Sustainable Consumption and Production in Dhaka, Bangladesh – A Story of A New Beginning

By Farah Kabir

Achieving SDG 12—Responsible Consumption and Production—would entail the implementation of various other SDGs, argues Farah Kabir. ActionAid Bangladesh aims at raising awareness and changing consumption patterns in the capital city of Dhaka.

From Recycling to Consuming

In Bangladesh, we used to take a lot of pride in reusing a product, in recycling itbe it a bottle, a cycle, a bag or a dress. Circular economy is said to be essential to South Asian mentality, particularly among those less well off or living in poverty. But sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, this began to change. It started to be considered ‘cool’ to continuously purchase and own something ‘latest’ or ‘trendy’ and somehow even those who were aware of their consumer habits fell victim to advertisements and corporate messages. Some explained this change in behaviour as signs of growth, development, and prosperity. But really these are wasteful and unsustainable consumption patterns in the name of making one’s life ‘easy’.

Dhaka is the national capital of Bangladesh, considered a Mecca of livelihood and jobs by many Bangladeshis. The city is home to some 19 million people inhabiting an area of only 360 km2, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Over the last two decades, it turned from a clean and green city to one of the worst cities in the world to live in. There are some 300,000 buildings, featuring various industries within city limits and brick kilns and tanneries in the peripheries. Motorized vehicles and the never-ending construction work contribute to some of the worst air and water pollution rates in the world.

Residents and industries constantly abuse the city; overconsumption contributes to ecological ruin. A report from 2011 states that the groundwater level in Dhaka has dropped by 6 metres over a 7-year period. This is due to excessive withdrawal of groundwater to meet the needs of about 19 million people and of resident industries. Inequality is an essential aspect of such unsustainable practices: It is the overconsumption of the middle and upper class, which contributes to Dhaka’s problems in water supply. Yet it is the poor and the slum dwellers who are left with very limited access to clean water, and whose living environments are most badly damaged.

Water supply is just one example of such dynamics. There are many other examples such as waste of electricity in the name of ‘lighting’ the city by constantly illuminating houses and shopping malls. Facing this trend of ever more consumption, we need to ask, how much is enough? And for whom is this enough? Whose decision is this?

The Need for Action

Agenda 21 emphasises that governments should encourage less materialistic lifestyles that are based on green and ethical consumerism. However, it is not sufficient to solely promote green growthmajor policy reform is required as well. In Bangladesh, the government has been advising people to behave responsibly considering remaining limited natural resourcesbut lacking appropriate policies it has failed to produce actual results. For example, the authorities do not monitor the use of deep well water pumps by many factories at the city’s periphery. As a result, the groundwater level continues to decline, despite governmental measures to diversify sources of water i.e. rainwater harvesting at household level and increasing the share of surface water.

ActionAid Bangladesh is a human rights organisation that advocates for climate and ecological justice. It aims to detect reasons for residents’ unsustainable life style and to analyse the impact that the present trends of consumption and production have in an urban setting. In 2017, ActionAid conducted a survey on residents’ consumption patterns with special emphasis on the surveyed people’s social status. The goal was to create empirical data, which later could be used as a basis for advocacy and communication tools.

The survey has proven the prior assumption that the middle and upper class are more likely to show unsustainable consumption patterns and thus contribute more to the trend of overconsumption in Dhaka. One of the key findings suggests that people are mostly unaware of their unsustainable behaviour and of how it affects poor people and their access to basic services. Others, who are aware of their habits’ consequences, do not have the motivation to change their consumption patterns.

Fields of Action

The survey has helped us to gain a better understanding of the aspects that we must address to achieve SDG 12.

  • Lack of awareness regarding harmful practices of individuals and of the business sector including their negative impacts on the environment. People need to be made aware, for example, that producing a T-Shirt requires 2500 litres of water, and that producing one hamburger requires 2400 litres of water. This is closely related to SDG 10 (reduce inequality) and the lack of awareness in this regard: citizens may not be informed about unjust business practices common in producing said T-Shirt or hamburger. A well-designed campaign is needed to tackle this lack of awareness.
  • Unwillingness to change among those who are already aware of the causes and effects of unsustainable consumption patterns. This can partly be attributed to peer pressure, articulated for example in the favouring of cloths from high-end brands. This also links with the wide availability of technological advancement and social media to the middle and upper income class: As smartphones and internet access are easily affordable, advertisements succeed in reaching an audience promoting the purchase of the latest, yet unnecessary products, for example a new phone, for the sole reason that it is the latest model. Such consumption patterns do not stay without consequences: Bangladesh generates roughly 2.7 million metric tons of e-waste every year. As with the previous aspect, a well-targeted campaign is needed to encourage changes in behaviour.
  • Inability to change behaviour due to a lack of sustainable infrastructure and services. For example, public transportation in Dhaka is insufficient: The number of buses is limited, they are poorly maintained, and the roads are dangerous. Due to this, those who can afford it buy and use private vehicles to move around the city. While only 6 per cent of commuters rely on private vehicles, these cars take up 76 per cent of street surfaces in Dhaka. This imbalance can be addressed by developing appropriate, safe and well-maintained public transportation services.
  • Lack of appropriate policies and monitoring mechanism: Currently, the government of Bangladesh does not have any specific policy regarding SDG 12. While the Environmental Policy of Bangladesh promotes sustainable production through providing incentives and lists sanction mechanisms regarding environmentally harmful practices, monitoring mechanisms are missing. For example, there are no official monitoring mechanisms regarding the use of wastewater or effluent treatment plant (ETP) in the garment factories.

Based on the survey’s findings, we launched a campaign in 2017. Its goal was to promote sustainable consumption patterns. In the course of this ongoing campaign, we have interacted with people in different spaces of their everyday lives, such as schools, colleges, restaurants, and their homes. We have also conducted workshops and seminars, and addressed the private sector. This is based on our belief that without changing individual behaviour, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

As a part of the campaign, a roadmap to develop a 10-year framework to implement SDG 12 has been prepared and shared with different ministries in partnership with the Ministry of Planning as the lead agency to develop the 10-year framework on SDG 12. In this document, the interlinkages between SDG 12 and other SDGs are emphasised; in particular SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger), 10 (Reducing Inequality), 11 (Sustainable Cities), 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life in Water) and 15 (Life on Land). With the formulation of this plan, ActionAid Bangladesh stresses the importance and long-term impact of SDG 12, emphasising the need for individuals and institutions to change their behaviour towards a truly sustainable one.

Farah Kabir

Farah Kabir

Country Director at ActionAid Bangladesh
Farah Kabir has been working with ActionAid Bangladesh as Country Director since June 2007. More than 21 years of experience in the field of development and research have made Farah Kabir a renowned human rights figure at home and abroad with an uncompromising voice against human rights violations. As Country Director, she has taken up new initiatives such as women-led emergency and humanitarian response, and the first ever Water Museum in South Asia located in Kuakata. She represents civil society at high levels both internationally and nationally, for instance for the CSO dialogue at the UN, the Sendai Framework, and the High-Level Political Forum.
Farah Kabir