A little more action please – When it comes to sustainability, talk is not enough

Mostafiz Uddin

By guest author Mostafiz Uddin, Managing Director, Denim Expert Ltd. & Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo

“Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.” A wise saying attributed to Saint Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese priest noted for his powerful preaching, expert knowledge of scripture, and undying love and devotion to the poor and the sick.

With this in mind, perhaps it is time for the apparel industry, not just in Bangladesh but globally, to start putting into action the recommendations and thinking emerging from the plethora of platforms promoting sustainable, ethical, environmentally sound business practices?

Over the last years, we have witnessed a growing number of forums, all pushing the sustainability agenda. This became most notable to all of us involved in the Bangladesh RMG industry, following the tragic event of April 24, 2013 when the Rana Plaza disaster took place.

The world’s gaze was suddenly focussed not only on the Bangladesh RMG industry but, over a period of time, on the wider global standards for workers’ health and safety, compliance and construction requirements for factories working in the apparel sector.

Let there be no mistake, these forums were, initially, beneficial for all involved within the apparel and textile industries. For the first time there was a concerted effort by the apparel industry and their partners to establish forums by which all attendees could learn and could raise issues that would allow them to be discussed amongst leading experts in their fields.

These arenas offered a platform for the forming of policy and raising awareness of the burning issues of the time surrounding the environment, sustainability, and transparency within the industry.

In this respect, these ongoing programmes offered the undeniably beneficial advantage for the participants to teach and connect with their audience, with attendees able to learn from some of the most recognized, respected figures and companies in the industry, working in the sustainable arena.

What I feel is, and has been, missing from these endeavours is that no clear objectives and policies are being set following these meetings of likeminded individuals and companies. It is nigh on impossible to determine what actual, long-term tangible effects and benefits these conferences and discussions bring, and this I believe, needs to change.

I fear that this ongoing roadshow of well-meaning gatherings is at risk of being seen as a forum where platitudes are offered and, in certain cases serve as promotional platforms, rather than yielding concrete, beneficial policies and results.

This is something that needs to be avoided at all costs to avoid the inevitable undermining of the good that has been achieved by these events. Perhaps it is time to reassess our approach to these forums and to devise a way whereby visible benefits for our industry and the wider global community can be seen to be defined and then put into action?

First, I believe, we need to address the sheer number of events that are being held globally and ensure that they are all communicating a common message and advocating positive initiatives. At the recent Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF) held in Dhaka on November 5, a clear message had emerged: The need for greater coordination and collaboration within the apparel and textile industries, backed up by support from international governments and non-government agencies.

For these platforms to be truly deemed successful what I believe needs to be implemented is a twofold collaborative approach.

The first is to establish an agreed global agenda for sustainable forums to ensure that a common language is being delivered as effectively and as succinctly as possible. Let us all be conscious of the fact that these events are not there for bluster or promotion — they need to serve for the long-term benefit of the apparel and textile industries and to minimize the environmental impact on the planet, coupled with proper, sustainable business practices that benefit the sector’s workforces and the larger global community.

This I feel requires some serious consideration. As an event organizer myself, I feel there are far too many functions being held globally. Surely, and in the spirit of establishing sustainable forums that can deliver clear messages and a lasting benefit to all interested parties, it would be far better for the various organizations and companies that operate in the sustainable arena to agree a focussed agenda of events, specifically targeted for the regions in which they are held?

Let us not forget the objective of these international gatherings has to be to improve our beloved apparel industry and learn how to develop and implement a truly sustainable, transparent environmentally sound business model for the future.

By adopting this approach we, as an industry, can establish a series of worthwhile information exchange events, relevant to the region in which they are being held, capable through focus, on delivering realistic targets and results.

The second is to establish a tangible system of monitoring and benchmarking the events, that will enable the industry and the wider global audience to see actual results from these erstwhile initiatives.

At present, having personally attended a vast amounts of international seminars, conferences and summits, I find myself asking: “What has actually been achieved?” I have no doubt that all of the events that have been organised are done so with the best possible intentions, however I find myself questioning the long-term effect that they realize.

This saddens me. I am passionate about improving our industry, learning from the best at these forums, and now strongly feel now is the time to establish a mechanism to assess the recommendations and processes agreed at said events and then monitor their implementation.

This would need to be an accountable process, monitored perhaps by a freely elected body of apparel and textile industry luminaries? I do not have the solution, but I beg the right to ask the question.

The RMG industry, and our global partners, need to embrace the raft of ideas, practices and principles emanating from the numerous global events pertaining to sustainable, transparent and environmental issues and be seen to acting upon them and actually putting them into practice, being held accountable if agreed targets are not met.

“A little less conversation, a little more action please” to take the words sung by Elvis Presley seems an opposite rallying call for the Bangladesh RMG sector and the wider global textile and apparel industries. Now is the time for less talk — let’s put into action all of the valuable projects, technologies, and practices that have been discussed for so long not just for the benefit of the apparel industry but for the benefit of the global community.