It’s time to talk about cotton

By guest author Mostafiz Uddin. He is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Denim Expo.

Cotton is the lifeblood of the Bangladesh RMG industry, with our country among the world’s four largest users of this miracle fibre. The other three are China, India and Pakistan, the latter two of which also have large home textile markets.

In Bangladesh, cotton is the main feedstock of the garment export industry. Despite the slowdown caused by the global pandemic, the latest statistics from the US show that Bangladesh has increased its cotton import forecast for marketing year (MY) 2021/22 to 7.6 million bales as a result of higher demand for locally spun yarn.

Caption courtesy by Bangladesh Daily Star

The domestic consumption of cotton in MY 2021/22 is forecasted at 7.9 million bales, which is approximately the same consumption levels of MY 2020/21, due to sustained demand for yarn, fabric, apparel, and garments as the world economy slowly recovers from the pandemic.

I believe it’s time for Bangladesh to make better use of this precious resource while also giving greater consideration to the opportunities afforded by recycled cotton. We take cotton for granted at our peril given our huge dependence on it as a raw material. Did you know, for instance, that in 2020 Bangladesh became the largest denim exporter to the US last year, giving our country a market share in the US of around 20 percent. Bangladesh is also the leading denim exporter to the European Union, and all of these denim products are made, of course, with cotton.

The first issue to consider here is cotton waste. It was reported recently that in 2019, Bangladesh produced approximately 577000 tonnes of waste just from the RMG and fabrics mills of which almost half (250 thousand tonnes) was 100 % pure cotton waste.

This subject was recently discussed at a meeting led by the BGMEA, which is now looking seriously at the issue of recycling due to growing demand for recycled garments from fashion brands and retailers.

Last year, more than 50 brands, manufacturers and textile recyclers signed up to a programme which aims to grow the textile recycling industry in Bangladesh by capturing and directing post-production cotton waste back into the production of new fashion products. The work is also looking to boost circular commercial collaborations between textile and garment manufacturers, recyclers and fashion brands operating in Bangladesh.

I have been banging the drum for textile recycling for many years. On my travels, I have seen more and more sophisticated recycling technologies are now entering the market and, as one of the world’s leading cotton users, it is vital that Bangladesh is at the forefront of the next generation of cotton recycling.

Bangladesh has an advantage here with our focus on cotton fibres—also known as cellulosic fibres—which are traditionally easier to recycle than synthetic garments.

The other issue is that our customers, brands and retailers, are now calling for recycled cotton in their collections. Virtually every major fashion brand has a recycled collection these days. Thus, as well as reducing waste, embracing cotton recycling solutions represent another opportunity for Bangladeshi suppliers to meet the future requirements of brands.

Just recently, for example, Primark introduced a new sustainable loungewear collection in an effort to source more recycled materials. The new collection has been certified by circular fashion business Recover (which is one of the partners in the circular partnership mentioned above).

Primark has created an eight-piece collection partially made from recycled cotton, with each item made from between 15 % and 25 % recycled cotton. It is surely not beyond the skills of our RMG factories to cater for this need for recycled items—which often retail at a premium.

The other issue to consider around cotton is long-term. A recent study found that the current six highest cotton-producing countries—India, USA, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey—will likely be exposed to increased climate risk, particularly from wildfire, drought and extreme rainfall in the next 20 years.

In fact, experts reckon that 40 % of global cotton growing regions are projected to experience a decrease in growing season as temperatures increase beyond the optimum temperature range for cotton growing.

Water scarcity and extremes in rainfall, from insufficient in some regions to extreme and more intense in others, will present increased risk for the world’s most productive cotton growing regions, the study claims.

Consider what this might mean for Bangladesh and its supply of raw cotton. The report above is based on forecasts up until 2040—a sobering thought indeed for our industry, which is so heavily dependent on cotton.

Bangladesh RMG exports are forecast to grow in the next few years. That is certainly the aim as far as public policy is concerned as more exports equal increased job creation and rising wealth. But it will be a major logistical challenge for our production and output to continue increasing while there is growing pressure on our key raw material. Also consider that, at the current time, we are seeing high and rising prices for cotton, for a variety of reasons, one of them being that many brands no longer want to use cotton from Xinjiang, China, in their collections. Supply is being squeezed globally and this is causing prices to rise.

With all the above in mind, I believe we need to give more consideration than ever to how we manage this raw material and seriously look to take a lead in cotton recycling and related technologies in coming years.

There is no time—or cotton—to waste.

The feature was first published in the Bangladesh Daily Star.