Written By: Samira Yeameen
“Create the tagline: Bangladesh means Quality, Bangladesh means World Class:”
Professor Momen on the need for branding and innovation to fuel a paradigm shift in garments industry.
The latest episode of Youth Policy Forum’s flagship series, ‘Talking Policies’ was held on Friday, 11th December. Professor Mohammad A Momen from Institute of Business Administration, Dhaka University, and Dr. Akhtar Mahmood came together to discuss the journey of the garments industry in Bangladesh in the last 40 years and shed light on the possible way forward.
Bangladeshi ready-made garments industry started flourishing in the early ‘80s and after forty years of growth, it now employs four million workers, is responsible for 83% national export income and has become an influential player in the global scenario. With almost 2000 registered factories under BGMEA, Bangladeshi RMG companies are now considered the pillars of the national economy. Professor Momen, director of Pride Group, BGMEA and Bangladesh Employers Federation, credits this success to a generation of entrepreneurs who wanted to do something for the newly liberated country. “Unlike Vietnam, most of the start ups in the RMG sector in Bangladesh were started by locals,” said Momen. “Young people had a drive to counter the ‘bottomless basket’ phrase by doing something exceptional.”
Since the beginning, the industry has gone through stages of technological advancement, improvement in manufacturing process, diversification of product range and overall change in the market. Over the years, factories have adopted automation and the production process has shifted from manual to computerized machines. But all these changes have been mostly incremental in the same paradigm and there has not been any drastic change in the apparel manufacturing landscape. We are still import dependent for raw materials and a vast portion of the sewing in the manufacturing process is still completed by individual workers.
“The government has played a great role to ensure the growth of the RMG industry, especially during a crisis like the pandemic where we lost $3.5 billion worth of orders.” He also acknowledges the easy access to technology, low investment, back-to-back LC for financial security as some of the innovative solutions that fueled the early growth of the industry.
However, Professor Momen believes that our dependence on low current asset requirements and affordable labour cost has given Bangladeshi products a ‘low-cost, high volume’ image in the international market. This restricts the product range that is ordered from Bangladesh and our industry loses the opportunity of producing high end clothing items for European countries.
Besides, the fourth industrial revolution is already transforming the global industry with robotics and automation. Increased efficiency with lower requirements for human involvement can soon become a risk for countries like Bangladesh who depend on human contribution in the manufacturing process. “We have scratched the surface. Even though we are the 2nd largest exporter, there is so much diversification inside the garment industry that’s still possible,” Dr Mahmood reflects.
Professor Momen agrees. Although he does not predict a drastic change in the next 10 years, he warns of a near future when European countries may catch up to our cost competency. “Knitwear has four steps. Our factories are doing all the four steps. Meanwhile foreign competitors have factories specializing on one step only.” Technological transformation is a must to stay in the game and address our low efficiency (40-45%) compared to India and China (60-65%).
But Professor Momen also emphasizes the need for a national promotion as the producers of high quality, handmade crafted items by introducing alternative elements like our local crafts within the RMG industry. “If Nakhshi Katha gets popularized as a high end fashion component, or imperfection becomes a part of styling, human skill will be necessary. Machines won’t be able to replicate it,” he said.
To sustain our competitive advantage, Professor Momen proposes a diversification of product range within the industry. He applauds the new generation of highly educated and skilled employees showing interest in RMG management and urges them to utilize their skill to create technologically sophisticated fabrics, produce materials fit for outdoor clothing lines and sports wear to minimize dependency of imports for raw materials. This can also increase the spectrum of products that our factories are currently producing. He also proposes getting international training and acquiring new skill sets to improve our local work environment and work culture. He says, “One shortcut of improving work culture is bringing skilled people from abroad, but it is not sustainable.”
Professor Momen says that collective effort and national contribution is needed to change how the international community perceives us as a country. He assures that the new generation has already started working towards this change and is hopeful for a continuous growth for our garments industry.