By Virginia F. Bodmer-Altura, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TextileFuture
TextileFuture and myself have been following in recent years Mostafiz Uddin’s career, his ideas and ideals, particularly after the sad events of Rana Plaza, and his resulting initiatives to let this never happen again, not only in Bangladesh, but elsewhere.
As always, there is also the reverse of the medal, because large sourcing companies after the tragedy of Rana Plaza used their power not only for better working conditions, including wages and sustainability – a word that is abused and has no exact definition, nor standard – but also to dictate lower prices for clothing made in Bangladesh. It is still the case, the level of prices are below the ones before the tragic event!
Only recently, we had the opportunity to meet the Bangladesh denim and textile expert Mostafiz Uddin and Tim Browne, also renowned denim expert and representing Bangladesh Denim Expo founded by Mr. Uddin, as well the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) founded equally by Mr. Uddin.
Tim Browne is a denim industry veteran with over 30 years’ experience, working for leading denim brands, fabric mills and manufacturers. He is currently involved in the organisation of Bangladesh Denim Expo which actively promotes sustainable initiatives within the denim industry and is working with small independent European denim labels. Both Gentlemen do not only love their trade, but predominately they give high value to personal respect, honesty, and courage to innovate and educate, and majorly to people.
Mr. Uddin is very outspoken and sincere and is promoting and educating women in Bangladesh to get to know another kind of entrepreneur who treats its workers well, and allows them also to climb the ladder of career and providing the means for an adequate education. He has been working for over 20 years in textile mills, also in India, before returning to Bangladesh to help to build a reputed textile industry with a focus on denim.
These days they travel the world, go to important meetings and speak-up to a selected public. They are also present at the most important fashion events, particularly in the denim area.
As an exclusivity to TextileFuture, we present his feature “Bangladesh Visionary spreads the Word”. When preparing for this Newsletter, we found a second feature that was published in the Daily Star titled “Apparel sector should not be blinded by technology”.
Both items show how Mr. Uddin is ticking and offering a lot of food of thoughts, these are also educational for the textile and clothing industry in other areas of the world. We wish you a good and careful reading.
Mostafiz Uddin – Profile of a Game Changer Redefining the Perception of Bangladesh
It cannot be denied that there is something dynamic and visionary about Mostafiz. In 2005, a full eight years before the tragedy which saw over 1,100 workers die and countless more lives changed forever after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, he had resolved to build a factory that was both safe and fit for purpose being disenchanted with approaches to the apparel business and employees he had witnessed during his time working in an international buying house.
Completed in 2009, the Denim Expert Limited plant is built on 100 feet of underground piling and its steel-concrete foundations and stone building structure ensure that it is earthquake-proof. The company is now regarded as one of the safest, most respected denim manufacturers in the country, producing 12000 pieces of denim clothing each day in the fully integrated, environmentally sustainable facility for retailers and brands in Europe and the USA.
The 2000 employees at the factory are treated as family members by Mostafiz, who takes a personal interest in the wellbeing of his staff and their families.
Mostafiz leads by example and has been instrumental in helping change perceptions of the Bangladesh’s RMG sector after the Rana Plaza tragedy, with Denim Expert Limited demonstrating how it is possible for a business to succeed by being innovative, sustainable and environmentally conscious at the same time. and is currently the country’s only member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition for Fashion Climate Change.
As a man passionate about the product he produces and equally passionate about his devotion to his country, Mostafiz set about establishing a series of initiatives with the specific aims of both promoting the country on the international stage and informing the local RMG industry of sustainable options available.
Under the umbrella of the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) a pioneering initiative established by Uddin, specifically geared to facilitate the transition of the Bangladesh RMG industry from mere apparel producer to a manufacturer of premium fashion products, Uddin has helped change the perception of the whole industry.
The BAE’s flagship event is the Bangladesh Denim Expo – now in its 5th year and eleventh incarnation, the Expo is globally recognized as the leading denim trade event in the region, attracting an international audience of denim industry professionals. Alongside the Expo, BAE run the Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF) established to promote the sustainability agenda within the textile and apparel supply chain of the country and the Fashionology Summit, informing industry professionals about technological advances in the apparel field that aid efficiencies and contribute to environmental sustainability and worker’s well-fare.
Over the past decade, thanks in part to Mostafiz’s achievement in coordinating efforts to transform global perception of the sector, over USD 1 billion has been invested in Bangladesh’s 30 denim mills and in 2017 the country overtook China as the largest denim producer for the European market.
A caring man with a vision and a true game-changer!
Bangladesh Visionary Spreads the Word
After the tragic events of Rana Plaza in 2013, Bangladesh was at its lowest ebb. There were grave concerns, that global apparel brands would withdraw orders from the country and it was difficult to know how Bangladesh’s ready-made garment sector would overcome the huge reputational damage it had suffered.
