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Bangladesh RMG Sector Is Looking Past ‘Production and Profit’

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has released its first  sustainability report, detailing the country’s apparel sector’s moves to become more environmentally conscious and socially responsible in a sourcing landscape that is rapidly changing.

BGMEA president Dr. Rubana Huq believes that the businesses that thrive in 2021 will broaden their focus beyond “production and profit,” and instead look to “measure and manage the impacts of a business or industry on people and planet and accordingly set goals to perform better in the coming days.”

Social change

The ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh, which was established in the early 1980s, has burgeoned into a $34-billion business employing roughly 4.1 million people—about 65 percent of whom are women, Huq said. The garment sector represents 84 percent of the country’s export business, with primary destinations for apparel products being North America and Europe.

While Bangladesh’s apparel sector was on an upswing during the period of BGMEA’s reporting, which ended in 2019, the sector has since endured a pummeling by the coronavirus, as well as the brand partners that pulled out of contracts and canceled orders in its wake. The BGMEA estimated that the country would see an “irrecoverable loss” of $5 billion by the end of 2020. Jordanian apparel factories announced a plan to take on 12,000 new workers from Bangladesh over the course of 2021, in an effort that will be fully funded by the private sector.

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The BGMEA aims to continue to foster this growth, the report said, while protecting workers’ rights through partnerships with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other global groups. The cooperation aims to empower workers to advocate for their rights through collective bargaining and to help them gain access to financial aid and other services to keep their families out of poverty.

The group, which boasts more than 4,600 member factories, has various facilities to support the apparel workforce, including 12 health care centers for workers and their families, along with five schools for the children of garment workers. The group provides insurance coverage to apparel workers, along with paid parental leave.

Education will prove important for the sector in the coming years, the BGMEA alleged. According to the Asian Productivity Organization (APO) database’s 2018 numbers, the average hourly productivity for a Bangladeshi garment worker is $3.40—the lowest rate of its global competitors from China, Myanmar, Vietnam, India and Pakistan. That’s because the country’s millions of workers hail from mostly underprivileged backgrounds and have not received an education that would foster their ability to improve their skills or efficiency, the BGMEA said. The group has invested nearly $15 million in upskilling workers since 2014.

Bangladesh has also had to address rampant and persistent safety issues in its factories, with the BGMEA characterizing the country’s rise to prominence in garment production as “not rosy.” A major structural collapse at the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 garment workers, triggered a move by manufacturers to embrace more stringent safety standards and practices. Each of the country’s factories spent an average of more than $600,000 for remediation work since the disaster, BGMEA said.

Safety platforms have also been put in place by the Bangladeshi government, as well as by global brands and the ILO, that have prompted 3,800 of the country’s export-oriented garment factories to be inspected for building, fire and electrical safety—and inspection and remediation reports are posted on a publicly accessible forum to ensure transparency.

Sustainability

The BGMEA has also taken a firm stance on sustainability in recent years, Huq added, as the fashion industry grows more conscious of its impacts on the world’s ecology. The group has looked to international stakeholders like the United Nations and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in pursuing standards for Bangladesh’s garment supply chain, and signed onto the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

According to the BGMEA, Bangladesh now boasts the highest number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green garment factories of any country—an effort that was driven as much by the desire to reduce ecological impact as the need to ensure worker safety in these workplaces. Bangladesh has more than 140 green buildings so far, and more than 500 factories are in the pipeline to receiving certification. LEED-certified buildings use up to 40 percent less energy than conventional buildings and make use of renewable energy, and are constructed with lesser negative impacts than typical projects.

With Germany being a primary market for Bangladesh’s apparel exports, the BGMEA signed onto the Green Button Initiative—a state-owned certification program that investigates the sustainable properties of garments—on behalf of its members.

“BGMEA and its member factories are very much in line with the climate change mitigation and environmental pollution control targets of both the government and the buyers,” it wrote, adding that it recognized that sustainable production “will attract more buyers in ready-made goods sector and will contribute to the growth of export.”

To ensure that its members continue to advance when it comes to sustainability, the organization advocates for new collaborative policies through its associations with NGOs, donors and buyers. In 2019, BGMEA formed the Ready-Made Goods Sustainability Council (RSC) with other industry stakeholders, which works to improve the factories’ environmental performance and coordinate projects with global partners.

The group has also been pushing Bangladesh’s government to implement policies to support technology upgrades in the apparel industry, with some success. In 2020, the Bangladesh Bank has agreed to a funding program for the textile and ready-made goods industries, dubbed the Technology Upgradation Fund (TUF), which gives factories low-interest loans to help upgrade machinery, systems and software to help automate certain processes and improve efficiency—ultimately curbing waste.

BGMEA wrote that it is also working with industry insiders and local governments to advance water conservation initiatives to better manage use of the resource. Chemical management guidelines for the industry are in development with the help of the chemical engineering department of the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET).

“While doing business we should not forget its impacts on people and planet,” Huq wrote, adding, “If there is no planet, there are no people.”

“This understanding drives our commitment to sustainability and take actions in line with that,” she said, adding that BGMEA will continue to take action within the industry to “transform lives for the better.”