The apparel sector has been the lifeblood of the economy for decades now, and seen the country through transformative growth. Against the backdrop of an ongoing global financial crisis, it stands at a unique make-or-break point, argues Hadayat Ullah Mahmud, Head of Design at the TAD group, in a conversation with MWB
By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad
Since its inception, Bangladesh has been thwarting all expectations, and this has never been more applicable than in the case of our apparel sector. Few expected it to survive, let alone thrive, when the tiny industry formed in the 1980s, but it quickly became our highest export earner. Along with the exponential growth came several challenges, and the pushback against fast fashion was huge, especially in the wake of Rana Plaza. But no industry has worked harder to clean up its act, and its image, and today our apparel sector is leading the conversations about green industry. Even during the height of the pandemic, when concerns about the future were at an all-time high, a spike in orders for denim kept us cruising. The recent power crisis seems to have thrown another curveball at us. Will we sink or swim?
With some 22 years of experience at the heart of it all, Hadayat Ullah Mahmud has enjoyed a unique vantage point in the inner workings of the industry. He has worked as Head of Design at a number of reputed companies including Beximco, Hameem, KDS, Bitopi, and Zaber & Zubayer, TAD Group being his current home; and he has a keen insight on everything from purchase decisions to cutting edge innovation and market trends.
In our January issue, we spoke to BGMEA President Faruque Hassan and BAE Founder Mostafiz Uddin about sustainable approaches taken by the apparel industry to reduce its ecological footprint. We got the green factory tour during the Made in Bangladesh Week. Could you give us an example of some other steps being taken?
As water scarcity is increasing, we’re turning to processes that use less water, like water-free dyeing, water-efficient dyes, such as zero-waste dyes (pigments made from recycled industrial waste), microbial color (pigments derived from bacteria, which eliminate the use of toxic chemicals and excess water use), natural dyes, botanical and food dyes, etc. All of these are employed with a view to reducing environmental impact.
But ultimately you’re still producing more clothes, adding that into the environment.
Even that is changing. There are many companies that recycle and upcycle garments. There are companies – recognizable global brands like H&M, Inditex and Urban Outfitters, as well as smaller indie brands – that are now promoting upcycled and recycled clothes. There is a sizeable market abroad for vintage and pre-loved clothing. There is increased pressure on the industry as a whole, driving us towards not just sustainability, but also traceability [transparency about the source of the clothing]. We either get on board, or get left behind.
How would that impact us economically? Wouldn’t that affect growth? Already we’re contending with an energy crisis.
Frankly, we are in a position to double, triple our current earnings, with the infrastructure we already have in place, or will have in place in the next five-10 years. Right now, we are dependent on our retail clients, who give us the designs and we manufacture the garments based on their designs. Let me illustrate. Let’s say our buyer pays us $7 for a dress of their design. 80% of that $7 actually goes to China or India, from whom we’re importing the raw materials. The buyer ends up pricing that dress for $50. Now imagine, what we could be earning if we had our own retail outlets right next to the international retailers. We already know how to make those clothes. We could be getting a bigger cut of that $50. Now consider, if we found a way to use our own raw materials, we wouldn’t have to pay that 80% of $7 to China or India.
That sounds amazing! What’s stopping us?
I think the best way to describe it would be a branding issue. We’ve established that we can make clothes based on patterns and designs other companies set for us, but we have yet to prove that we can create the kind of pattern and designs that the global market would want to buy. This requires a lot of research into global trends and development of our local talent pool, and frankly, not enough investment is going into R&D.
So much of the actual “business” of fashion happens at events like expos. The real market drivers are here, deciding the trends you will see on the catwalks and in stores a few seasons from now. We need to be in on those conversations, to become more conversant about global tastes and aesthetics. Only then can we forge a Bangladeshi design aesthetic that we can sell.
We also need to do a better job of presenting ourselves at the expos we do participate in. I think there needs to be a stronger dialogue between the Export Promotion Bureau and the BGMEA, a policy on the overall brand story and aesthetics so that the subsidies provided by the government are utilized in a way that represents us in the best light at these international events. You go to one of these big buyers’ markets and see the pavilions from other countries, the way they have branded themselves, and you see the Bangladeshi pavilion, and you will see what I mean.
And this isn’t limited to the global market. What is fashion? What you’re wearing, what I’m wearing now is our personal style, that’s not fashion. We’re a small fraction of the population here. What the masses are wearing, that’s fashion, however we may feel about it. And that’s the market that our neighbors are capturing because they are better able to promote and sell their aesthetics. If we’re losing the brand identity game on our home ground, how do we think about competing in the global arena?
So what is the way forward?
As I said before, we need to really invest in R&D. Instead of focusing on scaling up our existing factories and companies, we need to be learning how to do more with less. Quality and not quantity. We need to really start optimizing on sustainable approaches, and value addition, and create a cohesive brand story that we can market. If we can do this, the future is very profitable for us. If we don’t, we stand a very real danger of being left behind in the next decade or so.