Mostafiz Uddin, managing director at Denim Expert says garment factories must start vocalising their successes and improvements if the country is to grow exports

Mostafiz Uddin, managing director at Denim Expert says garment factories must start vocalising their successes and improvements if the country is to grow exports

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A fierce advocate of the Bangladesh apparel industry, Mostafiz Uddin, founder and CEO of the Bangladesh Denim Expo and the managing director of the Denim Expert factory, says the onus is on factory owners to talk about their successes, improvements and developments if the country is to retain custom and grow garment exports into the future.

"The biggest threat to the world is that we expect somebody else to do something to change its fate. But the power is within us as individuals to do something," starts Mostafiz Uddin, founder and CEO of the Bangladesh Denim Expo sourcing show and the managing director of Denim Expert, a denim garment production factory based out of Chittagong.

He is a fierce advocate for the Bangladesh apparel industry, having lived and breathed it for the past 21 years.

"It's frustrating," he begins. "We've worked tirelessly to transform the perception of this industry. But Google the Bangladesh garment industry and the first thing that still comes up is Rana Plaza. We've worked so hard to rebuild and move past that. We have the highest number of green garment factories in the world. Remediation rates under the Accord are high. But nobody talks about that."

Walking through the Denim Expert factory is not what one might expect; a sharp contrast from the dusty, rundown-but-charming exterior that is Chittagong. Production floors are bright, spacious and well-ventilated. Over the hum of machines are workers chatting to one another as they work away. Beside them are pile upon pile of jeans ready for the rigorous inspection checks they are put through.

1902 workers are based at the Denim Expert factory, up from a mere 250 when the facility opened ten years ago in 2009. On average, the factory churns out 350,000 pieces of denim a month, specialising in jeans, but also producing denim jackets and casual trousers. As well as cutting and sewing, the items are also finished at the factory. It supplies customers in the UK, the US, Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Germany and Turkey. Workers receive various benefits including free transport, attendance incentives such as bonuses, 112 days maternity leave and food allowance.

"I love my workers," he tells me. "They're treated like my family."

That's no exaggeration. The company is renowned for contributing to its workers' marriage ceremonies and gifting for new babies. The factory also houses an eye care centre so the employees can get regular eye checks. It has also been known to provide study opportunities for staff. And in 2018, the company became the country's first to take steps into transgender inclusion under the belief that opportunities should be made available to all. In August 2019 a further two transgender employees joined the company. 

The factory's staff retention rate in the last 10 years is particularly impressive at 90%.

Changing perceptions

"Sustainable products can only be produced under sustainable production processes. Today's competition is no longer based solely on price; but also on the sustainability of production"

"International companies must understand that sustainable products can only be produced under sustainable production processes. Today's competition is no longer based solely on price; but also on the sustainability of production," Uddin says.

It is a message he is keen on getting heard, having just organised the 11th edition of the Bangladesh Denim Expo in Dhaka alongside the second Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF), a plethora of panel sessions and round-table discussions aimed at finding ways to enable Bangladesh to accelerate its position as a responsible sourcing destination. There is no shortage of industry heavyweights on the speaker list, with representatives from retailers including Marks & Spencer and H&M, as well as the C&A Foundation, the FairWear Foundation, the International Apparel Federation, and the Bangladesh Garment Exporters Association.

"Bangladesh has always been presented negatively in the press," says Uddin. "Whether it is unethical production or that it is unsafe – mostly unsafe following the Rana Plaza disaster – we've not got a great reputation in the press."

He's not wrong. The handful of large factories that is compliant is quickly overshadowed by the many, smaller, unethical ones, supported by subcontractors out to undercut the better factories. And he's under no illusion that his is one of the better factories in the country that takes worker welfare and environmental sustainability seriously.

But commenting on how the situation has progressed since Rana Plaza, he insists things "have improved" in many of Bangladesh's ready-made garment factories.

"I'm not saying they are perfect by any means. But we have accepted our mistakes and grown from them. We've taken on board the advice from the brands and retailers and we've moved forward"

"I'm not saying they are perfect by any means. But we have accepted our mistakes and grown from them. We've taken on board the advice from the brands and retailers and we've moved forward.

"It's disappointing that that story of our improvement and how far we've come is not getting heard. Press want the information backed up by evidence, data, facts, figures."

It is this that prompted him to organise the second SAF and the Bangladesh Denim Expo, he says.

"I wanted to do something where people can come and join in the conversation, actually visit the factories. Do seminars and conferences so they could see the progress that has been made in this industry."

Bangladesh has made impressive progress over recent years, and is expected to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2024 – which currently gives it duty-free access to the European Union, Canada, and Japan. In terms of denim exports to its main market, the EU, it overtook China in 2013 according to Uddin. In 2017 Bangladesh shipped around EUR1.31bn worth of denim product to the EU which rose to EUR1.36bn in 2018. Its presence in the US as a major denim player has also grown, with exports rising 11% to US$566m in 2018.

