In 2019, the South Asian nation imported about 1.6 million tonnes of cotton, at a cost of $3.5 billion, while producing 250,000 tonnes of cotton waste that could have been recycled, said new analysis from the Circular Fashion Partnership (CFP), a project that promotes recycled materials in fashion.
The "100 percent pure cotton waste", which includes cuttings and yarn from the end of bobbins, could reduce imports by 15 percent and save about half a billion dollars, according to the CFP.
"These findings demonstrate that a circular fashion system could breed not only environmental but financial benefits for a country," said Federica Marchionni, CEO of the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), which leads the partnership.
Currently, local collectors of cotton waste tend to use it as filling for mattresses or export it to other countries for recycling. Manufacturers also incinerate cotton for energy, according to Holly Syrett, GFA's senior sustainability manager.
But the waste is informally controlled and not well traced.
"By segregating waste at source and setting up traceability, we can ensure that textile waste always reaches its highest value," Syrett said in emailed comments.
In 2018, the global fashion sector's greenhouse gas emissions were about 2 billion tonnes - and this needs to be halved by 2030, to align with global climate goals, the GFA said.
Reducing planet-heating emissions and boosting circularity go hand in hand, it added.
According to 2020 research by the GFA and consultancy McKinsey & Company, the fashion industry accounts for 4 percent of global emissions, equal to the annual total of France, Germany and Britain combined.
Under the 2015 Paris climate accord, nearly 200 countries agreed to slash their emissions to net-zero by mid-century and limit global average temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times.
Bangladesh's carbon emissions are minimal compared to the developed world, but its economy is heavily dependent on the garment industry which accounts for 80 percent of its exports and employs more than 4 million people.
Launched in February, the CFP brings together clothing brands, recyclers and manufacturers to identify ways the sector in Bangladesh can transition to a more sustainable system.
On Wednesday, the CFP said Next, Primark and Benetton were among the latest fashion brands to join the initiative, which already includes big retailers like H&M and C&A.
"Bangladesh produces arguably the most recyclable textile waste of any apparel-producing country," Nin Castle, head of recycling at Reverse Resources, a CFP partner, said in a statement.
Castle urged the country to foster a recycling industry to reap the "benefits of cost and carbon footprint reduction" and to gain "massive competitive edge".
Investing in recycling capacity can also help create jobs, said Syrett. "There is a huge potential ... and we hope that more recyclers will establish in Bangladesh," she added.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said factories were "enthusiastic" about the circular economy, but urged caution until the potential impacts for manufacturers - and solutions - were better known.