RMG in Bangladesh: Changes in the horizon

The impact of the RMG industry on our national economy has been mostly positive; at least on the surface. Implementation of relatively new technology like data science and machine learning is shifting business practices today.
The RMG sector might be in for big changes. And they might be vastly different from your expectations.

How it has worked

RMG and textile industries in Bangladesh have been mostly local in the past. They were efficient at the time, based on the nature of customer demands and buying behavior. And the production schedule matched the seasonal buying behavior of consumers of apparel in the country.

The business model has worked so far so well based mostly on the lower wage demands. The mixture of these few factors, along with many more variables created a favorable environment for textile businesses in the country. And the subcontinent by extension.

How RMG has changed

Automation brought on the biggest string of changes in the textile industry in Bangladesh. We moved on from hand sewn products to a more mechanical approach. But the dexterity of workers in operating machines remains an important factor to this day.

However, the workers are not dexterous enough it would seem. While we remained productive in comparison to our neighbors; hourly productivity remains relatively low from a global perspective. This in addition to rising wage demands and global competition is making our RMG industry less lucrative.

In addition, customer behavior is evolving. We have moved on from seasonal buying to more intermittent strings of purchases. This is driven by online presence of companies and prompt response times of platforms like Daraz or Aliexpress. We want things fast, and we want them all the time.

Factors of the next big change in RMG

Data analytics and AI is shaping the business environment and taking all business across the world in different directions. New supply chain designs based on Big Data about consumer behavior is shifting processes to a more predictive direction.

Businesses are forecasting demand patterns in consumers and filling demands before they are made. This calibrating of customer demands is affecting textile and even fashion industries by extension.

In addition, machine learning and AI is taking fashion modelling and textile demand in newer, weirder avenues. And all things point to the next big change in textile being brought on by data science and machine learning. By the way, check out this neat article on AI doing funky and potentially kinda bad stuff.

Kinship AI aims to revolutionize how garments factories manage their workers

Bangladeshi entrepreneurs aren’t lagging behind in this age of artificial intelligence (AI). A venture named ‘Kinship AI’ has already crossed the national borders, making its way into Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. Kinship AI is a unique platform with a special chatbot, created for the management of the workers in the garments factories. It connects workers and employees to digital technology, thus adding sustainable development and transparency to a supply chain.

Kinship’s journey

Kinship AI started its journey in 2016.  Boutaina Faruq, the daughter of Golam Faruq (Chairman of SQ group), was trying to build a new platform to communicate directly with the workers, take their feedback and thus increase the quality of their life. They owned 5 factories in Bhaluka and Maona. Her husband Rameez Haque helped her. The result of their joint effort was the new communication platform of SQ group, an app named ‘Kutumbita’. The Kinship AI is an initiative to connect the ‘Kutumbita’ app to the global platform.

Read more: How to support the fashion industry for a better RMG sector in Bangladesh

Some garment factories of the country, as well as international brands like Zilingo, have already shown their interests in the Kinship AI platform. Alvi Awal, Shahriar Rahman and Shafkat Alam joined  Boutaina and Rameez in 2017. Alvi and Shahriar look after the business aspects, whereas Shafkat is currently working as the Chief Technical Officer. The company headquarter is situated at Gulshan, Dhaka. Its global activities are conducted from the Singapore office. Currently, there are 12 people working in this venture.

Alvi, the head of national operations, joined this venture after completing his studies from the USA. Rameez and Boutaina currently handle the global management of Kinship AI from Singapore. Their platform is ready to launch in several factories in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and India. The venture has also received funding from some big multinational companies.

Impact on the garments sector

Seema Begum (alias) works at a garments factory in Savar. She told that she can now apply for a leave of absence from her phone, through an app on her android phone. The HR representatives of the company can then immediately respond to that application.  

Kinship AI - Automating HR for the factory workforce
Kinship AI – Automating HR for the factory workforce

Johan Ahmed, Deputy Chief People Officer at SQ group, has informed that they use the Kinship mobile app to easily communicate with the workers. The current user base is estimated to be around 17 thousand factory workers. This app can be used for both giving useful information and gathering their responses. It can also operate as a survey tool. It has made communication between the workforce and management a lot smoother, especially in case of reporting any harassment incident.

