We want to remove the stigma of ‘Made in Bangladesh’3 years ago
Alf-Tobias Zahn interviews Anna Troupe, Head of Fashion Design and Technology at BGMEA, Bangladesh.
Alf: It is more than a pleasure having this time with you, Anna. You are new Head of the Fashion Design and Technology department at BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology. In this position you are trying to unite education with industry to advance design skills and sustainability know-how in Bangladesh. How are you connected with Fashion Revolution Day and the project Trace my Fashion?
Anna: I’m involved in Fashion Revolution Day and the Trace my Fashion project because Bangladesh’s activities for this event centered on the design students in my department and their engagement with industry sustainability leaders to learn about best practices. My role was to organize and guide them while interfacing with industry stakeholders on this initiative as a Communications Head and Strategic Partner.
“All the momentum for vital change in the garment sector is here”
Alf: How long have you been in Bangladesh – and why Bangladesh?
Anna: I’ve been here eight months and the short reason why is that all the momentum for vital change in the garment sector is here, because of Bangladesh’s significance as the second largest garments exporter and the site of the worst disaster in garment industry history.
The longer, more personal story of why I came to Bangladesh is that I entered and won a fabric design competition in 2011 that was created to support the weaving communities in the Sirajganj district of Bangladesh. Just a few months before I had very randomly discovered Muhammad Yunus’s book, Creating a World without Poverty, and decided he was my new hero and role model. After I won the fabric competition, I learned that Yunus was behind it, which was so cool because the fabric design had to symbolize “hope” and I had to include an essay explaining the symbolism. To realize that my new hero had now read my personal philosophy of hope, and liked it, really meant something to me – it felt like destiny I guess, so I took it seriously.
Then I discovered that I had just relocated to the vicinity of the top textiles program in the world, NCSU College of Textiles, so I applied to do my masters there. And within a month of starting my studies, some funding for sustainability research became available and they hired me to focus on this. But my advisor believed helping companies go green was the greater concern while I suspected that companies were jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon to tap the “green market” while neglecting the human capital in their supply chains. Then Rana Plaza happened and settled the debate.
Meanwhile I had met Yunus at a conference he gave in North Carolina and struck up a friendship – he was very supportive and responsive to me. The day of the Rana Plaza trageday, I was in statistics class in North Carolina when I saw the news on my phone that day. The day after the collapse, I wrote Yunus, offering my condolences and asking to help and he invited me to come to Bangladesh for Social Business Day 2013. At that event I met philanthropists who appreciated what I was doing and encouraged me to return the following year. I almost didn’t do it because I’d graduated and felt the pressure to find a “real job” but luckily I came to my senses at the last minute, flew out, had delayed flights the whole way, took 4 days to arrive, missed the Social Business Day 2014 conference, but managed to connect with the philanthropists and secure funding to relocate to Dhaka and continue my research.
While visiting I learned about the need for design faculty at BUFT and was dubious because I’d never envisioned myself as a teacher. But I met with them anyway and they were so supportive and willing to let me work part-time that I decided it would be wise to get firsthand experience with the future employees of the industry I was hoping to improve. Later I lost my research funding because the donors were having to pour resources into a different project, so I made a proposal to BUFT for full-time work and they asked me to lead the department.
Alf: How many fashion students do you teach in the moment?
Anna: I currently teach 97 students myself, but there are 756 total in the department.
“We want to remove the stigma of “Made in Bangladesh”
Alf: As you said before, you have a personal relation to the Rana Plaza tragedy and a professional relation to the textile industry. You are also part of the team behind Fashion Revolution Bangladesh. Can you tell me more about the other team members and what do you want to achieve with your actions?
Anna: The country coordinator for Fashion Revolution Bangladesh this year is Bangladeshi fairtrade designer, Nawshin Khair. The larger Fashion Revolution group is a British NGO comprised of designers, academics, scientists, industry leaders, and other stakeholders. Fashion Revolution Bangladesh is currently a collaboration between BUFT, myself, Nawshin, as well as a Hong Kong-based non-profit called Lensational which provides photography training and job support to disadvantaged women such as garment workers. Fashion Revolution Bangladesh is a part of a larger consumer awareness campaign to promote better transparency and more ethical labor practices, with the specific mission to remove the stigma of “Made in Bangladesh” by highlighting the sustainability initiatives of progressive factories here.
However, Fashion Revolution Bangladesh is also a long term effort to achieve much more than that. Together we are investigating the relationship between the shortcomings in the local education system and those of the Ready-Made Garment sector, while developing training solutions to improve both, and spurring dialogue on these issues among the local and international communities that are involved. We hope to make the annual Fashion Revolution Bangladesh campaign activities a course in the BUFT fashion curriculum, as well as provide internships to students, and continue to engage industry leaders in teaching design students about sustainability, ethical practice, and compliance. We’ll also focus on gender equality in the sector by targeting female graduates specifically and informing all students about this issue.
