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Made in Bangladesh Week asserts Bangladesh’s position as reliable sourcing destination

By Simone Preuss

21 Nov 2022

Business

Speakers at Session 05 at Dhaka Apparel Summit. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited.

The first ever Made in Bangladesh Week (MIBW), which concluded on Friday, managed to not only put Bangladesh on the map but also highlighted the many advantages this sourcing country provides. By doing so, the event turned the “Made in Bangladesh” label - originally connected with fast fashion and cheap labour - into a mark of quality and state-of-the art factories.

Not a small feat that will sound familiar to history buffs and European manufacturers alike. After all, the label “Made in Germany” was created in the late 19th century not by German manufacturers but by British ones who wanted to distinguish their quality products from cheap imports - mainly from Germany. Over time, the German producers upped their game, invested in technology and quality materials and the rest is history - until today, “Made in Germany” is a label proudly displayed to indicate quality.

Poster at Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Humble beginnings

Coming back to Bangladesh, the rise of its ready-made garment (RMG) industry is impressive, especially in the last 20 years: While the country exported RMGs worth about 5 billion US dollars in 2002, this figure already reached 14.6 billion US dollars in 2011 and more than doubled in just eight years to 33 billion US dollars in 2019, with a compound annual growth rate of 7 percent. Today, the industry employs around 4.4 million workers, with a majority being women, and accounts for RMG exports amounting to 42.6 billion in fiscal year 2021-22.

“Predictions for Bangladesh were dire when it started [after independence in 1971]: The country was expected to take 100 years to reach 1,000 US dollar per capita income but it has done well,” said Ahmad Kaikaus, principal secretary to the prime minister. He also pointed to the drastic fall of foreign support, which was at 90 percent, and is now at 2 percent. “Earlier, we were not at eye-level, but now we are at eye level; Bangladesh is an equal partner.”

Sourcing hub

Keynote speaker Anne-Laure Descours at Dhaka Apparel Summit/Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

“Bangladesh is very important in sourcing. It has been close to my heart for 30 year: I first came in 1994,” shared keynote speaker Anne-Laure Descours, chief sourcing officer at Puma, on the first day of the Dhaka Apparel Summit. She pointed to the fact that while the country was earlier known as the “cheapest location and for the cheapest prices”, the world is now “very different from just ten years ago” with especially young consumers being very concerned about climate change and grateful for green factories.

Descours sees transparency and circularity as the way forward: “I cannot highlight enough how important this topic is,” especially making the shift to regarding waste as a resource. She mentioned the manufacturing transformation that the country is currently going through and hopes that for the future, more tier 2 solutions will be implemented, for example in terms of procuring materials locally and nationally so that no import of fabrics would be necessary any more. She also pointed to data as the backbone of any business and shared collaboration among stakeholders as her key takeaway and recommendation.

Bangladesh Denim Expo at Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Case in point were the two halls that housed the Bangladesh Denim Expo and the Dhaka Apparel Expo: The former showcased the entire denim value chain from fabric, finishes, washes and accessories and offered technical workshops as well and was so brimming with visitors, that the doors had to be closed at times.

The latter showcased the latest in terms of Bangladesh’s apparel, textiles and related products and technology, bringing together RMG manufacturers, fabrics and yarn manufacturers, accessories, machinery, chemical suppliers and global buyers.

Dhaka Apparel Expo at Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Sustainability

Sustainability was the topic of many a panel discussion and many a technical presentation. Syed Naved Husain, group director and CEO of Bangladesh’s largest conglomerate Beximco shared his vision of “making Bangladesh the biggest hub of recycling” during the Dhaka Apparel Summit’s fourth session, while Zuena Aziz, principal coordinator of SDG affairs of the Prime Minister’s Office, explained how the government is tackling water pollution. She also pointed to the fact that with 176 green garment factories, Bangladesh is well positioned to take this development further “without compromising on the environment”.

In this context, WRAP president and CEO Avedis Seferian pointed to the risk of “audit fatigue” in Bangladesh. “It is real and demonstrates how unsustainable we have become,” he said in view of
too many audits that divert from manufacturing and waste resources. While there currently seems to be no consensus on less measurable standards like safety and responsibility, any one should be good enough. “Audit fatigue is not about multiple audit standards but multiple audits,” he said.

Speakers at Session 04 at Dhaka Apparel Summit/Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

In a similar vein, Roger Hubert, managing director of the of newly established RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), successor of the Bangladesh Accord, pointed to the necessity of standardised guidelines in terms of worker training. “We need more training,” he said but currently, there are many private and developmental organisations involved, hence there is a danger of overlap and of duplicating costs. For him, buyers should be engaged by financing 80 percent of the audits and inspections.

