What are the advantages of Bangladesh as a sourcing location, how has the situation changed since the Rana Plaza disaster and what does the future hold for the world’s second largest sourcing country? FashionUnited discussed these and other questions with Werner Lange, cluster coordinator at the German association for international development (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GIZ GMbH) in Dhaka, Bangladesh as part of Made in Bangladesh Week.
Could you describe your career path? What brought you from the German retail landscape to development work in Dhaka?
I started my career at department store chain Karstadt and stayed there for more than two decades. In my late twenties, I gained first-hand experience with global sourcing markets as a central textile buyer. In my mid-thirties, I became purchasing director and ten years later, I was active at board level. After the merger of Karstadt and Quelle, I switched to the Metro subsidiary Adler Modemärkte and Charles Vögele Holding, which I left in 2012.
It was more of a coincidence that GIZ approached me about the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, which was founded in October 2014 and was looking for an industry insider as consultant. The task, as head of the secretariat, with my team, was to bring about an action plan that could be agreed upon by all interest groups. It was completed after about six months. I stayed on and continued at GIZ as cluster coordinator for the portfolio of textile projects in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
From Bonn to Bangladesh is quite a jump. How did that happen?
My wife and I have four children who are all very fond of travelling and living abroad - at times, none of them lived in Germany. Two of them were in Asia and we often visited them. My wife and I then also decided on Asia to live for a while. In addition, when I was young and working at Karstadt, I was already a central buyer and directly experienced the global advance of textile manufacturing and thus all places in the world where clothing can be produced – so I knew what I was getting myself into.
Dhaka was the opportunity to make a difference, because Germany is the strongest export market and has a very large portfolio in development cooperation. This is incomparable worldwide and all relevant stakeholder groups are on site.
What is the approach in Bangladesh?
As a global service provider of international cooperation for sustainable development and international educational work, GIZ and its partners develop effective solutions that offer people prospects and permanently improve their living conditions. As a non-profit federal company, it supports the federal government and many other public and private clients in a wide variety of subject areas - from economic and employment assistance to energy and environmental issues to the promotion of peace and security.
For the further development of Bangladesh, vocational training will expand our portfolio in the future. In Germany, the dual system of education is supported by companies and their chambers. There is no comparable infrastructure here. That's why we're trying to apply and develop elements of dual training as best we can. The local industry needs to get even more involved here. For example, we want to introduce occupational safety officers as a job description, but we are still in the conceptional phase.
What has been the country’s growth since the Rana Plaza disaster?
In the end, the terrible accident has had many positive side effects. The export companies have massively improved occupational and building safety. The buyers’ simple logic of “comply or you're out” has changed many things. There is no such thing as “the textile industry” in Bangladesh; the situation is more diverse - there is much more light and unfortunately there are still shadows. Too many factories do not yet meet the standards and government audits and controls needs to be improved.
Although the Bangladesh Accord had to leave the country, its successor organisation RSC [RMG Sustainability Council] gives reason to be hopeful, because the local industry associations and unions are now sitting at the same table with the buyers and want to continue the Accord’s success.
As the world's second largest clothing manufacturer after China, Bangladesh inevitably has the role of becoming a technology and innovation leader. The example of Turkey shows that garment production can eventually also lead to the manufacturing of textile machines. I see future potential for Bangladesh here.
What are the advantages in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has the great advantage that with 165 million people, it has a large workforce that is willing and able to work. For further growth and foreign investment, it must be ensured that these people can work together under safe and fair conditions and with equal opportunities for men and women. Low labour costs alone will not guarantee Bangladesh's economic development.
In cooperation with the Technical University in Dresden, Germany, the BGMEA’s Innovation Center is looking at the correlations between working conditions and productivity from a psychological point of view. Research findings from Germany show, for example, that the productivity of mixed-gender teams is significantly higher.
The garment industry in Bangladesh was and still is in the limelight and consumers have now realised that a t-shirt for 2 euros cannot guarantee fair wages. But this also applies to other industries that are not yet on the radar.
In your opinion, how will things develp in Bangladesh?
Currently, the supply is still greater than the demand and foreign direct investments (FDIs) are not yet as numerous as expected because the issue of compliance still raises question marks. The question now is, with how broad a perspective do we look at Bangladesh, or do we continue to follow the same narrow and undifferentiated textile narrative?