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Why This Sustainability Conference Wants to Give Suppliers a Voice

When Mostafiz Uddin conceived of the Sustainable Apparel Forum in 2017, there were few, if any, industry events that included garment manufacturers in the conversation.

“We often hear the voices of fashion, especially at European conferences and events,” Uddin, owner and managing director of Denim Expert, told Sourcing Journal. “But how often do we hear the voices of suppliers? Also, how often do we hear the voices of government officials in supply-chain countries or the worker representatives? So this was an initiative to bring all actors together on the same platform.”

And there was no better place to organize it, he thought, than his native Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter after China.

On May 10, the Uddin-founded Bangladesh Apparel Exchange, a nonprofit that promotes the South Asian nation’s garment industry, will hold the third iteration of the Sustainable Apparel Forum. The Covid-19 pandemic scuppered the conference for a couple of years; holding a virtual session, Uddin said, just didn’t have the same oomph as meeting in person.

There were also bigger problems to tackle, he said. The coronavirus crisis brought to Bangladesh suppliers the “direst challenge” they’ve faced “since the inception of the industry.” Sudden and widespread order cancelations—billions of dollars in all—rocked the country’s manufacturing base to its core, leaving millions of lives hanging precariously in the balance. A lot of goodwill evaporated and with it some of the momentum for making sustainability improvements.

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“[Maybe] not in a tangible manner but the way it damages the trust of the supplier,” said Uddin, who is also spearheading the returning Bangladesh Denim Expo. “[Suppliers] would definitely feel shaky [making deep investments] in green factories, eco-friendly machines, renewable energy and many more.”

One upside of the situation is the growing acknowledgment of the knock-on effect that poor purchasing practices can have on garment workers. Still, recognizing there is a problem is one thing, Uddin said. Tackling it with “meaningful, practical actions” is “something very different.”

Otherwise, the industry has remained more or less unchanged. “The fundamentals remain the same—this is still a low-margin industry for suppliers and there are still lots of suppliers chasing orders,” he added.

Next week’s Sustainable Apparel Forum, which will be held in the capital of Dhaka, plans to address all this and more. Speakers and participants cut across a wide swathe of the supply chain, including lawmakers, diplomats, academics, investors, NGO representatives and executives from brands such as H&M and Marks & Spencer. And, of course, suppliers, many of them members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s apex body for readymade-apparel makers.

“I have been able to bring in all the key stakeholders and experts of the home and abroad in the SAF 2022,” Uddin said. “My expectations around the event are to have a meaningful discussion amongst the speakers and explore the right path for the industry to proceed. I also expect all the stakeholders [to] better understand their roles and responsibilities and come to a consensus to make the industry guilt-free, sustainable, win-win for all and resilient.”

No single theme will drive the event, he said, though the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange has organized plenary sessions on topics such as climate action, the circular economy, purchasing practices, ESG and due diligence.

Climate change is one particular issue that looms large and demands ambitious solutions. Like many other countries in Asia, among the world’s most at-risk regions, Bangladesh faces an existential crisis if temperatures and sea levels continue to rise.

“Due to climate change, many disruptions and disasters will have to be faced and we need to enhance the resilience of the industry [while reducing] the root cause,” Uddin said. “We need commitment and [to] combine our efforts to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions generated by the fashion industry. To do so we have no other way to realign our responsibilities across the supply chain; we need an unequivocal consensus amongst all of us to save the planet.”

With many factories embracing new energy and water-saving technologies, Bangladesh is poised to be a leader in sustainable fashion manufacturing, he added. Already the nation boasts 160 LEED-certified garment factories, more than any else in the world. Nearly 50 of them are Platinum rated, which is the certification’s highest tier.

“Images of old, run-down factories can be misleading,” he said. “Our RMG industry is very modern and sophisticated, and high levels of competition are driving continuous improvement. Our industry is young and ever-evolving; you will find all the state-of-the-art modern machinery in Bangladesh.”

Other sectoral breakthroughs include joining Germany’s Green Button initiative, which helps identify sustainable textiles placed on the market by responsible companies. The BGMEA is also closely working with the government to create a policy environment to “take the industry to the next level,” Uddin added.

Labor campaigners have locked horns with Bangladesh’s garment industry, which they say has continued to repress basic rights such as the freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, repressive laws, roadblocks to union formation and cutthroat repression of strikes have made Bangladesh one of the “10 worst countries in the world for working people.”

But Uddin said that the industry has made “huge progress” in social issues with the help of development partners such as German development agency GIZ, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.

“​​Even during the pandemic, we have seen Bangladesh score high in ethical manufacturing evaluation by [compliance solutions firm] QIMA,” he said. “Bangladesh showed readiness to adopt the UN Guiding Principles, reported sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals and many other national and international systems.”

Plus, the sector has shown transparency in workplace safety, with the ascent of the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC) demonstrating the “capacity of the country and the industry to take care of its own industry,” Uddin added. The RSC, a tripartite organization of brands, manufacturers and trade unions, has largely taken over the inspection and remediation duties of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, now known as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry.

One thing Uddin would like the Sustainable Apparel Forum to foster is greater collaboration across all nodes of the value chain—and beyond.

“Collaboration is key. I’d like to see more events where all actors—including lots of supplier voices—are present. I would like to see more transparency as this is the foundation for a better industry,” he said. “I also want to follow up on the activities to bring tangible change, so it is not only about talk. It is also about walking the talk.”