Bangladesh is currently the second largest readymade garment (RMG) exporter in the world. However, although the RMG sector contributes around 83% of all export earnings, it is also among the most polluting industries in the country.

The World Trade Organization (WTO), the apex international trade facilitation body, replaced the Multi-Fibre Agreement with the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing in 1995. The new treaty eliminated the quotas on developing countries’ exports, which allowed countries like Bangladesh to optimise their industrial capacity to produce garments on a large scale.

The practising norm of the Bangladeshi industry was to produce large volumes of garments in as little time and as cheaply as possible. Very few stakeholders consider anything wrong with this system. This system encourages buyers to purchase new items frequently and at a low price. It ensures not only a bargaining advantage but also higher profits for fashion companies.

However, such fashion could turn out to be detrimental to Bangladesh. It could cause severe harm to the economy if the country’s RMG sector does not speed up on sustainability. To do this, a major step would be to replace the traditional fast fashion industry with slow fashion. This will need a sound policy prescription.

What is slow fashion?

The term ‘slow fashion’ was first coined in 2007, in an article by journalist Kate Fletcher in the British magazine The Ecologist. Fletcher views slow fashion as a choice that factors in information, cultural diversity and identity along with ecological balance. The concept entails creativity in a fashion that also ensures durability and long-term engaging quality products.

The business model for slow fashion encourages reduced consumption. Slow fashion also creates garments that embrace creativity and culture and promote local craftsmanship. The final product of slow fashion is relatively higher in price. However, it does not fall out of fashion as quickly as do conventional readymade garments. Understandably, it entails higher wages for workers.

Slow fashion for Bangladesh

The concept of sustainability in clothing is not entirely new to Bangladesh. There is an age-old tradition of recycling in Bengali culture. However, introducing slow fashion into mainstream production systems is a recent innovation. It will also only gain traction, given concerns regarding the environment and climate change. Moreover, the rising need for sustainable and durable fashion will fuel the fashion show industry.

There is an age-old tradition of recycling in Bengali culture.

Some local Bangladeshi luxury brands, like Friendship Colours of the Chars, Aarong and Aranya, sell sustainable and ethical clothing products. However, such initiatives have not been adopted by the mainstream garments industry.

Some benefits of slow fashion may put Bangladesh at an advantage. First, slow fashion can drastically reduce the garments industry’s pollution footprint. In 2019, Bangladesh’s textile industry generated waste of 577,000 tonnes. Within this dump, 35% are synthetic fibres. These are severely polluting both the oceans and the lands.

Fast fashion garments are largely made of these low-quality synthetic fibres, known as ‘polyester.’  These polyesters cost less to produce and hence are sold at a lower price. Low price points attract foreign buyers and local customers alike.

Young consumers follow the latest fashion trends. Their purchasing power is less, so low-cost clothing entices them. As a result, instead of buying clothes that will last for years, these young consumers buy clothes on a weekly or monthly basis. This speeds up the fashion cycle, resulting in overconsumption.

To meet this rapid demand, the fashion industry often overproduces these low-quality garments, which later leads to environmental pollution through excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This is harmful to the environment because CO2 stores heat, which disrupts the natural weather pattern and contributes to the rise in global temperatures. This is evident in Bangladesh. The country faced two back-to-back natural disasters in 2022: the Sylhet floods in the northeast and cyclone Sitrang on the southern coast.

Compared with fast fashion, slow fashion reduces pollution by minimising consumption. Slow fashion clothes are made from durable, recyclable or reusable materials like organic cotton. Slow fashion also opens up new opportunities. Bangladesh alone creates nearly 0.2 million tonnes of recyclable cotton waste, worth $100 million. This can be exported to earn precious foreign currency.

Cotton waste can be reused to make fibre, which can later be used to make cotton and yarn. Such a process will slow down excess production, which will reduce overconsumption and CO2 emissions.

Slow fashion can facilitate product diversification by promoting local craftsmanship. From ancient times, handlooms have been an intrinsic part of Bangladesh’s culture. Local artisans have used their hands to create world-class fabrics such as muslin, khadi, Rajshahi silk and Tangail tant.

These prominent fabrics of Bangladesh have seen demand fall as a result of the rapidly growing RMG industry. By reintroducing these traditional fabrics into mainstream fashion, diversification can be brought about in Bangladesh’s garment products.

After graduating from United Nations-categorised least developed countries (LDC) status, Bangladesh will no longer be obtaining trade-related benefits like ‘duty-free quota-free’ market access, designed to support the LDCs. Buoyed by such privileges, Bangladesh still does not have to pay any tariffs on its exports till 2026. These facilities have helped the country spear high demand for its clothing globally. However, after graduating from LDC status, Bangladesh will in the end have to export the same products with a hefty amount of tax. This will eventually raise the product price significantly.

Along with the price rise, the lack of variation in Bangladesh’s garments will lower its competitiveness in the world market. It will also put pressure on export volumes. The most severe shock will come when Bangladeshi products face pressure in the Canadian and key European markets owing to rising inflation in these economies.

Along with the price rise, the lack of variation in Bangladesh’s garments will lower its competitiveness in the world market.

Meanwhile, there is surely concern about the sustainability of fashion worldwide. In 2022, after the renowned fashion brand Coperni’s spray-on dress ‘worn’ by model Bella Hadid went viral, the discourse on fast fashion received new traction globally. This means this is a timely opportunity for Bangladesh to bring forth its long-lost heritage of sustainable clothing.