Kinship CEO Rameez Hoque claims it to be a unique and ultra-modern workforce management platform based on artificial intelligence.

He reports that it is currently serving 30 thousand workers across 10 factories in the country.

Shafkat Alam, the CTO, says that the use of this platform automates the office management, reducing the management cost. Kinship AI works in three different modes- Kiosk, SMS and App. Workers can respond directly through the Kiosk. The use of artificial intelligence makes tasks easier. Workers can use this platform in both Android and Feature phones.

How Kinship works

There are different modules in the Kinship platform. The easy connection module is named ‘Connect’. There is a provision of automated engagement or response in the ‘Engaged’ module. Chatbots can be used for direct surveys or polls. ‘Mobile HR’ can make human resource management easier. Information given by the users is analyzed through artificial intelligence to predict behavioral patterns of the workforce. The platform can generate forecasts of the worker’s risks, contentment, health as well as attendance.

Kinship AI - Engagement for the factory workforce
Kinship AI – Engagement for the factory workforce

Last year, they received funding from the Techstars’ Impact program in Austin, USA, as well as from an Omidyar network named Humanity United.  Alvi further informed that the Kinship Kiosk has been implemented at two factories in GEEBEE (Savar EPZ) and Hoplun (Gazipur). A UK based company named Gain uses this platform to monitor nutrition programs in readymade garment factories. But Kinship isn’t limited to being a communication platform, it now operates as the workforce management platform of the whole garments sector.

The biggest brands in the world have taken to artificial intelligence-based platforms to head into the age of the fourth industrial revolution. A domestic venture like Kinship creates hope among entrepreneurs of our country. Responses from several big international brands have set them on a path towards success.  

How to support the fashion industry for a better RMG sector in Bangladesh

The RMG sector in Bangladesh is one of the largest in the world (second only to China). The global fashion industry is woven into our economic well being; with a complicated relationship between development, growth, the well being of labour and the use of environmental resources. The impact of the industry and how it may transform is vital to our country.

A call for change

Following the disastrous events of the Tazreen Factory Fire killing 112 people in 2012 and the Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013 which cost more than a thousand lives, a shock-wave rippled through the global fashion industry. Incredibly inexpensive and fashionable clothes have become the norm; however, suddenly, companies and consumers were talking about the conditions under which these clothes are made. A novel sense of awareness about the ethics behind fast fashion emerged.

There was a rising demand for production facilities of higher standards, with it many changes were put to place. Since then, many factories have move towards compliance. However, with an industry as large and difficult to monitor as the RMG, many factories continue to violate regulations, continue with environmentally harmful practices and employ labour in poor conditions.

Source: The True Cost

So, what needs to be done for the RMG sector to innovate, and become part of a more equitable global system? What is already being done, what are some of the exemplary initiatives that we can support as conscious consumers and decision-makers?

The role of factories and brands

Using innovative technology solutions

Pressing concerns have meant that the industry has to use the latest tools and technology to transform processes and systems. Factories can incorporate innovative technology solutions, such as have a performance management platform. One such platform is Kinship, which allows the factory workers to be connected with management. Factory owners can communicate with thousands of workers across multiple factories. The platform streamlines administrative functions like taking leave immediately, for increased productivity and efficiency. More importantly, it gives an avenue for the workers to voice their concerns, report issues. Factories can also give announcements, put out urgent alerts keeping the workers safety and wellbeing in mind. Socially aware organisations can reach the workers through this omnichannel platform- push personalized content about health and nutrition.

How to support the fashion industry for a better future for the RMG sector in Bangladesh

Becoming certified and becoming of global standard

Factories can become LEED certified. This certification contains nine prerequisites– including requiring construction materials with less carbon emission, saving electricity, preserving rainwater and having enough space to build houses, schools and bazaars within 500 square metres of the factory for the workers and their families.

Bangladesh is the country with the highest number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) certified garments factories. 67 garments factories hold this license, with 8 in the top 11 LEED – Platinum certification list.

