With a little help from our friends
For a sustainable apparel industry, we need cooperation and coordination
As is well documented, the Bangladesh RMG sector has made significant improvements in sustainable and transparent initiatives since the fateful events of April 24, 2013 that shook the industry to its core, but can we do more to make further improvements to the industry for the benefit of all?
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Copenhagen Fashion Summit this year. Now in its 10th year, the conference is dedicated to raising the fashion industry’s collective conscience when it comes to matters of sustainability and endeavours to raise some serious issues for stakeholders in the apparel business to discuss. One burning issue that was highlighted was the question of what more can be done collectively by the fashion industry, for the long-term benefit of the planet.
The improvements that have been made in the Bangladesh RMG industry over the last six years are undeniable and we can be proud of having a world leading industry model in terms of social compliance, factory safety standards and environmental issues. What concerns me is that a lot of the advances that have been made have been done so by individual companies and the point I wish to discuss is what more can be done to benefit our planet, if the industry cooperates and works together collectively to achieve one common agreed set of objectives?
Firstly, I believe, in order for this to happen the industry needs to establish a system whereby information is collectively shared, and the sector co-operates, as one, to achieve agreed targets in all areas of sustainability and transparency, whether they be regarding social compliance, factory safety and efficiency standards or environmental issues.
For this to be established we need to agree one common agenda for Bangladesh RMG sector. Currently, in any given year, the industry is awash with conferences and roundtable discussions regarding sustainability within the sector. Individually these initiatives are to be applauded, but I cannot help but wonder how much more effective the outcome would be if we had fewer meetings and dedicated more time to putting findings from the forums into action.
The industry needs a focussed, coordinated series of conferences, involving the key stakeholders in the industry and representatives from government and non-government bodies, whereby a common policy on sustainability can be agreed and the determined strategies be put into place — a case of “less talk, more action” as the saying goes.
For this approach to be effective, we need to collectively agree upon the most pressing areas of improvement that are required in the Bangladesh RMG sector, whether that be workers’ rights, environmental sustainability, the reduction in hazardous chemicals, water saving initiatives, or furthering the use of renewable energies (to name a few).
Once targets have been set for each of the issues at hand, we can agree a common agenda and consolidate our efforts into one coordinated, industry-wide strategy that should be supported and adopted by all involved.
Adoption of such an approach by the industry would benefit the sector, by far the most important to the nation’s financial security, bringing improvements both on a social and environmental level and showing to the global audience that the nation’s leading industrial sector can act as a guiding force when it comes to sustainable issues.
The second issue that I feel needs to be addressed, and one that currently hampers the unification of efforts that are being made by the RMG industry, is the eradication of the hidden agenda that emerges with regard to sustainable and environmental practices.
Too often conferences or meetings are organized in the country, in many cases with the backing of our international partners, to investigate highly commendable sustainable and environmental practices, only for those forums to be used as a means for companies to sell their wares or services to members of the audience.
The sad fact is that there are profits to be gained by companies that can offer a product that benefits the environment or workers’ safety and well-being. This mode of operation can cloud the issues at hand, often generating an air of cynicism from attendees and preventing the industry from adopting better practices and moving forward in a more sustainable manner.
Surely, an approach mooted at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit by François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the luxury brand label house Kering, is one that the industry should adopt as a matter of course? When discussing initiatives taken by Kering that have an impact on climate change, for example, Pinault stated: “I want our innovative solutions to be an open source for the whole industry to implement.”
Such an approach would be a breath of fresh air and invaluable to the Bangladesh RMG sector and the nation as a whole. When it comes to environmental issues and the well-being of our employees, should not the experiences gained in the adoption of more sustainable practices be shared for the benefit of us all, rather than solely for the benefit of individual companies?
Similarly, our customers need to be talking in a coordinated manner and agreeing with their industry partners’ strategies to implement to improve the overall apparel industry.
Take, for example, the fact that fashion companies today are still judged in purely financial, profit and loss terms, when assessing their performance. Perhaps it is time for the industry as a whole to instigate audits across the whole supply chain (rather than just in the manufacturing area) so that our customers are also assessed in terms of environmental and social practices.
This, as is with the case of improvements in the RMG sector, would only be achievable if a unified set of measurement criteria is collectively agreed by the fashion industry and implemented in a co-ordinated manner, rather than by companies imposing policies on an individual basis.
Undoubtedly, actions speak louder than words and it is time for the Bangladesh RMG sector and the wider apparel industry, to consolidate our efforts in the fields of sustainable, transparent, fully compliant practices and adopt a common policy, agreed and adhered to by all involved, in order for the sector to continue to grow in a socially conscious, environmentally sound manner.
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). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.