According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the SME sector's contribution to the GDP was 23.36% in FY21, which increased to 24.45% in FY22. This growth has been possible due to entrepreneurial acumen of small businessmen in Bangladesh.
However, it is a bitter truth that most such entrepreneurs are primarily concerned about personal achievements and financial profit, while ignoring social and environmental responsibilities. It's high time our entrepreneurs start taking responsibility on that front too, so that the government's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are attained.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, where starting a micro and small business for local people is easy. Entrepreneurs do not have to follow any strict regulations before starting a business. The plastic toy-producing sector is one such industry, where many entrepreneurs (i.e., both small and big organisations) produce huge quantities of plastic toys every year in Bangladesh.
This highly competitive and innovative sector generates millions of US dollars every single year. About 40 tons of plastic are used to create toys each year. As most plastic toys are made out of PVC, a non-biodegradable element, they will not decompose soon.
There are almost 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean, and 80% of all toys end up in landfills or oceans. But the impact does not end with harming the environment; the elements in plastic toys are harmful to health as well.
According to The Danish Technical University (DTU), 25% of children's toys contain harmful chemicals. Among the 419 chemicals found in plastic toys, about 126 are harmful to human health. Those hazardous elements can harm children by affecting brain development, damaging the immune system, and even increasing the risk of cancer.
So, it is high time we urge plastic-toy-producing entrepreneurs to stop producing plastic toys and switch to environment-friendly toys produced from wood, clay, leather, paper, etc.
A Recent study by researchers from The Netherlands (Heather A. Leslie et al, Environment International, Published online 24 March) examined blood samples of 22 persons, all anonymous donors and healthy adults, and found that about 77% of participants had plastic in their blood.
If one talks about plastic toys, one cannot ignore the Barbie doll. Launched in 1959, this toy business had a USD 13.4 billion valuation in 2020. This number increased with the announcement of the Barbie movie, released in 2023. Not only has the sale of toys increased, but there is also a high demand for Barbie-themed products. It is common to see people crowding movie theatres wearing Barbie-themed clothes.
It's all good for the textile industry, but when it comes to the environment, the effect is very worrying. According to Amazon, there has been an increase of 12.5 million USD in sales of Barbie dolls.
Moreover, in the case of clothing, due to the hype of the "Barbiecore '' dress, the demand for pink dresses increased by 44%. The numbers are very inspiring for the textile industry, but if we look into the environmental factors, we can see the downsides. Most of the clothes bought for the 'Barbie' movie, and even by the fans, are one-time use and made from synthetic chemicals.
It takes more than 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton T-shirt; i.e., a Barbie dress requires more water, but will never be reused or recycled. Thus, this amount of water used to create a dress for one-time use only is disheartening. Moreover, the clothes will not decompose easily and will cause huge environmental harm.
Only 3% of earth's water is drinkable, and only 0.5% of that is accessible to us. It is also scarce in Bangladesh, especially in towns where drinkable water is not readily available. But due to improper waste disposal, harmful chemicals from the plastic industry mix with the water bodies and leave a negative impact on humans and other animals, especially fish.
Moreover, because of improper waste disposal, plastic and other waste clog drains and cause floods and other natural calamities.
The negative impacts of plastic-toy-producing entrepreneurs are not only on the environment; they are also harming our culture. In the era of globalisation, entrepreneurs are leaning towards Westernised products and ignoring our more traditional toys.
The saddest aspect is that small businesses that are producing toys rooted in our culture and made from local disposable elements are finding it difficult to compete with cheaper plastic toy-producing businesses. For example, there are very few sellers of clay, leather or paper toys in both urban and rural areas of Bangladesh. Thus, plastic toy-producing entrepreneurs are really harming the growth of local sustainable toy-producing organisations and undermining the health of the masses, especially children.
Furthermore, most of the parents in Bangladesh are now working, leaving their children in childcare centres or relatives' houses, where they play with only plastic toys. The number of children using toys will keep increasing in Bangladesh in the near future, but if they do not get health-friendly toys, their health will deteriorate from microplastics.
Small children normally put daily-use objects into their mouths, which is common when they play with multicoloured plastic toys. Microplastics from plastic toys can cause inflammation, cause digestive issues, and disrupt overall nutrient absorption.
So, it is crucial to address these issues promptly. Plastic toy producers should be held accountable for the health and environmental damage they cause. Government policies should encourage and compel them to participate in green businesses.
Countries like Norway, Japan and the Netherlands encourage their entrepreneurs to go for sustainability. The government of Bangladesh has already recognised 30 firms from different industries for their green initiatives and awarded them for their efforts. This will encourage more firms to follow suit.
However, the government should do more when it comes to this industry, especially by introducing strict regulations to ensure that toy entrepreneurs produce environmentally friendly toys from local raw materials. They should also recycle and minimise their waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
It is also crucial to preserve local products derived from our culture. In this regard, we should support and motivate our local entrepreneurs and artisans so that they can start businesses with cultural, social and sustainable development in mind. This will also help us preserve our culture and gain recognition worldwide. Our entrepreneurs should be bridges between cultures and sustainable development goals, so that they not only earn money but also protect social distinctiveness and the environment.
Bangladesh has been steadily developing economically, even amid the dollar crisis, due to the entrepreneurial prowess of the people of this country. However, to remain culturally and environmentally protected, we must introduce and enforce strict policies that favour the environment and culture. If we do not start now, it will be too late, and we might face irreparable damage to our culture, society and environment.
Dr Md Asadul Islam is an Assistant Professor at BRAC Business School, BRAC University, Bangladesh.
Laiba Tabassum is a student of BBA at BRAC Business School, BRAC University, Bangladesh.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.