RMG Bangladesh. “Green Garments Factories”. March 28, 2018

Improving methods of production

Factories can innovate in terms of the technology they use for production. For example, extensive water is required to dye textile. Some companies are minimizing the harmful externalities of the chemical process of dyeing by significantly minimizing water and chemical use. One method is to use pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water as the solvent for dyes. (4)

Establishing institutions to improve transparency

Solutions require good data and so many of the issues in the RMG sector, like the amount of pollution created by the industry or the levels of efficiency ensured by activity, is data-centric. Sufficient data does not exist to corroborate much of the claims made about the RMG sector.

Although, Bangladesh has managed to attain significant success without a centralised research centre for RMG, we need to invest in credible and timely research.

China, the leading exporter of ready-made garments, has an institution dedicated to conducting research and collecting data, called the China Textile Information Centre (CTIC). A similar strategy of investing in research centres will be a step in the right direction. The collection and analysis of data can inform decision-makers about which areas to prioritize. Additionally, factory owners and exporters can use the data to research and develop more productive and efficient systems. Research will increase transparency. Non-compliant factories can be held accountable if there is more information.

Your role as a consumer

Given the state of the environment, the onus does not rest with the producers alone to ensure fair and sustainable production of garments. Fashion is personal. Fashion helps people express themselves and form identities. Fashion can be an expression of cultural heritage or provide an outlet for artistic pleasure. Thus, as the world rethinks its approach to fashion, individuals must make more conscious choices. Consumer choice enables an industry into making valued, ethical, and high-quality products.

Buy less

Perhaps the simplest solution to being ethical about our wardrobes is to simply stop buying. To clarify, stop buying impulsively and unnecessarily. With much of the world at the heels of Black Friday (an ‘online tradition’ increasingly finding traction outside the United States, where it originated), this is perhaps the most crucial time of the year when we must check our own impulsive consumer behaviour. It is time to start pause before purchases and ask ourselves critical questions before making shopping choices such as– why am I buying this? Is there any other item in my closet that serves the same purpose? How long am I planning to use this clothing?

Social media, such as Instagram influencers who are now key players in the marketing and advertising of major and minor fashion brands, have fueled this culture of wastage (wearing clothes once or twice after the ‘gram) and purchasing, with daily doses of discount codes and unboxing stories. As a push back, social media personalities are now raising awareness about these issues. Accounts such as instagram.com/aditimayer are educating followers on the factors to consider before donating clothes.

Watch where you are buying from

Globally, there are companies which are recognizing this shift away from fast fashion and incorporating strategies in response. Some brands are moving towards a circular fashion market in which items can be reused or repurposed at the end of its life. Retailers and online platforms such as Poshmark and Tradesy resell used clothing to consumers. Some companies like Patagonia’s Worn Wear buy back their own clothing.

Locally founded ethical fashion initiatives

In Bangladesh, an online thrift store has opened up recently on Instagram called Pet Rock Vintage that resells vintage items of clothing sourced from different parts of the world, all of which are include the era and style of the clothes as well as transparent details of their condition.

Another initiative known as Broque has been founded by Mahenaz Chowdhury. Broque encourages their customers to bring old pieces of clothing which they no longer wish to wear and Baroque then finds a creative way to reconstruct the outfit to make something completely new.

“I want to make people aware about where their fabric is coming from and what consequences that purchase has on the nation, people and climate.”

Says Mahenaz, founder of Broque

As revolutionary and necessary as this concept is, shops like Broque
are boutique and cannot enjoy the low cost of operations that comes with scale. This brings us to the next point.

Buy less but pay more for what you buy.

If customers are more ethically aware about the origins of our clothes, they must quite literally pay the price. Long term thinking requires sacrificing the convenience of buying the latest, most fashionable items at dirt cheap prices. Instead, a conscious consumers can understand that higher prices may mean that factories will pay fairer wages for garments workers. Additionally, we may more care of an item– exchanging and sharing– being reluctant to easily replace it or throw it away into the landfills.

