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Bangladesh Suppliers Want ‘Fair Bargain’ From Brands

The message has never been clearer: the government is firmly behind Bangladesh’s ambition to produce $100 billion worth of apparel annually by 2030, and entrepreneurs are leading the way. 

As Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated Made in Bangladesh Week on Sunday, it was apparent that these targets are intended to be more than just talk.

Organized by the Bangladesh Garment and Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA) and partnering with Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE), the Nov. 12-18 forum has a series of events dispersed in different parts of the city, and growing the sector is at the top of the agenda. 

“I urge the foreign businessmen to choose Bangladesh for investment and sourcing to avail the win-win situation,” the prime minister said during the inaugural session at the Bangabandhu International Conference Center. Citing Bangladesh’s investment-friendly policies, she added that the “duty-free, quota free access of Bangladeshi products to different foreign markets would help both foreign business and local entrepreneurs.”

“I would urge the local business to explore your foreign partners. You can utilize their technology and knowledge in our industry,” Hasina said.

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“Bangladesh is setting up 100 special economic zones in different parts of the country. We want local and foreign investment in those zones. Now, an excellent investment environment prevails in Bangladesh,” she continued. 

Second only to China, Bangladesh has steadily been growing its apparel export numbers, which leaped 35.47 percent over the previous fiscal year to reach $46.21 billion in apparel export turnover. 

The financial year in Bangladesh runs June 30 through July 1. 

Apparel accounts for approximately 82 percent of the country’s export earnings and is also the largest formal sector employer with more than four million workers. 

“The week-long Made in Bangladesh Week 2022 is set to brand the country and to showcase its capabilities,” said Faruque Hassan, president, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Diversification is a major objective, both geographically and in terms of products. 

Exports to the European Union were $21.4 billion, up 33.87 percent in the 2022 financial year, and $9 billion to the U.S, up 51.57 percent. While Made in Bangladesh Week is intended to celebrate the success so far, and erase memories of fire and mayhem, part of the focus is about thinking through new strategies. 

The idea of reaching other markets is being explored with more enthusiasm.

The prime minister noted that the Asian region and its large consumer population offers a huge opportunity, and Bangladesh is developing connectivity with South Asia and South East Asia. “Bangladesh is connecting with the Trans-Asian railway and Trans-Asian highway. In addition, we are also developing waterways, airways and railways communications,” she said. 

“The apparel manufacturers want to capture 10 percent of the global apparel market by 2025,” Hassan said, up from 6.2 percent today.

“We will do this by exploring new markets and diversifying product baskets and add more markets such as Japan, India, Middle Eastern countries and others,” he said.  

Another way forward is through diversification of products: companies are looking at ways to move out of low-margin product lines like T-shirts and increase value-added production, such as categories including athleisure, outerwear and lingerie. 

Hassan pointed out that the industry was ramping up on various fronts—not only innovation and sustainability, but also competitive labor practices, shorter lead times, safe, compliant factories and hassle-free ports and shipments.

Another major change that is being projected at the event is the shift in image for Bangladesh, to a safer, more sustainable production country. 

 “Let them expect no more Rana Plaza—this is a different Bangladesh,” said Mostafiz Uddin, founder and CEO, Bangladesh Apparel Exchange. “We want people to see with their own eyes what these changes really are. They can see our product capabilities, worker rights, health and safety improvements. We are arranging a lot of factory tours, because seeing is believing. We are creating an opportunity for the global challenges to be faced together.” 

The events in the week include a series of panels and discussions, including the International Apparel Federation (Nov. 14), the third Dhaka Apparel Summit (Nov. 14-16), Bangladesh Denim Expo
(Nov. 15-16), Sustainable Fashion and Innovation Awards (Nov. 16) and many others. The Dhaka Apparel Expo (Nov. 14-16) is a meeting ground for manufacturers with stalls to show off their diversity, and network with buyers and potential trade visitors. 

More than 100 international participants including foreign buyers and investors or their representatives are participating in the event.

Given that global brands have worked with Bangladesh for factory safety with the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building safety, a consortium of mostly European brands, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, made up mostly of North American brands, manufacturers said that it is time to get beyond the “audit fatigue” generated by the sometimes overlapping and confusing norms and inspections. Many factories cater to multiple geographies and brands and communication between the various stakeholders can be cumbersome. 

Conversations at the event, and on the ground at the expo, have been animated and forward looking. 

“This is a partnership, it should not be a one-way (communication) from the brands to the manufacturers,” Neela Hosna Ara, director at Crony Group and a director at BGMEA, said when discussing the strides made in the industry.

Vidiya Amrit Khan, deputy managing director for Desh Garments Limited and also a BGMEA director, agreed. 

“Brands talk about a lot of things, but they don’t walk the talk,” she said. 

“On the one hand they say they want worker sustainability and other things, but they have one-sided contracts: they don’t care about how much they pay us, they don’t care about the number of cancellations during covid—there were $63 million worth of cancellations at the time and they didn’t blink an eye. Then they talk about how much they care about the women workers and their skills etc. It has to be a fair bargain,” she said. 

As the Made in Bangladesh week gets underway, a clear theme is emerging—”Care for Fashion.”

“It means, keeping in mind all the stakeholders, who are getting a chance to exchange points of view,” said Uddin.