Looking at apparel overall, exports from Bangladesh have continued to experience healthy growth, helped by buyers seeking alternative suppliers amid the ongoing trade spat between the US and China.

Eurostat, the official EU trade database, reports imports of knitted and woven apparel grew 20% to EUR16.7bn in the ten months to October 2019, from EUR13.9bn in the year-ago period. And the most recent trade data from the US  shows that in the same ten months, apparel shipments from Bangladesh grew 9.9% to US$5.1bn against the same period a year earlier.

Despite this rise, the Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau says that for the first four months of fiscal 2020 (July to November) ready-made garment exports to all markets fell 7.74% to US$13bn.

It is widely believed Bangladesh factories are paying too much attention on attracting mass-market retailers with low-cost, basic commodity garments over value-added options. As Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers continue to focus on discount customers, they are failing to lock-in the higher paying customers.

Recognising the value

Denim Expert, which designs and produces for global brands as well as making own-label items, is also trying to address the need for value-add options with the launch of its first "circular" product earlier this year. The Circle collection uses sub-components that can be disassembled or separated at the end of a product's life to make it easier to repair, remake, reuse and eventually recycle. The garments also use non-toxic and biodegradable materials, and are made in line with all relevant chemical regulations and legislations worldwide.

According to Uddin, while many factory owners recognise this need to offer options made using materials and methods that preserve the environment and consider worker well-being, one of the struggles they face is getting customers to also appreciate the additional costs involved. 

"The brands do not view this as an additional cost. When there is an upcharge for it, often not a great amount, the brands can't see why they should be the ones that have to pay for it."

Regardless, he says, all suppliers must move in this direction, more out of a moral duty to the planet and its people than the economic benefits.

"Currently in Bangladesh business is down-to-worse. It's on the negative side. We're not used to that happening but there is a real struggle to retain business. Vietnam is touching us in terms of exports, Cambodia is booming and Ethiopia is coming up. Retaining business is, therefore, one of our biggest challenges. 

"Being responsible is not a choice anymore. It gives you the edge your business needs. Don't wait for somebody to come and tell you what to do"

"Being responsible is not a choice anymore. It gives you the edge your business needs. Don't wait for somebody to come and tell you what to do. At the end of the day if you do something bad you are held responsible. In terms of being better, focus on the responsible use of water and energy, think about your production impact on the planet. You have to be responsible for your product and what you are making.

"I think the demands from the end consumer for sustainability are growing and will continue to do so. As they do, retailers will demand it more. We have to deliver on this. If we don't we will lose business. So don't wait for the buyer or anyone to come and tell you what needs to change in your business; it's your responsibility."

Moreover, he views the SAF and Bangladesh Denim Expo to be a platform for the country's manufacturing base to showcase what it has achieved on the environmental sustainability and worker safety front.

Denim Expert is one of the factories that houses its own effluent treatment plant (ETP). The hybrid, custom-designed, mechanical ETP at the site treats the effluent from its laundry, allowing for efficient use of wastewater. It recycles and reuses 15% of processed water for flushing toilets, gardening and floor cleaning, and 20% for fire hydrants, ETP chemical dosing, road and car washing. By 2023 it plans to recycle 100% of effluent water. It will reuse the remaining wastewater directly in the production process.

Actions over words

Alongside the events, delegates are invited to visit the factories to see for themselves the developments that have been made and are underway.

"We need more action-driven conferences like this where people can show what has been achieved and the results," he says. In contrast, most seminars he attends: "There's a lot of talk, advice, suggestions. But we never address what has been achieved or discuss ways of how to get there if that's what's needed.

"Following this conference, the plan is for a list of recommendations to be published within two months, then three round-tables. If there's no progress by the time the year is out, I don't think I'll be pushing for another show. I'll only do it if I can see real change is being achieved as a result of them."

He expresses frustration that suppliers in Bangladesh aren't as forthcoming when they've made progress, which he says reflects badly on the whole sector as it appears non-progressing.

"Since Rana Plaza, we've made lots of progress. But who knows about it? Whose responsibility is it to tell the world? People don't have the time to research the progress we've made. We have to promote ourselves"

"Since Rana Plaza, we've made lots of progress. But who knows about it? Whose responsibility is it to tell the world?" he asks. "People don't have the time to research the progress we've made. We have to promote ourselves. Be active on social media, go to the forums, deliver the stories. Bring people here to see it.

"Often we talk about this being the job of the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA. I see it differently; if we as individuals promote what we are each doing, we are promoting the country, organically, and improving how it is perceived.

"Believe me, the positive steps this country has taken towards responsibility to the environment and people, no other country in the world has done. But the story has not gone out because we are not proactively promoting the country.

"It's not the job of the consumer or the buyer to get us to be better, it is our own. It's our industry, it's our world," he concludes.