Mostafiz Uddin: Bangladesh Apparel Exchange
The best solutions come from within. Six years after the fall of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, pioneers are trying to change a broken system - and one of the most compelling forces in the Bangladesh apparel industry today is Mostafiz Uddin. Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Ltd. Established in 2007, well before Rana Plaza, the factory - based in Chittagong, Bangladesh - was ethically pioneering at a time when the many of us remained in blissful ignorance about the reality of clothing manufacture.
Today, Denim Expert is internationally renowned: a cutting edge, fully integrated, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible compliant garment manufacturing plant. Uddin is also founder of the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). The Exchange promotes sustainable practices within the Bangladesh apparel industry through a range of initiatives including the Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF), the Bangladesh Fashionology Summit and Bangladesh Denim Expo. Each expo is themed around a single issues related to ethical concerns; in May, the theme was circularity - in every aspect. At the expo, left over cardboard tubes from all the factories were used to create the stands and displays. The devil is most definitely in the detail.
That’s not all. Within the last year, Uddin has become the first Bangladeshi denim manufacturer to join the UNFCCC for Climate Action; the first contributor from Bangladesh to the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Foundation and the first associate member of the International Apparel Federation (IAF) from Bangladesh. Many in the industry had not even encompassed the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘circularity’ before Uddin started discussing these issues.
At all stages, people are placed at the heart of the work. Uddin looks after his employees, taking care of them when they are ill, paying their hospital fees, feeding them, creating a family based in apparel. Other projects directly embrace diversity: Uddin has helped encourage the empowerment of female employees in the readymade garment (RMG) sector, through the Asian University for Women’s PATHWAYS FOR PROMISE programme. He also pioneered the creation of job opportunities for human trafficking victim survivors and became the first company in the RMG sector to employ transgender employees.
The campaigning is relentless: while factories are now regularly audited in Bangladesh, those in other countries such as China, Africa and India remain lackadaisical. Uddin regularly calls for some kind of governing body to hold brands accountable and make them more transparent - as they have done with the factories in Bangladesh.
“Uddin is a visionary entrepreneur in the development of sustainable apparel systems,” according to Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2019, where he spoke earlier this year. “He is personally driven by social and environmental ethics and is recognized to be a game changer through the introduction of sustainable practices, innovation and fashion disruption, which he sees as keys to the future of the Bangladesh apparel.”
What inspires you?
I want to change the industry; I want to create an example. And change starts with myself. Everyone has a different talent; [this is mine].
The fast fashion industry is responsible for the conditions in which people in other parts of the world live and work. What are your feelings about that?
People should be punished for bad work but rewarded for good work also. We always [refer back] to Rana Plaze but I think we need to [talk about] something new. We need to talk about the changes we’ve made, the things that have been done, the things we still need to do. So this frustrates me: how the good things are not appreciated.
And have things changed in the past few years?
Completely. When Rana Plaza happened, there was no transparency in Bangladesh. Now, 4,000 factories in Bangladesh have been audited one by one; a lot of change has already happened. I’m not saying the changes are enough, a lot still needs to be done - but, at the same time, I want to celebrate the work that we have been doing it.
Are people starting to feel the benefits of transparency?
Changes happened dramatically after Rana Plaza, due to the Accord on Building and Fire Safety and the the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, in terms of transparency and sustainability - and in terms of the human side. I think we’re now the most transparent country in the world. There is not one other manufacturing country in the world where you can find every factory report on the internet, one by one. People can check up on these factories.
But, as I said, there are still a lot of issues to solve. We still often can’t trace where the cloth is coming from, for example. We should have transparency in every aspect - and in every country, not just one or two manufacturing countries. It should be established across all sourcing countries.
What the things that fashion needs to be efficient and responsible?
Everything starts with the transparency. If there is transparency, there will be accountability - and traceability will start from there. Until you are able to establish transparency, how will you make people accountable? But unfortunately, very few retailers and brands publish what comes from where. We’re talking about fibre, yarn; basic things.
What new initiatives can help the most?
Without technology, you can never embrace transparency. The technology is there so it’s about changing mindsets and creating willingness. People are afraid of transparency. They’re afraid of disclosing data because they will then have to take responsibility. They don’t want to - so they’re avoiding it. But many understand that, if we are not sustainable, we cannot stay in business.
Has any of your work been challenged - particularly in terms of women rights and transgender employees?
It was a big challenge - but any new initiative is challenging. I am a very determined person and I am very optimistic. One of the things that helps me is that I don’t talk about who is doing or not doing what. I want to talk about what I’m doing. Change starts from us. I want to be a role model and an example to the people. Last week, the Copenhagen Summit published a report about me saying ‘this is a guy who walks the talk.’ I want to create more and more examples like that.
And you need to make the business case for ethics and sustainability too.
Exactly. Everyone likes to source from a factory that is more responsible, more sustainable, more ethical, more aware of [women’s rights]. The industry appreciates that this makes sense - but the industry is lazy.
Is there anything Western consumers can do to help?
Ask questions. Where are the goods coming from? The more questions we ask, the more pressure will be created. We cannot close our eyes. We should be more concerned about what we are doing in the industry, in the world. People say, the Bangladesh Government isn’t doing this or that. Yes, they’re not doing a lot of things - but that’s not my concern. That’s not my business. My business is what I am doing as an individual. If I can make an impact, I am happy.