Please note: this Q+A is extracted from a podcast recorded in December 2019, when Rubana Huq was president of the Bangladesh Garment Exporters and Manufacturers Association. She will be speaking at Innovation Forum’s sustainable apparel and textiles conference on 29th April.
Ian Welsh: Let’s talk a bit about the progress over the years from the Rana Plaza disaster. What have been the milestones and progress from your perspective since then?
Rubana Huq: We have so many compliant factories now and the standards set by the accord [the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety] and alliance [the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety] weren’t just basic. They were aligned with the highest international standards.
What’s also interesting is that Bangladeshi factories have gone ahead and turned green. We have more than 100 factories that are LEED certified green factories. We have more than 25 gold and platinum LEED factories.
We’ve learned to cope. We’ve learned to evolve. We’ve learned to grow. All that we need to do right now is just sustain the progress that has so far been made and of course, prepare again for “Industry 4.0” in the process.
IW: What are you doing to ensure that you maintain your position globally in a fast-moving apparel sector, so vital for the Bangladeshi economy?
RH: Currently we are facing challenges of product diversification and value addition. It’s a huge challenge for us to add value to our products – we need to be much more mindful of the direction in which we’re heading. We’re monitoring weekly exports and we’re checking which products are actually making the biggest impact on world markets.
Manmade fibres are increasing in importance, while we mostly export cotton-based products. We have to align ourselves with the global expectation and demands and go forward. All we’re trying to do is just monitor the global trends, improve our research and development, focus on reducing waste, and re-skilling our workers to go to the next level.
IW: That leads very well into, I think, the challenges and the potential opportunities from automation, the “Industry 4.0” technologies that we hear so much about. Will they allow the Bangladeshi garment sector to become more innovative and to be able to respond more quickly to the demands that you’ve been talking about?
RH: There’s no other option but to be innovative at this point. I think everybody just wants fast reaction, fast response, not necessarily “fast fashion” anymore, though. It’s more tailor-made. We have huge capacity but these all have to be turned into modular lines because the consumption pattern is changing.
Customers now want a lot of customisation – it’s a lot more personalised than it was before. Our closets are shrinking. We are buying products with more value added; we are recycling; we are reusing; we are exchanging.
The challenge lies in becoming innovative and yet retaining the value of labour – after all there are 4.1 million people working in this industry in Bangladesh. If they lose out, even partially, because of automation, it’s a huge blow to the economy. The ready-made garment sector supports 82% of the [Bangladesh] economy and supports a lot of people’s jobs.
All these workers are facing an uncertain future. What we need to do is send a very careful message out to the world and say: go green, go human.
IW: I’m interested that you see the direction of the sector moving towards customisation, and towards higher-value products. What evidence do you have for that change that really happening across the world?
RH: When we monitor our exports, we see increases in value-added products. That’s our hint that we should be moving on to better products.
Transformations don’t happen overnight. It’ll require a couple of seasons to do it, at least. I don’t know whether we have time to turnaround so fast. To be that adaptive, we need to think outside the box and maybe see what academia has to say.
IW: The challenge is then to move the industry in Bangladesh, which has gone very much down the route of the fast fashion, instead towards greater value, bringing the potential for a better price for your members. But that’s a massive thing to change.
RH: We have to think about automating and moving to the next level. We have to make sure that we create more jobs, and we find an innovative way of at least making sure that the lives of these 4.1 million workers are not impacted unduly.
IW: How then do you see this working? If you’ve got 4.1 million workers at the same time as moving towards greater automation, how are these workers are going to be re-skilled? What things will they be doing differently in the future?
RH: There’s no answer other than education. Constant engagement in education is something that we will have to invest in. For example, many workers now go to the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. It’s an international university with top-notch teaching. The first cohort actually graduates next year . That will be a moment of real pride, showing that it is possible to educate workers. It is possible to re-skill them.
To hear more from Rubana Huq, and to join 200+ other apparel sector executives, full details of the Innovation Forum sustainable apparel and textiles conference are available here.