Five years ago today, the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, marking the most deadly accident in the history of the apparel industry. Thousands of workers at their sewing machines and cutting stations were at work in the five factories when the building crumbled, trapping them under concrete and rubble. 1,138 of them died, while thousands more were left with life-changing injuries. Many brands and retailers saw this horrific wake-up call to change their producing standards and implement strict rules of compliance, but there is one factory owner in Bangladesh who has been working hard over the past ten years to ensure everything from the building itself to its workers are protected and able to grow sustainably.
"I am in a very unique position in the industry. A lot of people like to talk about what needs to be done when they themselves are not even in the position to do what needs to be done," admitted Mostaqiz Uddin, Managing Director, CEO, and Founder of Denim Expert Ltd to FashionUnited at denim trade fair Kingpins Amsterdam. There are not many factory owners like Uddin and Denim Expert is among the few factories in the world which can proudly proclaim to be among the safest, following inspections by the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance.
How Mostaqiz Uddin managed to build one of the safest denim manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh
"Inspectors from the Accord came to see my factory and they were amazed to see how structurally sound the factory really is," he said. Boasting a fully integrated production line, the manufacturing facility, located in Chittagong, was built on top of 100 feet of underground piling to ensure a solid foundation. In addition, its steel-concrete foundation and stone building structure also ensure the building is earthquake proof, thereby ensuring the safety of his 4,000 workers. “I can take my own responsibility for my life, but how can I risk the lives of 4,000 people?” He asked, wondering why other factory owners and manufacturers do not think along the same lives. “We are in the business, we are making the money - it's our responsibility, simple.”
"Five years after Rana Plaza, we can say that we have one of the safest factories in the whole world as it has been inspected so many times"
It was Uddin own choice to build the safest factory he could, a decision he made years before Rana Plaza took place. Work on the production facility first began in 2005 and it took nearly two years to complete. "My factory is a bit different than other factories in Bangladesh. People asked me ‘why are you taking so much time to build a factory? You could build five factories with that amount of money.’ I said it is because I want to make it safe. Then people asked me what is the definition of a safe factory, as they did not know. Unfortunately in 2013, Rana Plaza happened and then people began to understand what building a safe factory really means." Now Uddin is dedicating himself to driving real change within the denim industry, focusing on how he can help improve conditions and share knowledge.
In addition to managing Denim Expert, which products 320,000 products per month and works with some of the largest names in the fashion industry such as Inditex, Bestseller, Primark and Arcadia Group, he also launched the Bangladesh Denim Expo in 2014. "Other manufacturers and companies started coming to me and asking me for tips and advice on how to improve their own business and practices, so it seemed like the natural next step." Out of the 70 plus exhibitors showing at Kingpins Amsterdam, 42 of them are set to exhibit their latest innovations at the Bangladesh Denim Expo, which is set to take place from May 9 to 10. Uddin also runs a sustainable apparel forum in Bangladesh, dedicated to promoting sustainability and helped launch the first fashion technology summit in Bangladesh two months ago. "The summit was all about technology and how it can help improve the textile industry in Bangladesh," continued Uddin.
"All the things I do is to promote my industry, to help make the industry better." Through Denim Expert, the Bangladesh Denim Expo and his other project, Uddin hopes to help drive change towards a more sustainable, transparent and ultimately responsible industry but is aware he is an exception. "Unfortunately our factory is not represented throughout Bangladesh, it is the expectation. I can’t say that the entire industry is working like us." Although Rana Plaza took the lives of more than a thousand workers, Uddin does believe that things have changed since the disaster, in part thanks to initiatives like the Accord and Alliance. "I think this is the most transparent industry hub in the whole world. No other country has had their garment industry inspected factory by factory as we have," he pointed out, noting that most factory owners followed all guidelines and recommendations set by the Accord.
"We [as manufacturers] need to be morally responsible and ethically strong and honest about our own practices"
However, at the same time, he is very aware that there is still a long way to go and there remain many areas in which the textile industry can improve in. "We still have some factories that are not 'fit', but we are continuously working and progressing to make sure they are. We are committed to changing for the best and welcoming the European support and advice." And even though his own factory is among the safest in Bangladesh, he is continually focusing on how Denim Expert can improve worker conditions, as well as become more sustainable, transparent and responsible. For example, Denim Expert just launched its first in-house sustainable denim range for men for Spring/Summer 2019. The collection was made using the latest technologies, such as laser, thereby significantly reducing the manufacturing facilities consumption of water.