Lastly, slow fashion will reduce unfair labour practices in Bangladesh’s garments industry. Bangladeshi garment workers often toil for 14 to 16 hours at a stretch daily to meet the strict deadline on orders. They work in unsafe buildings with almost no ventilation. At the same time, low remuneration compels them to do overtime.

In contrast, the production process for slow fashion is slow. It requires certain skills. It offers better as well as fair wages, in return for its subtle artwork. Further, appropriate conditions regarding, for example, the soil environment, mineral content, temperature and humidity levels, are required to complete the production process. This means factories are suitably built for the machines and also for workers.

Since the early 2010s, Bangladesh’s garments sector has seen a drastic drop in female labour force participation, from some 90% to 60%. The underlying reason is that female workers need childcare facilities for their infants when they are at work. Contemporary garment factories cannot ensure such facilities, which has resulted in a drastic decline in female participation in this sector. This trend should concern policy-makers.

Slow fashion addresses this trend. Bangladesh’s heritage fabrics have their own unique geographical locations, such as tant being produced in the central region of Tangail. This renders the relocation of tant factories to that area crucial.

This would be beneficial to citizens in two ways. First, women’s participation will again increase, as the workplace will be located near their home. They can take care of their children as they will not be far away. Second, it will reduce excessive labour migration into major cities like Dhaka. Reduced rural–urban migration will help decrease the over-congestion of these areas. It will eventually promote a healthier social life for the citizens.

Policy recommendations

Bangladesh needs to seize opportunities from the slow fashion buzz in developed markets. Creating a market framework, for both producers and consumers, for eco-friendly fashion deals could be the first ‘sustainability step’ for the country’s clothing industry. For this, onboarding producers in this retransformation, while persuading consumers towards sustainable consumption, will be imperative.

Bangladesh needs to seize opportunities from the slow fashion buzz in developed markets.

Persuading the producers

The production of slow fashion will be profitable for producers. The main reason for this is that the fashion show production process requires intense human and capital resources, making the final product costlier than fast fashion. As a result, producers can charge more and generate higher revenues.

Moreover, Bangladeshi garment exporters will face the dual challenge of its LDC status graduation by 2026 and the EU’s new legislation on sustainable fashion by 2030, which will snatch away many trade-related benefits. Hence, entrepreneurs in the garments sector should already be considering a retransformation.

Another incentive for Bangladeshi producers is international consumers’ appetite for slow fashion. According to Statista, a survey from March 2021 shows that almost half of Canadian consumers, 49%, want to buy from companies that are supportive and environment-friendly. Some 46% of respondents want to purchase more biodegradable and eco-friendly goods.

In the UK – another key garments export destination – a survey by Statista in 2020 shows that a large segment of consumers prefers sustainable fashion. In particular, men aged 25–44 and women aged 35–44 have a greater interest in buying sustainable clothes.

According to a 2019 survey by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Generation Z is the most concerned about sustainable fashion. Three-quarters, 75%, of Generation Zs in the US think sustainable purchases are more important than brand names.

It will not be easy for a developing country like Bangladesh to transform its major industrial sector, and it will not happen overnight. Here is where good policy support comes in. Policy-makers should incentivise garment producers and investors to gradually introduce slow fashion into the main production line. The quickest tool to do this is via subsidies and tax incentives. In addition, awareness programmes can be organised to train workers so they can support the transformation.

Persuading local consumers

Locally, it is important to persuade the increasingly affluent and growing Bangladeshi middle class towards sustainable clothing purchases. Bangladeshi fashion houses are unable to capitalise on the ever-expanding market opportunity of slow fashion at home. One of the most prominent barriers is the information gap between consumers and fashion brands.

…it is important to persuade the increasingly affluent and growing Bangladeshi middle class towards sustainable clothing purchases.

A study by Bain and Company in 2022 identifies that global consumers fall into five categories. Among them, the first entails the ‘sustainability champions,’ who are highly conscious and regularly purchase sustainable clothing. The final group on the spectrum is ‘indifferent’ consumers, who barely think about sustainability during shopping.

The study shows there is a gap between consumers’ concerns and their buying attitudes towards sustainable fashion. They may intend to engage in sustainable behaviour but their actions do not always align with their intentions.

Bangladeshi fashion houses should conduct buying-attitude surveys for their domestic consumers. A detailed data-driven market analysis will bridge the information gap between domestic consumers and producers. With such an analysis, fashion houses can deploy evidence-backed strategies to address the unmet needs of the markets.

Lastly, catalysing slow fashion consumption boosts local crafts. Consequently, linking Bangladesh’s fashion producers with their consumers will promote environmental awareness and surely boost job creation.


Cover: A model walks on the ramp showcasing a saree from Bangladeshi designer Rina Latif’s collection, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 28 April 2018 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Muhammad Shafiullah is an associate professor at BRAC University. He is an economist. He is an editor at Cogent Economics & Finance. He was an associate professor of economics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and a senior economist at the Policy Research Institute, Dhaka. He specialises in the economics of finance, energy and the environment. He pursued his doctoral studies in economics at Griffith University, Australia.
Barira Hossain is an advising mentor at the Office of Academic Advising, BRAC University. She is an economist. Her areas of interest are development, behavioural finance and public policy. She is pursuing her undergraduate studies at BRAC University, Bangladesh.