OP-ED: Bangladesh – A pioneer in ethical manufacturing
The story of the radical transformation of the garment industry in Bangladesh
Charles Darwin said in his famous book “On the Origin of Species” that it is not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives, but the one that adapts best to change.
We can find a reflection of this aspect of Darwinism in the Bangladesh ready-to-wear industry which has gone through an extraordinary level of transformation in the last four decades of its eventful journey.
The world of the apparel industry is driven by the mindset of consumers, and it is changing rapidly. However, the RMG industry has had to change not only to catch up with ever changing fashion and technology trends, but also to comply with international business standards and labor policy, and also to meet the expectations of more brands. ethical and more environmentally conscious. and consumers.
Thanks to its high level of adaptability, the RMG industry in Bangladesh today can boast that it has been transformed into a cutting-edge, safe, secure and environmentally friendly hub of sustainable and ethical manufacturing.
The huge change that has taken place in the RMG industry has propelled Bangladesh to become the second largest apparel exporter in the world, defying the odds and proving the naysayers who were busy writing the epitaph for the industry wrong.
The relentless pursuit of industry insiders to stay competitive in the global supply chain has helped the industry make great strides in safety and sustainability, which has captured the attention of the world.
Read also – Bangladesh ranks 2nd for ethics audit in 2020
A recent survey report released by Hong Kong-based supply chain compliance solutions provider QIMA ranked Bangladesh second in ‘ethical manufacturing’ with a score of just 7.7 behind Taiwan which obtained a score of 8.0. Vietnam came third, followed by Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, China, India and Brazil.
The ethical audit report covered a broad horizon of compliance and ethical manufacturing, namely hygiene, health and safety, waste management, child and youth labor, labor practices, including forced labor, worker representation, disciplinary practices and discrimination, working hours and wages, etc.
Comparing the ethical auditing practices of major manufacturing countries, QIMA noted that Bangladesh stands out for the good practices of its local suppliers in the international supply chain. This recognition from a world-renowned organization brings pride, prestige and joy to Bangladesh.
The practice of ethical manufacturing has exploded in factories in Bangladesh thanks to the interest of consumers and brands.
Ethical manufacturing is about ensuring workplace safety, paying workers fairly, and being energy efficient and environmentally friendly in the manufacturing process.
It gained popularity as a result of a type of consumer activism called ethical consumerism that calls for boycotting products whose manufacturing process harms the environment or exploits workers. The latest QIMA report shows that Bangladesh has made its mark in sustainable and ethical manufacturing.
However, this did not happen overnight. There is a resounding achievement behind this achievement, and we can understand it by looking back on the roller coaster of the industry.
Beginning its journey unexpectedly in the early 1980s, the clothing industry began to transform in the early 1990s. In the initial phase of transformation, the issue of complying with global trade rules and regulations and the supply chain has come to the fore. After the first decade, more and more factories began to move from their unplanned installations to safe ones with a solid structural design, which allowed them to significantly increase their market share.
Then, in the mid-1990s, the RMG industry began to address the issue of child labor. Prior to the enactment of the 1993 Child Labor Deterrence Act introduced in the United States Senate by Senator Tom Harkin, the issue of child labor did not receive as much attention. Thus, in the mid-1990s, the leaders of the garment industry in Bangladesh extended their full cooperation to the ILO, the government of Bangladesh and various NGOs such as BRAC and Gono Sahajjo Sangstha to address this issue.
Child factory workers were enrolled in schools run by NGOs as part of the “earn and learn” program. In this process, child labor was eradicated from factories through rehabilitation.
After that, the whole industry was put under strict supervision so that no factories could employ children. As a result, the sector is completely free from child labor, which is evident in various local and international investigative reports.
After successfully eliminating child labor, factory owners began to pay more attention to social compliance issues. This includes complying with the code of conduct for buyers as well as the country’s labor laws, setting a minimum wage at regular intervals and having it fully enforced.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, the sector redoubled its efforts to ensure the safety, dignity and empowerment of workers. The tragedy was actually a major wake-up call and the way the industry has responded to clean up factories and make the workplace safer is remarkable.
The government has made every effort to bring legal reforms and strengthen administrative capacity, which includes amending the labor law in 2013 and 2018, promulgating labor rules in 2015, compulsory formation of a safety committee and an elected participation committee in each factory, the union registration process has been simplified.
Recognizing the importance of structural and electrical safety in factories in addition to fire safety, a national tripartite action plan was formed with the support of the ILO.
To complete the initiative, buyers came and formed two private initiatives – Accord and Alliance – and through collaborative efforts, nearly 4,000 factories were transparently audited and remedied with the support of national and international experts. Inspection reports for all factories are available on the Accord and Alliance websites. That’s how transparent it is.
Today, the industry is under the close surveillance of several authorities to ensure social compliance. In addition to regular inspection by the government-run DIFE, the Social Compliance Forum under the Ministry of Commerce regularly monitors compliance issues.
Industry associations and third party auditors nominated by buyers also keep an eye on these issues. The industry is therefore quite open and transparent on compliance issues. A good number of factories are also controlled by the ILO Better Works.
In addition, to continue the safety upgrade that has been achieved through Accord and Alliance, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) has been formed, involving an equal number of representatives from industry organizations, brands and unions.
Through all of these efforts, the industry has reached an unparalleled level of standard in terms of security and transparency, and this is evident in the QIMA report.
A recent McKinsey report also called Bangladesh’s RMG sector “a pioneer in transparency regarding factory safety and value chain accountability, thanks to initiatives launched in the aftermath of disasters.” Mckinsey also pointed out that more than 1,500 Bangladeshi companies are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, which is the second highest number of any country in the world.
Today, factories are not only safer, but have also become more dynamic, modern, energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
Bangladesh has by far the largest number of green clothing factories in the world. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has certified a total of 143 Bangladeshi factories as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), of which 40 are LEED Platinum rated and 89 are LEED Gold rated.
In addition, 500 other factories are in the process of certification. It’s also worth mentioning here that 39 of the top 100 LEED factories in the world are located in Bangladesh.
In addition, BGMEA, being the umbrella trade body of the Bangladesh RMG industry, has joined the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter on Climate Action of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on climatic changes).
BGMEA has also pledged to support the German government-led global initiative called “Green Button”. Additionally, BGMEA has partnered with Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and Reverse Resources to create a Circular Fashion Partnership (CFP) to initiate a circular business model in the industry. All of these efforts are a testament to the industry’s strategic vision and commitment to environmental sustainability.
In short, the Bangladesh ready-to-wear industry has come a long way. But the industry does not allow complacency and inertia to set in as stakeholders are well aware that the only constant in business is change.
Now the industry is focused on strengthening its own capacity to monitor occupational safety through a national safety regime. RSC training is part of that effort.
Now that the Bangladesh RMG industry is maturing and there are signs that it is well positioned to gain a leading position in the export of garments, it is of paramount importance to achieve its own ability to lead the industry towards safety and sustainability at this point in its long journey.
Faruque Hassan is President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Managing Director of Giant Group