Conservation Pays Off for Bangladeshi Factories

International Herald Tribune

March 22, 2012

DHAKA, Bangladesh — At the factories of DBL Group, one of the largest Bangladeshi textile and garment makers, tons of fluffy imported cotton are spun into yarn every day, then transformed into fabric and clothes sold by companies like H&M, Puma and Esprit around the world.

One step in the process happens in the dye house, a hangar-like factory where cloth and dye are boiled in enormous metal vats for three to seven hours. Here, the natural, off-white color of cotton cloth is transformed into vibrant hues. One recent morning, a worker guided a winch extracting freshly dyed orange cloth from a vat as steaming water cascaded to the floor.


The textiles industry requires large amounts of water to dye and rinse cloth, as well as steam for printing and pressing fabric.

To produce 35 metric tons of cloth each day, DBL uses 3,400 cubic meters, or about 900,000 gallons, of water — about 1.5 times the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

In 2011, DBL and 17 other Bangladeshi factories upgraded equipment as part of a program backed by the aid agencies of Britain and Norway and the International Finance Corp., the World Bank unit serving the private sector.

Dhaka factory

The 18 Bangladeshi textile makers together invested more than $1 million to upgrade their factories, while 10 apparel buyers, including the giant retailers H&M and Tesco, contributed a total of $35,000 to the program. Solidaridad, a Dutch non-governmental organization, provided technical advice and funding.

DBL invested $80,000 to make simple but powerful upgrades to equipment like boilers and dyeing and rinsing machines, as well as implementing simple fixes like insulating steam pipes and fixing leaks. Before the changes, DBL used 120 liters, or 32 gallons, of water to produce a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of cloth; now it uses 60 liters.

In Bangladesh, many factories use as much as 170 liters of water to make one kilogram of cloth.

Those measures save not only water but also the electricity and gas used to pump, filter, heat and treat water, which translates into total savings of $500,000 each year for DBL.

“We use less resources for more production,” said Mohammed Jabbar, managing director of DBL. “The program really opened our minds.”

In one year, the factories in the program together saved 1.2 million cubic meters of water, 16 million cubic meters of gas and 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 32,000 tons, according to the International Finance Corp., which estimated that if half of Bangladeshi textile factories adopted similar measures, they could save $75 million, along with 63 billion liters of water and 650 million cubic meters of gas.

Conserving water is critical for Bangladesh, where a booming textile and garment industry helped the economy grow 6 percent last year. Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest exporter of garments, after China, and the industry’s sales are projected to grow to as much as $42 billion by 2020 from $19 billion last fiscal year, according to a report by McKinsey, the management consulting firm.

But fast growth means dangerous depletion of water and other resources. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with 160 million people living in a space smaller than Iowa. Although much of Bangladesh lies in the delta of the Brahmaputra River, groundwater is being rapidly depleted: The water table in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, drops two meters, or more than six feet, each year.

DBL has a multimillion-dollar effluent treatment plant, but plenty of Bangladeshi textile factories — not to mention tanneries and other industries — do not. Water full of dyes and chemicals is often dumped directly into rivers, contaminating water and killing fish and other wildlife that millions of people depend on.

Dhaka factory 2

(Photo caption: DBL has a multi-million dollar effluent treatment plant, but most factories in Bangladesh do not treat waste water before discharging.)

In Bangladesh, groundwater is virtually free, so industries have little incentive to conserve it — but they want to save energy, as fuel prices remain high.

Saving water means using less energy to heat water in gigantic boilers and to clean wastewater in treatment plants, as well as using less dye imported from Europe.

To persuade factories to make changes, the program compiled a report that projected significant cost savings for water, energy, dye and chemicals, and operations time. At first, “many factories did not believe the data,” said Syed Nayeem Emran, a project leader with the International Finance Corp. in Dhaka.

But the program secured support from global clothing buyers to get factories on board. Then textile makers agreed on upgrades.

For instance, DBL installed sensors on dyeing and rinsing machines that automatically stop the machines when cloth is saturated or rinsed enough. It also added a magnetic device to its huge boilers to reduce mineral buildup, which decreases the need to flush equipment with water and preserves the machinery.

Gigantic rollers were adjusted to wring out rinsed fabric thoroughly, so less energy was needed for drying. Yet sensors on dryers were programmed to retain 8 percent of moisture, which is the minimum needed for the next stage of production.

Simple fixes like insulating steam pipes, installing water meters on dyeing and rinsing machines and using hoses with nozzles instead of free-flowing ones to wash equipment, all helped save water and energy. Changing to adjustable hoses alone reduced DBL’s water consumption by about 5 percent.

There are now plans to expand the program to provide advice to another 200 textile makers on ways to upgrade their factories. For this next phase, the Dutch government has already contributed $5.6 million and apparel buyers have put in about $3 million.

Ideally, rinse water could eventually be filtered and reused, for example. DBL is building a rainwater harvesting system to capture water during the monsoon and make use of groundwater unnecessary for four months. And it is trying to get European companies to make dyes that work at lower temperatures.

Mr. Jabbar’s eyes lit up when describing how DBL has saved money, energy and water. “We are really into it now,” he said of sustainable practices. “Now we know how much we are affecting the environment.”


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