Five years ago, I was travelling in Bangladesh for a documentary called Out of Fashion. I had already travelled around the world visiting production and waste facilities related to the textile industry to understand how it all worked (or didn’t work). Since the vast majority of textile and clothing production is in Asia, going there was an important part of my research. Bangladesh has a very long history of textile production, with international trade beginning in the 16th century. I had also read the recent statistics: That by 2002, Bangladesh’s textile and clothing industry accounted for 77% of exports. That by 2013, this industry employed about 4 million people (mostly women) in Bangladesh, and that it generated $19 billion each year. If those numbers are any indication, the amount of industrial waste must be staggering. But even then I wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw in Dhaka. The exact amount of industrial waste is not known, but it can be seen and smelled everywhere.
Most post-consumer waste is found in Western regions like the United States and Europe, while post-industrial waste is found in Eastern countries like China, India, and Bangladesh. Some upcycling clothing designers use post-consumer waste to make their clothing, but generally there is only enough good fabric to make one upcycled garment. I wanted to make use of post-industrial leftovers because there is so much of it and because I could make something the world had never seen before: mass-upcycled clothing. This is part of why I chose to produce my Reet Aus clothing line in Bangladesh.
Another reason why I wanted to produce in Bangladesh is because of the social situation there. It is the 9th most populous country in the world and the 10th most densely populated. Malnutrition is a very serious problem, especially among women and children. There are three hospital beds per 10,000 people. The literacy rate in 2014 was 66.5% for males and 63.1% for females. I was fortunate to meet Nazma Akter during my first visit. She is the founder of the AWAJ Foundation, a human rights organization representing Bangladesh’s Women Garment Workers. AWAJ provides legal support, health care, and awareness training to protect and empower women working in the garment industry. The textile and garment industry is a major employer of women, which gives them an opportunity to be independent or provide for their families. One of my first projects in Bangladesh was working with AWAJ to employ out-of-work women to sew furoshiki from leftover fabric for Let’s Do It World. Meeting the people who make your clothes is a life-changing experience. Even the clothes you buy brand new off the rack already have a history! They were put together by human hands.
Producing a line of clothing meant working with a factory. So I teamed up with Beximco, a vertically integrated textile and garment manufacturer, to develop an analysis methodology industrial leftovers and refine the mass-upcycling process. Beximco and other textile and clothing manufacturers produce four kinds of textile leftovers: cutting leftovers, roll ends, overproduction, and rejected fabric. These are exactly the materials I need to produce my clothing line and the “waste” that often ends up in nature or landfills.
I think it’s important to point out that these factories are run by production companies, not waste management companies. There is a system to remove the ready products, but not the leftovers. Most of these areas don’t have proper waste management, so the companies don’t know what to do with it. Brands are generally so far removed from the production process, that they really aren’t aware of the leftovers. Mass-upcycling provides a solution.
Have you ever wondered who made your clothes? Fashion Revolution is a bold organization asking brands to show us #whomademyclothes. Launched right after the April 2013 Rana Plaza complex collapse in Dhaka that killed over 1,000 people, Fashion Revolution Week asks, “Who grew the cotton, spun the threads, dyed the fabric and who sewed them together?” (This year’s Fashion Revolution Week takes place from 24–30 April. Click here to learn more and join in.)