upper riparian country. These heavy changes – flooding in monsoon and drought in dry season – are causing a socio-economic disaster for Bangladesh.

Farmers in rice fields at sunset, China
Farmers in rice fields at sunset. Dongting Lake, Hunan Province, China. Photograph: H&M

The textile sector is a powerhouse for Bangladesh contributing more than 80% of export earnings and employing 3.6 million people, of which 85% are women. But the sector also has impacts on the environment and especially on water. Pollution of water sources in and around Dhaka has now reached alarming levels. Water is becoming polluted while ground water in Dhaka is declining by 1-2 metres a year, which has been the case every year during the last 20 years.

The water situation has become a petrifying reality due to weak enforcement by regulatory bodies in Bangladesh, complemented by a general mindset that “pollution is not my responsibility.” This mindset comes from the fact that water in Bangladesh, as in most other countries, is free for industry to use.

In Bangladesh, H&M is working not only to reduce water use but also to reduce pollution at all supplier factories. The wastewater quality targets H&M has enforced are higher than the ones set by the country’s own regulation. Regarding pollution reduction H&M is focusing on two things: functionality of the treatment plants and water quality improvement beyond the legal requirement. In Bangladesh, 65 new Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP’s) were installed in 2014 in H&M’s supplier factories. Additionally, €30.7m (£24.2m) has been invested by H&M’s suppliers to upgrade and modify the existing ETP’s to meet H&M standards.

At the same time H&M is reducing their textile-related water use. Collectively, the entire sector uses 1500bn litres of groundwater a year. Water use of 250-300 litres per kg of textiles produced is 2-3 times higher than the global benchmark. If the textile sector in Bangladesh should continue to grow in a sustainable way this situation needs to change.

To create further synergies with our actions on water H&M is supporting a collaborative project called “Partnership for Cleaner Textile” (PaCT). PaCT seeks to bring about systemic, positive environmental change for the Bangladesh textile wet processing sector, its workers, and surrounding communities, and to contribute to the sector’s long-term competitiveness.

PaCT establishes linkages with key stakeholders and sector actors including brands such as C&A and Inditex, industry associations, government and local communities to offer a comprehensive solution to the textile sector’s water availability and quality issues. PaCT is promoting cleaner production practices and water technology investments so participating factories improve water efficiency.

PaCT is really bringing something new to the table. By introducing a whole new level of water stewardship to the industry with a combination of internal awareness, on-site improvements and large scale collective action there is the potential to deliver significant improvements in the river basin. Bangladesh is a focus region for H&M’s water stewardship strategy, which aims at improving water management in key river basins.

Still, many of the water-related actions and long-term sustainability on water resides outside this sphere of H&M’s influence. This is due to the fact that the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system of south Asia consists of a total catchment area of 1.72m square kilometres of which only 7% lies within Bangladesh and the rest beyond its territory. What is needed is a collective and continuous improvement of the water consumption and discharge quality within the sector as well as effective integrated transboundary water management to ensure the sustainable development for the textile sector and Bangladesh. This is a road H&M and WWF have begun working on together in their partnership. For more information click here.

Sharif Hoque, environmental sustainability, H&M Bangladesh.

Courtesy: The Guardian