Uddin is also keen on implementing a system, such as Product DNA, to map, trace and publish the traceability of his products - even if his customers are not asking him as he believes that companies should be transparent in all areas of their business, at every stage in their supply chain. "I am making these denim products for my customers, I want them to be transparent. I want to use respect-code.org tracing system as I want that level of transparency in my business. I think that the responsibility and traceability should come from manufacturers themselves, not legislation." Although he is aware that companies like Inditex and Bestseller already have their own tracing systems in place, he still is missing this sense of responsibility for transparency among other denim and garment manufacturers in Bangladesh.
"For me, I make things very simple. I do not believe in just relying on compliance - that is just a minimum standard to meet. I am not here to fulfill things at the lowest levels, I want to ask what is our own responsibility. Until businesses step up and take responsibility for sustainability, traceability, transparency and social rights we will always be waiting for the government to regulate us." This is a bold statement for any business to make, especially an apparel producer in a country which lacks strict legislation concerning working conditions and minimum wages. But as Uddin pointed out, it should not solely be up to the manufacturers - brands and retailers also need to come together and establish a minimum standard, a certain level of compliance they all demand. This way, they can present a united push for better conditions for workers that manufacturers have to meet, ensuring equality for all and a leveled base.
“We can really change the apparel sector if we want, it is all about our willingness. We have sent people to the moon, so why can’t we make the denim industry more transparent?”
“The whole industry should be united in looking at what is best practice for the sake of the planet,” he continued. “For example, if we ban PP (potassium permanganate) spray in Bangladesh, but China continues to use it, then what? Equality will only come if we stand together.” Collaboration is key to making substantial change, as Uddin is disheartened how retailers, factories, and governments have been passing around the ball of responsibility. But he is not hopeless all is lost and believes change will happen soon enough. I feel as if people are becoming more and more conscious each day, asking who made my clothes. Smart manufacturers will react to this, as will smart retailers to safeguard their businesses for the future.” Those who fail to respond to consumers increasing demand for transparency, who are not ethically or morally strong enough, are unlikely to thrive in the future, according to Uddin. Although he understands that financially it may be difficult for some players to shift their production facilities to become more sustainable, he is adamant there is a balance to be maintained.
“My business has not grown over the past ten years,” he proclaimed, before explaining that is has grown in different areas. “We have grown a lot ethically, sustainably, responsibly, in terms of traceability. I ask how we can be more responsible when it comes to looking after our environment. I want to enrich our ethics and in five years time I hope to be an example for the rest of the industry.” Uddin is a proud owner and it is clear that he loves his workers and they love him. Unlike many business owners, he sees his workers as part of his family and is well aware that happy workers define his success. What’s more, his workers are a source of inspiration and pride for him, and he would rather improve working conditions for them than focus on achieving certain certifications. “If I am honest, I am more proud of the fact that my workers write messages to me on my social media wall than if they weren’t,” he said when a certain member of parliament asked if he felt embarrassed by this.
In order to maintain high safety standards at Denim Expert, all workers are routinely trained in health care and fire safety. The HR and compliance department carry out monthly routine evacuation trainings unannounced and workers who handle chemicals are regularly trained. In addition, the company also focuses on providing appropriate salaries for workers, extensive medical care, and education. Denim Expert also provides workers with financial support for major life events such as marriage or medical treatment. Now Uddin is calling on other manufacturers in Bangladesh, and other producing countries to step up and take better care of their workers. “Treat them like they are part of your family, ultimately you will only be more successful. You will grow. Plus, you will never be able to achieve what you dream of achieving without your happy worker.” It is not just Uddin’s workers who see him a game change, other industry insiders acknowledge his positive influence on the denim industry in Bangladesh. “People really see him as a change maker in Bangladesh,” said Mitchell Vassie, owner of Vassie Creative Direction Concept and Design Agency. “He truly is one of a kind and his workers do really love him.”
Photos: Courtesy of Denim Expert Ltd.