Finally, we aim to raise the sustainability and leadership skills of Ready-Made Garment mid-level management through more advanced training programs which currently don’t exist in the country, which is why so many of these positions are held by foreigners.
Alf: Can you tell me a little bit more about the 4 case companies of your actions, especially: why have you chosen exactly these companies?
Anna: First, the companies we chose were willing to participate, which is significant because there are plenty of great progressive factories who are nevertheless skittish about shining a spotlight on what they are doing right now, especially in something that seems like an activist movement focused on the Rana Plaza disaster. Our work for next year’s event is to spend much more time in outreach, to help the industry progressives see the benefits of what we are trying to do.
Second, we chose two fairtrade and/or impact-focused firms with alternative business models as well as two mainstream factories who are producing for many big name, conventional brands, but who are regardless making great efforts to reduce environmental impact and improve the social impact.
Desh Garments was established in 1977 and was the first export-oriented Ready-Made Garment factory in Bangladesh. The import and introduction of garments technology itself is credited to Desh Garments, which in 1978 sent 130 workers and management trainees to be trained at Daewoo in South Korea. We thought introducing Desh and its journey to the students at BUFT and wider audience will help us understand how Bangladesh came to be one of the leading countries for Ready-Made Garment business.
Beximco is a vertically-integrated factory in Dhaka that supplies for major brands as well as its own local label, Yellow. In terms of work environment, it is SA8000-certified and boasts a stunning campus and facilities, including on-site medical care and childcare. So it is already setting a high standard, but we were also interested in its impressive waste management initiative: For nearly three years, it has been developing and producing upcycled clothing, or clothing that is made entirely from the scrap of other garments (pre-consumer waste), under the guidance of Aus Design, from Estonia. This is part of its dedicated sustainability department, which we wanted to highlight as an ideal for other factories to replicate.
Living Blue is a fair trade concern, where the artisans not only get a fair wage and democratically manage and run their own businesses, but also have total control over profits. The surplus generated by these various social enterprises contribute to the general well-being of local communities and help to create sustainable social, cultural and economic life.
Friendship’ Colours of the Char’ works in some of the hardest to reach areas of Bangladesh that are almost completely deprived of government or non-government amenities and facilities. These are mostly disaster prone areas comprised of inhabitants who are almost completely dependent on agricultural based livelihoods. In order to ensure constant sources of income, Friendship ‘Colours from the Chars’ provides Vocational Training Courses and alternative income generation options. It also empowers women through training and job placement at its 7 weaving centres. The fabric they make from the weaving centres uses azo-free dyes.
The above four organisations each have unique and wonderful characteristics which add to the heritage of Bangladesh. We want to communicate their stories so that there is a fuller concept behind “Made in Bangladesh.”
“Fashion would truly be a democratized and individualized art that includes and enriches all societies and our material culture”
Alf: Bangladesh is the biggest textile exporter besides China. The future of Fashion in terms of the production will be designed in Bangladesh. So, what do you think: How could the future of ethical and sustainable apparel industry look like?
Anna: This is a great question, without easy answers because the current state is so far gone, and because technological solutions, along with decreased consumption (a presumed fundamental requirement in the sustainability vision) could create massive unemployment for an uneducated labor pool if applied to the current mass-produced business model. So an entirely different approach is needed really.
My vision would be creative production clusters that are provided high-skilled and knowledgeable employees by holistic training programs and global networks in the university system (in terms of international R&D partnerships with hubs in production areas, more cultural exchange programs, and also garment-related social impact programs as a basic component of learning in university-level textiles and fashion programs). Further, these clusters would be nurtured through committed partnerships with buyers and direct relationships with individual customers who care to know the people behind their clothing.
The orgs and businesses within these clusters would value their empowered, multi-skilled workers and take responsibility for the stability and growth of their communities, through all the benefits we already know contribute to an ideal work/life balance and greater gender equality such as we see working so successfully in the Nordic countries.
The concept of mass production and multinational brands would be left behind for higher quality, custom clothing that actually represents an enduring value to the wearer because it is unique to them and required their participation in its design.
Fashion would truly be a democratized and individualized art that includes and enriches all societies and our material culture. Textiles and clothing was, for many cultures and for so much history, full of meaning and personal stories; we lost that when it became an industrialized activity, so bringing it back will help re-instate the value of the producer-artist again.
Alf: Last but not least, one more personal question: What is your favorite clothing and who made it?
Anna: My preferred clothing is vintage, second hand finds, but here in Dhaka that is no longer available to me. I try to buy from sustainable brands like Threads for Thought, Osborne Shoes, and Aus Design’s upcycled clothing, which is made right here in Dhaka at Beximco. I also want to support independent emerging designers whenever I can – Joe Mas with his label ANGEMAS out of Hong Kong is a current fav.
Alf: Thanks for your time, Anna. I wish you all the best for your work in Bangladesh and for the future of (y)our Fashion Industry!
Interview/Text: Alf-Tobias Zahn. This post first appeared in http://www.grossvrtig.de/alftobiaszahn/
Fotos: Fashion Revolution Bangladesh