At that time, Bangladesh needed a new vision and a fresh direction. Business as usual was not an option. We know that the Bangladesh Accord and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were established in the wake of Rana Plaza and there is little doubting their huge influence in terms of rebuilding trust among buyers.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the visionary entrepreneur, Mostafiz Uddin, was doing his own part to make sure that, no matter what, something positive would come out of Rana Plaza.
Uddin always believed that even like darkest cloud has silver lining Rana Plaza could be a positive driver for change and, as such, has been on a one-man mission to lead that charge.
“We cannot afford repeat of any Rana Plaza,” Uddin says. “We could not continue with business as usual. Industry had to change – business as usual was never an option.”
Accordingly, the year after Rana Plaza, Uddin established the Bangladesh Denim Expo, and this was followed closely by the Bangladesh Sustainable Apparel Forum, Bangladesh Fashionology Summit, and the Denim Innovation Night.
‘If you build it, they will come’ is a line that has gone down in Hollywood folklore. However, before Uddin established these events, nobody could have been sure that he would be able to convince buyers, speakers and other stakeholders from the global apparel industry to come to Bangladesh – a destination which was hitherto hardly known on the global stage in terms of events and conferences.
But, they did come, and in great numbers. By bringing people to Bangladesh, Uddin has been able to exert influence and alter perceptions. Also critical has been the people who Uddin has brought to Bangladesh.
“All our events attract high profile speakers and word of mouth has been critical in boosting their profile,” Uddin says.
To offer an example, the upcoming Bangladesh Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF) going to be held on 5th & 6th November will be attended by numerous heads of industry from home and abroad, leading NGOs, high profile speakers from apparel brands and other apparel and textile industry stakeholders. Bringing these high profile names to Bangladesh is crucial as it shows the positive side of the country’s textile industry. These people in turn can help spread the word that Bangladesh is a great place to do business.
In addition, each event garners huge international media coverage from leading trade journals and newspapers. which is invaluable for portraying a positive, upbeat image about the country.
But there is more than events. Since 2014, Uddin has travelled to all four corners of the globe in his quest to press the case for Bangladesh and to inform people about the country’s progress and challenges.
For Uddin, the quest has always been to give Bangladesh and its industry a voice. This ‘voice’ had hitherto been missing on the global stage, where discussion panels are far too often dominated by the same faces saying the same things.
“Ours has for too long been the missing voice,” Uddin says. “We know what brands think, we know about the sustainability challenges of retailers. But, what about suppliers? What about the challenges of keeping unit costs down while producing sustainably? What about the squeeze that has been placed on them by suppliers?”
These are actually very pertinent points. Believe it, or not, unit prices for apparel from Bangladesh have gone down – in both real and nominal terms – since Rana Plaza. And, this is at a time when factory owners have been having to spend huge amounts on costly factory remediation, as well as new, sustainable methods of production.
Without the work of change-makers like Uddin spreading the word, telling people about the importance of fair purchasing practices and offering people the full picture, the industry as a whole would likely remain on its low cost, low price, race to the bottom trajectory.
Uddin firmly believes it does not have to be that way. “I am a huge believer in transparency,” he says. “Transparency brings trust, it improves credibility and it sheds light on bad practice in the industry. It also helps to level the playing field and highlights the difference between the laggards who are holding the industry back and the leaders who are taking it forward,” he says.
Uddin, for sure, falls firmly in the leaders category and his is a name we can expect to hear much more of moving forwards.
Apparel sector should not be blinded by technology
By guest author Mostafiz Uddin, he is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).
If you want to understand the present, look to the past. All the talk right now in apparel supply chains is of new technology, automation and robots potentially replacing humans. We read constantly about how customisation is the future—that consumers want to go online and bespoke their clothing to their own specific requirements. “Personalisation” is the name of the game. Surely it is far better to have personalised products than mass customisation, right? Perhaps so, provided that you are prepared to pay for it, but who is? How many people do we see wearing personalised apparel products?
We also hear talk of 3D sampling. Some claim that textile manufacturers which can’t provide 3D samples face an uncertain future. Really? I would be more inclined to believe such rhetoric if I hadn’t been hearing people say the same thing for several years. Surely it can be no coincidence that the people making such claims also happen to be those who have the most to gain from such technology gaining traction—including the manufacturers themselves or the consultants trying to sell this technology.
What about the micro-factory? This concept has been in evidence at several textile exhibitions in the past two years, and there is no doubt it is an interesting idea. A glimpse into the future, perhaps, but there are no guarantees at all that such a future will ever arrive. In theory, the micro-factory turns the traditional textile model on its head, switching from the existing paradigm of “produce-deliver-sell” to “sell-produce-deliver”. The system is driven by developments in digital technology, online workflow, laser cutting and digital textile printing.
