Bangladesh apparel industry: It’s time to shift perceptions
For better or worse, Bangladesh as a sourcing hub has become the global bellwether for CSR issues in apparel supply chains.
More often than not Bangladesh is portrayed as a case study on poor working conditions. If international media wants to highlight safety, Bangladesh is their favourite punching bag. And, of course, for pollution, water wastage and so on, the spotlight is always put on Bangladesh.
I got thinking about a lot of these issues in recent weeks in the run up to the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. No surprise, the spotlight has been on Bangladesh once again, and I have seen many international commentators making all sorts of circumspections or throwing their views on the country. If one were to read everything they say, it is likely they would never purchase another garment from here.
So, I began to wonder, how many people who criticise Bangladesh have first-hand knowledge of this issue? I know for certain that many of our most ardent critics have never stepped foot on Bangladeshi soil! Often, I read about Bangladesh and our factories and I see an industry I simply do not recognise! This picture I see too often is the Bangladesh of a decade ago.
Let me be clear: Rana Plaza is an event we should never forget and, of course, we need to remember those who lost their lives in the most tragic incident every year. The terrible incident that will be forever etched in the history of Bangladesh's apparel industry. The country and the world were shocked, pained and saddened with grief and mourning for the tragic loss of human lives.
But I think it is also important to promote the fact that we have had several years during which the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety supported a huge overhaul of the Bangladesh apparel factories. Major remediation works were carried out costing tens of millions of US dollars, alongside the rolling out of key safety features across the industry. In a recent survey conducted by QIMA, Bangladesh ranked second in "Ethical Manufacturing" with a score of 7.7 only behind Taiwan which scored 8.0. Vietnam came in third, followed by Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, China, India and Brazil, respectively.
Bangladesh successfully eliminated child labour from its apparel industry with the help of the ILO. The workers' wages have steadily risen and their rights have also increased, although we must all keep fighting on these issues and stay humble.
The country has by far the largest number of LEED factories (138) in the world, among them 39 are LEED Platinum certified and as many as 84 are LEED Gold certified. Yet, so often, I see news popping around Bangladesh and the images used to represent factories do not represent the modern apparel factories here. Perhaps, as an industry, we need to improve our public relations although that is a story for another day.
Bangladesh has moved beyond Rana Plaza. The landscape stands neatly transformed.
But it goes deeper than this. I have been running my own factory for almost two decades. It is difficult to put into words the amount of change I have seen during the time in the industry. The Bangladesh apparel sector is a completely different proposition to what it was back then. It has had no choice but to change to meet the demands of a global fashion industry which never stands still.
There is also the issue of garment workers. Is worker unrest an issue in Bangladesh? From time to time yes, of course it is (as it is in many countries, even those in the west). Yet if one were to follow the social media streams of some NGOs, one would get the impression that Bangladesh garment factories are in a regular state of infighting and chaos.
My intention here is not to criticise people who write about Bangladesh. Many are doing fine work and I have faith that in most cases they are coming from a place of goodwill. The industry should be ready to take this extraneous pressure as a motivation to even accelerate the improvements and get better beyond what it has already achieved. But the significant improvements the industry made over recent years should also be recognised by all stakeholders. Any mis-portrayal of the industry will actually demean the concerted efforts made by the manufacturers, buyers and the government to transform it.
I say with reasonable basis that too many people incorrectly label Bangladesh without ever coming to the land and visiting the factories. There is the other group of individuals who visit us on a regular basis—the buyers from big fashion brands who are witness to the quiet transformation. They are better placed than anyone else to speak for the real progress in Bangladesh apparel industry.
New buyers are often positively shocked when they come here. The reality does not match the perception they had formed by reading about us on the internet. This is not what Bangladesh looked like in the reports they had read, they tell us.
This modern side of our country, the real Bangladesh, is something we all need to play our part in promoting looking ahead as we seek to win hearts and minds and encourage would-be investors to look beyond the headlines.
I would like to take this opportunity to invite all our foreign friends to Bangladesh to see the Bangladesh apparel industry with their own eyes. We always appreciate any constructive criticism. But making sweeping comments that simply is not representative of the truth and publishing news that is far from the reality are not only undermining the progress Bangladesh made, but also barring the honest march of the global fashion industry towards safety and sustainability.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).