Katherine Stewart, group corporate responsibility director at Primark mother Associated British Foods Plc., focused on sustainable cotton and a project in collaboration with material science company Recover that was started five years ago and currently includes 15,000 farmers. “There is a limit to what we can do in terms of the amount of recycled cotton we use,” she cautioned. Instead, a short-term, mid-term and longer term approach should take into account what one can do with fibres. “An old Primark t-shirt should become a new t-shirt,” she said. Her experience in Bangladesh has been “a moving one” because of the country’s “can-do” attitude.

LDC graduation

The first session of the second day of the Dhaka Apparel Summit was dedicated to Bangladesh’s impending graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) in November 2026 and the resulting “Impediments and Way Forward”. Sharifa Khan, secretary of the economic relations division with Bangladesh’s ministry of finance, mentioned Bangladesh’s extended five year transition period (rather than the usual three years) and requested buyers and developmental partners to be generous and support the milestone through ethical buying practices, that is refraining from cancelling orders for example.

Nazneen Ahmed, country economist at the UNDP, cautioned Bangladesh not to fall into the middle-income trap, that is for the country to lose its preferential status and privileges and to graduate from low capita income to middle income as expected by 2031. “This graduation should be sustainable,” she cautioned so that Bangladesh can “continue with its growth and become a high-income country by 2040,” which has been a challenge for many countries in a similar position.

For Riaz Hamidullah, ambassador at the embassy of Bangladesh to the Netherlands, it is important for Bangladesh to get out of its linear thinking (and global supply chains in general) and to find a way to stay ahead of competitors, for example India where 100 companies made voluntary environmental disclosures or Sri Lanka’s “Garments without Guilt” initiative. “Hashtag design thinking,” is the way forward for him, “ technology, innovation and design thinking will be needed.”

The winners of the Sustainable Design Award at Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

This sentiment was echoed by an event dedicated to this topic - the Sustainable Design and Innovation Award on 16th November, which felicitated Bangladeshi student and professional designers for their creative and sustainable designs.

Garment workers

Poster at Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Though outside the halls, the images of workers were omnipresent with big posters and catchy slogans (see images), sadly, apart from one brave young woman, they were glaringly absent from MIBW’s otherwise well frequented halls. In the third session of day two of the Dhaka Apparel Summit, dedicated to “Ensuring Workers Well-being”, former garment worker Sabina Yeasmin shared her journey from seamstress to student at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong.

She got access to free education at AUW in the form of a scholarship for five years that includes her salary being paid to supplement her family’s income. “I gave up on my dreams when I joined a factory five years ago but I never gave up on life and took the opportunity when it presented itself,” recounts Yeasmin. She has now started her own project, an organisation to support more women like her. “Thousands more need education… there could be 4,000 more Sabinas,” concluded the young woman who learned perfect English in just two short years as part of her training and who addressed a large international audience confidently.

Sabina Yeasmin at Dhaka Apparel Summit/Made in Bangladesh Week. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Peter McAllister, executive director of the Ethical Trading Initiative, agreed that providing workers’ physical well-being is not enough and that well-being goes beyond providing safety, canteens and the like. “Workers need to be part of that partnership of change; they need a seat at the table,” he emphasised. “The only way workers will thrive is if factories do,” adding that a “traditional, transactional model will not work. Instead, new models of efficiency, productivity and value are needed.”

For the first time, sustainable factories were lauded through the first Sustainability Leadership Award, which took place on 18th November and rewarded best practices of Bangladeshi apparel factories in three main and various sub-categories including environmental excellence, factory set-up, workers’ welfare innovations and more.

Outlook

When speaking on responsible business needs in terms of due diligence, Amfori president Linda Kronjong’s advice was to “move away from the supply chain into the value chain, which is much broader.” Amfori currently works with over 3,000 suppliers in Bangladesh and connects buyers (many of them from Europe) and suppliers to achieve better results. “Many companies have stepped up or are ready to step up,” she confirmed.

Adding to that, Sandeep Das, regional director for South Asia and MENAP products at Intertek pointed to a shared responsibility between buyers and suppliers: “Companies like ours need to go through a hand-holding phase with the factories to determine what is right, what is wrong. You can’t just tell someone that a bridge needs to be crossed; you need to cross the bridge with them.”

In summary, Made in Bangladesh Week was a commendable organisational feat that brought together stakeholders all along the supply chain and from all over the world. While the first edition focused on establishing the “Made in Bangladesh” label and all the deserved pride that comes along with it, future editions should give more weightage to the risks and challenges that lie ahead as well as the involvement of the workers. Hearing more workers’ voices would definitely add to the experience. As keynote speaker Monique Leeuwenburgh, director of sourcing, tech and sustainability in Clothing & Home, Marks & Spencer London, put it: “There is a lot to do, we need to prioritise.”

Poster at Made in Bangladesh Week, Dhaka. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
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