With production and delivery after the sale, this means that production is essentially demand-led: you only sell what you produce, which is surely better for cash flow, right?
If only it were all this simple, however. Where does such a model fit with the cash flow of a factory in Bangladesh producing millions of units per month? Are such factories going to disappear overnight? Who will take up the slack of this lost production?
We need to remember that global apparel supply chains have, fundamentally, changed very little over the past few years. This is a conservative industry and, let’s not forget, an industry of tight margins.
Recently, I was at a textile conference in Switzerland. “How many people in the audience are wearing customised clothing?”—a speaker asked the 120-strong audience. Seven people in the room stood up. I am pretty confident, that the answer to this question will be similar next year, and the year after. Change will not happen overnight in apparel production, it will be incremental, and many of the fundamentals will remain the same.
Take 3D sampling, for instance. How widespread is this in the apparel industry? I know of very few who use it, and I also recognise why it has not really captured the imagination of buyers. People still like to feel and touch fabrics, which is why trade fairs around the world are actually busier than ever, and the number of textile exhibitions is increasing all the time. Perhaps this is not a good thing as far as the environment is concerned—all those people flying around the world—but it is a fact that textiles and apparel remain a tactile industry, where people like to touch and feel before placing large orders.
And yet, talk of technology, automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and other such phrases creates fear among suppliers. They worry they will be left behind, and that automaton will lead to job losses at factories. Workers themselves worry about “sewbots” replacing people. They worry one machine might be able to do the job of five people.
We have to remember that apparel manufacture is not a high-tech industry. This is not car manufacture or silicone chip production, where the economics of automation stack up. This is the production of low-value items, which are sold on for tiny margins.
Also, consider the fact that automation technology of varying guises has been around for years in the garment industry. Why is it taking so long for the manufacturers to use it? Perhaps it is because labour is so cheap in this industry, certainly in Southeast Asia. Labour costs are not the burden for manufacturers in garment supply chains that they are in other industries.
It is interesting that such worries have been around for hundreds of years in the textile industry. In English-speaking countries, the word “Luddite” is used as an insult, to describe somebody who has failed to keep up with progress. Yet the term has its origins in the textile industry. In the 19th-century England, the Luddites were a radical, secret oath-based organisation of English textile workers who destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest!
The group was protesting against the use of machinery and they feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry.
It is amazing that all these years later, we are having the same discussions now. Were the fears of the Luddites realised? Their fears were greatly exaggerated and often misplaced, as they are now.
We have to remember that apparel supply chains have to run before they can walk. Yes, we need to increase productivity and always be thinking about modernisation. But, we also need to get the basics right. Many factories still struggle to even pay basic salaries or have poor factory set-up, which leads to huge inefficiencies and a lack of optimisation. They can forget about automation on any kind of serious scale until they sort out such issues.
Consider, also, the cost of automation and other technology solutions such as ERP (Enterprises Resources Planning) which we hear so much about. How much do these systems cost to design and implement (remembering that such technology needs to be tailor-made for individual factories)? The costs here can run into several millions of dollars.
The number of suppliers who can afford to invest this kind of money is limited, especially when the benefits for doing so are not entirely proven or clear.
When I think about the use of technology in apparel supply chains, what I do see is a lot of prototypes or pilots. Many are trialling different types of technology for one-off or short batches. But this has always been the case. Factories will always experiment with new ways of doing things, especially when there is little or no risk involved. Translating these efforts into a commercial basis is entirely different. Many of the technologies being trialled may never actually see the light of day on a commercial basis.
I realise there is a danger of sounding like the Luddites I mentioned before, but that is not the case. Actually, there is an area where the use of technology and investments in new systems is actually happening. I could use the word “sustainability” here but I prefer the word “efficiency” for I feel these are actually two sides of the same coin. There are small steps which suppliers can take—and are taking—which help them to save money in terms of reducing water use, reducing electricity use, shifting to more modern boilers, and so on. New technologies in these areas are often relatively inexpensive and the pay-off for suppliers in terms of return on investment can often be in just 12 to 18 months.
Investment in these areas is a low-hanging fruit for textile suppliers. It makes financial sense and the benefits are there to see. It is also worth remembering that there are often grants and other financial inducements available to support these investments, which provide another incentive.
But, investments in the garment “factory of the future” that we hear so much about are a different thing entirely.
Too many factory owners still need to get the basics right and take the low-hanging fruit on offer; to make better, more efficient use of their existing capital outlays. They also need to keep in mind that the best technology will only ever be as good as the person who operates it. Good technology is one thing; having the people in place, who are trained and educated to operate it effectively, to maximise its potential, is something else entirely.
If we were to have a technology revolution, this would have to go hand in hand with a training and education revolution. This would require wholesale change in garment supply chains such as Bangladesh. The industry is a long, long way from such a scenario.
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
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