Garment suppliers in Bangladesh must move away from focusing on volume production and focus instead on meeting demand for value-added products, experts at the Fashionology Summit held in Dhaka last week conceded.

The 400-delegate strong event was themed ‘Digitalization – The Next Destination,’  and aligned with the nation’s Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021. It brought together government ministers, heads of industry, brands and retailers and civil society organisations.

One of the key questions raised at the summit is what would happen to Bangladesh’s 3.5m ready-made garment (RMG) industry workers as automation and digitisation become increasingly important to the future of fashion.

“We talk about artificial intelligence, but we don’t yet know about what will happen to our 3.5 million workers after we get automation,” said Dr Rubana Huq, newly-elected president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). “Our workers are not going to become overnight coders – they will have to be reskilled. There has to be a vision – can we set a national vision together?”

Huq also noted Bangladesh needs to “graduate beyond basics” into more added value products to remain relevant in a world where people can “wear a jacket that will check their temperature or take their heartbeat.”

Mostafiz Uddin, the founder of Bangladesh Fashionology Summit, added the industry is changing at an unprecedented rate and Bangladesh risked losing ground if it was not at the forefront of that change.

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“The focus for the RMG sector in Bangladesh for the past 30 years has been about growth and volume. Moving forward, we need to shift the emphasis towards added-value products. Potentially, this could mean improved margins for manufacturers as well as leading to more high-quality jobs in the industry.”

Commerce minister Tipu Munshi said rising wages and costs in Bangladesh have only served to emphasise the need to focus on adding value.

“Technology, digitisation and innovation are the three words that can take us to the next level in the production of added-value apparel. In the 21st century, we need to transform our competitiveness on the basis of higher productivity. Digitisation and the Internet of Things is also an area where our industry is behind and needs to catch up.”

But former BGMEA president, Atiqul Islam, noted that price remains a particular bone of contention among customers – and that while brands demand digitisation, they aren’t willing to pay for it. He called upon the government to support the creation of a “smart and connected factory of the future.”