It’s time to return to our local ideals and tradition

In this part of the world, there is a existing practice to hand down sharees, shawls and other items of clothing that have been hand-made with care and love across generations. These items carry sentimental value; when they choose to wear a nokshikatha sharee of their nani’s they, in essence, perform a ritual that shows respect and admiration for the craft and labour that went behind the making of the garment.

While, things such as “up-cycling” are trendy buzzwords these days, it is and was common for our mothers and her mother’s generation to creatively transform old clothes. Ornas become stitched into sleeping pajamas, elegant lehengas are made from sharee fabric, second to none in quality and beauty. These practices have been ingrained in our culture and region long before West-centric consumerist culture swept across the world.

Sustainable way forward

How to support the fashion industry for a better future for the RMG sector in Bangladesh 3

Much of the conversation surrounding fashion in the modern day can seem depressing. With many of us passionate about fashion, it can seem that we are being robbed from some of the activities we most find enjoyable. Although change is difficult to adjust to, the reality also presents itself with a host of opportunities to continue being fashionable, sustainably.

In terms of environmental impact and worker’s wellbeing– the factories and retail brands must assume huge responsibility in the way they do business in the future. Some have been forced to take action already. For others, the pressure must arrive from the consumers, environmental activists and governing bodies to change the course of direction.

Rubana Huq: breaking glass ceilings

Rubana Huq, the managing director of Mohammadi group, is the new president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). She is the first female in the history of Bangladesh to attain this position. Her panel secured a sliding victory at the biennial election.

Landslide victory

Among the 35 available posts for directors, Rubana Huq’s panel, Sammilata Forum, filled all the spots.

1492 out of 1956 voters had cast their votes in this election. Voters were from both Dhaka and Chittagong. The position is a two-year long tenure, resulting in relatively high turnout.

Her agenda

Huq addressed some of the major issues that the garments industry of Bangladesh faces in her victory speech. She stated “all the time people continue saying that Bangladesh is the country of cheap labor. Cheap is not good, but competition is good. We need to change this narrative of Bangladesh.”

Moreover, she understands that several small factories face the threat of being shut down. She emphasized on the need to stand beside them during such times. She plans on tackling such problems in her tenure. The voters resonated with her powerful vision for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s garments sector is often under scrutiny by the Western media, especially around issues about low wage and abuse. However, Huq adds perspective and highlights inaccuracies in these negative campaigns. She aims to fix these issues and improve the image where the reality is better than it is being portrayed. She hopes to encourage better practices in pricing, introduce more innovation and policies for sustainability.

Huq, an exemplary person

Apart from being a celebrated entrepreneur, she is also a prolific writer, a poet and a philanthropist. In 2013 and 2014, she was in BBC’s list of 100 outstanding women. Her accolades include wining the SAARC literary award in 2006. She has also launched a literary magazine called Monsoon letters along other Bangladeshi writers.

Rubana Huq has actively worked towards empowering women– advocating for women’s economic independence, voicing challenges regarding female garment workers rights. She hopes to bring her perspective and provide solutions to improve women’s conditions. Over 5000 women work in factories managed by Rubana Huq; and believes that these women are slowly changing their own narrative through their work. Always humble, she acknowledges that there is still a long way to go. Most of these women are still not truly emancipated in their own lives, but the work continues.

Striding forward in a male-dominated industry

More often than not, women have lived in the shadows of men. We can see glimmers of hope in moments like these. Bangladesh’s cultural norm and practices continue to limit the capabilities of our women-especially when it comes to advancing to positions of authority. Rubana Huq has often spoken at length about the challenges in being a woman and paving her way in this industry. Often, she has felt alone and powerless in her journey, but we are very fortunate that she managed to cross the hurdles that she encountered.

Women like her are gradually changing the narrative for working women in Bangladesh.

each and every woman in Bangladesh is fighting in some way or the other to move forward. As more women are in positions of power, attitudes both at home and the workplace will shift.

She is truly an inspiration for all of us. Here’s to more women being in positions of power and striving to improve women’s lives collectively. We look forward to a day where a woman attaining a leadership position in Bangladesh won’t be the reason behind headlines everywhere, but rather it would be the norm.