I decided on the title of this piece after something Dirk Lehmann, publishing director of Sportswear International said to me in the departure lounge at Dhaka airport the other day:
“The main problem the Bangladesh apparel industry has right now is with stigma. Many people are producing here, many companies have visited the factories and seen for themselves the positive changes going on here. The problem is, they’re all scared to stand up and proudly say ‘we produce in Bangladesh’”
So this piece is intended to try and dispel some myths and add my perspective to the Bangladesh production business. I don’t work full time for anyone, I don’t have any motives and I’m not making any money to write these words, I’m writing them because I care about what I saw last week and I do think its time we all stopped being ignorant, judgemental and damning of our fellow humans, just because they live in certain countries.
If you want, you can make a shitty quality jean in Los Angeles: exploiting workers, punishing the environment and showing no care to the current drought crises. You can also make a beautiful jean, using 80% less water, organic cotton and using fairly paid workers. Its really up to the manufacturer on how they want to run their business and on the customer and who they choose to buy from. This theory applies to China, India, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. I’m tired of hearing ‘made in China is terrible’ when RRL, Three Animals and Made By Scrub make in China, using good factories, artisanal techniques and quality fabrics. There is good and bad everywhere, just like us humans.
I will be researching and writing more on this subject over the next few months after visiting a few more countries and a few more facilities. Right now I want to focus a blog post on Bangladesh as I’ve just come back from a six-day trip there. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of jeans to the EU and third largest to the US and of course, the country has a huge stigma attached to it, following various reports in the international press.
I visited a manufacturing plant (Denim Expert Limited) and a giant mill (Partex Denim) and then I spent about 10 hours listening to various debates, arguments and opinions at the Bangladesh Denim Expo in Dhaka, hearing thoughts from Roger Herbert (the regional head of Bangladesh and Pakistan for H+M) Syed Tanvir (director of Pacific Jeans LTD who employ 22,000 people and make 30 million jeans per year) Siddiqur Rahman (president of the BGMEA- Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer & Exporter Association) Edward Hertzman (founder of Sourcing Journal and Rivet & Jeans and Andew Olah, of Kingpins denim trade show and Olah Inc… amongst many many other influential people in the Bangladeshi textile and apparel industry.
What I gleaned from these 5 days can be summed up in a few points but is a huge, complicated and ongoing issue that to be honest, we have the power to change. We as consumers, we as designers and we as brands.
As a global population, both sustainable and social matters are of paramount importance right now and I truly believe that in 20-50 years we will have either implemented a more carbon neutral, ethical way of living on this planet, or we will have died trying. So I honestly believe that any factory who is not taking steps to improve the way they weave denim or manufacture and launder jeans is out of their mind. It makes business sense but it also makes common sense. As Hertzman very aptly told manufacturers during a discussion at the Expo:
“Nobody can tell you that if you invest money in sustainable processes and ethical manufacturing that you will be guaranteed contracts. But I can guarantee that if you don’t invest you will not get the work. This sounds harsh but it’s the way the industry is headed”
Some of the leading factories in Bangladesh are better than, or at least as good as their contemporaries around the world. The Denim Expo was arranged by Mostafiz Uddin, owner of Denim Expert Limited, whose initiative it is to try and dispel the bad press that Bangladesh has experienced in recent years. When he built his factory in 2005, he invested so much money in the creation of a good, safe, environmentally conscious facility that when it came to the inspections following 2013’s Rana Plaza disaster, his was one of the factories who came out top in the whole country. He is a self made man and took a huge risk setting things up this way when people around him advised him to save money by doing it on the cheap. He honestly, genuinely wanted to put his workers first:
“Without them, my factory is nothing. They are my business and I want to take care of them”
When speaking to a few of the other factory owners at the event he was pretty emotional on the subject
“I don’t think ‘how can I make my money, how can I make my margins’ I do it because honestly, I want to be able to sleep at night and if I fail my workers, if they are unsafe or unhappy, I cannot sleep at night”
He pays for healthcare, maternity leave, even weddings for his workers, its very encouraging to see after all the horror stories we’ve been used to seeing in the media. Mostafiz seems to care deeply about his country and his business and is striving for positive change. But he’s not the only one. Alongside him, many mills and manufacturers are doing great things. We went to visit Partex, now changing its name to a much friendlier sounding Amber Denim. They are pretty huge, making about 350 million meters a month of denim. I visited alongside Andrew Olah who is the most knowledgeable guy I have met when it comes to the denim supply chain. He was bowled over by the state of the factory “This is really, really clean!” and he was right, it was very clean, open, spacious and pleasant. They’ve even installed a very zen-like bamboo and concrete structure alongside a prayer room in the forest, housing about 100 shuttle looms, right out in nature. These are all steps in the right direction and show a clear understanding that ethics must start to come before economics.
But money is everything here. Because as consumers, we have become accustomed to very cheap clothing and sadly, Bangladesh has gained a reputation within the garment industry as the best place to make things cheaply. Throughout the panel discussions and seminars, the same issues kept coming up: factory owners asked on a number of occasions “how can we make factory improvements, invest in sustainable technology and become more ethical if we are constantly being pushed down on price?” And this push and pull between buyers and factories was tangible. It got me thinking back to Rana Plaza and I wondered how the buyers of say H+M, Marks and Spencer or Mango would have reacted had they been told their production was going to be late because of an unsafe factory. Anyone who has worked in the industry will know they would have been up in arms. We cannot simply judge an incident from our comfortable lives and not realise that we might have been partly to blame. Again, this is all about education. We need to realise that if, as customers, we are only prepared to pay $20 for a pair of jeans then these guys in Bangladesh are either going to have to lag behind in the market or absorb the cost (or even make a loss) in order to create change. We as customers are failing to change our shopping habits and this has a knock-on effect through to the brands and then the factories. Feel guilty? Good. I honestly think we all should.
There are brands who are making some kind of positive change: Patagonia, Nudie, even H&M, and of course there are a load of small labels who are clearly fantastic and cannot be taken to task for the ‘darker side of denim’ but for the cheaper to mid end retailers, it would be fantastic to see even more collaboration and understanding when it comes to turning things around.
Andrew Olah made a fascinating point in one of the discussions about turning around reputation which really stuck with me: when he was a kid, just after the second world war, Japan had a terrible rep for poor quality manufacturing standards. People used to joke that if something fell apart ‘It must be Japanese’ if it was poorly made ‘it must be Japanese’ So the Japanese government stepped in and worked on compliancy with all the manufacturers to increase the quality of goods going abroad. And boy, did it work: Japanese denim is now heralded some of the best quality in the world.
Bangladesh is a beautiful, colourful, vibrant country and I fell in love with it. I was also very impressed with the extent that the Bangladeshi people truly care about their country, their workers and their reputation. There was so much willing to turn these preconceptions around, so much enthusiasm to tell their story. I intend to go back to see more factories. I’m sure I will never be taken to a bad factory in Bangladesh but I also know that there are plenty of really good factories out there to visit and celebrate. We have the power to reward good ethics and put the baddies out of business. So if you are a designer, please visit your factories, please make relationships with your suppliers and see what you can achieve together to stop poor conditions. And please don’t assume that another factory is better just because its based somewhere else in the world. Like I said at the beginning, there is good and bad everywhere, just like with us humans.