Choice: Indispensably branded or ethically slaughtered?

 Published in: The Daily Star on August 5, 2015

One: Long ago, I remember a time when one of our factories under audit came under fire because of an “alleged” child labour case. The woman was 19, yet the auditor thought she was under age. So a doctor’s certificate was not enough and we had to submit a whole range of dental records to prove her adulthood. Today, when Sofia Mechetner, a 14-year old Israeli opens the Dior couture show and 16-year old Lily-Rose Depp lands a photo spread in the September issue of CR Fashion Book, they are treated as “child performers” and as a “role model for the boldness of teens.” Apparently, while Lily-Rose Depp has been introduced by “Uncle Karl” (Lagerfeld), and while Dior’s official spokesman has confirmed that Ms. Mechetner was chaperoned all the time and has gone back to Israel for schooling, the fashion world has already had a glimpse of the transparent gown of Sofia, boosting the sales of the brand. This is the line where international branding succeeds and the failure to aptly brand Bangladesh comes into question. This is where we need to reconcile with our own position.

Bottom line: Without branding, Bangladesh will only be just one more country bragging with an unsustainable RMG basket.

Two: There is not one country, one brand, one retailer, or one person in the world who’s not chasing the brand rainbow. The number of users carrying fake brands is up by the minute. People feel the pull to be seen with recognisable brands on their bodies. As a result, EU textile and clothing sector is losing more than EUR26 billion and up to 363,000 jobs every year due to fake clothes, shoes and accessories. These fakes account for almost 10 percent of the total sales in the sector. Legitimate businesses across EU lose almost EUR43.3 billion of sales revenue and 5,18,000 jobs are lost.

Bottom line: Whether it’s a fake or a genuine product you are wearing, the perception of brands matter.

Three: “Birkin”, a bag of Hermes has taken the world by storm. Very often, it’s out of stock and is priced somewhere between $6,000-12,000 and above, depending on the leather. The British singer Jane Birkin has very recently asked her name to be removed from the crocodile skin versions of the bags, after a video containing footage of reptiles being slaughtered in a “crude” manner was aired. The news of Hermes pledging “highest standards in the ethical treatment of the crocodiles” soon followed. Whether the crocodile was “ethically” slaughtered or not is another question. The fact that we chase such brand euphoria and become brand struck consumers is what needs to be looked at.

Bottom line: Brands can set their standards, non-brands can’t.

Four:  Very recently, Uzbekistan was upgraded on its assessment of human trafficking and the country was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch list from lowest Tier 3 ranking. Uzbekistan has a long history of child and forced labour with regard to picking cotton. Forced labour, in that country is almost compelled by the government. Responsible brands like Adidas, Marks & Spencer, PVH, H&M and a few others have already taken steps to stop cotton from Uzbekistan picked with forced labour from entering their supply chains. Therefore, the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report upgrading the country to Tier 2 comes as a shock to many of us.

On a separate note, retailers in UK are being pushed to play their part in eradicating slavery and human trafficking through committing to comply with the Modern Slavery Bill. In this case, the UK government is going to work closely with Vietnam, “a priority source country”. Under this new initiative, companies over a turnover of US $56 million will have to publish its annual slavery and human trafficking report.

Bottom line: Since, Bangladesh eliminated child labour years ago and the concept of forced or bonded labour doesn’t apply here, the country has to brand itself so that it becomes a brand itself that the rest of the world reckons with.

Five:  It’s been three years since Myanmar has legalised trade unions and just a few days back it has officially registered CTUM (Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar). Now, Myanmar “seems” to be a country, which is currently pledging a number of democratic reforms, where more than 1,400 new local unions have registered, where there has been progress towards minimum wage, where mid and low level education seems to have become a critical consideration by the stalwarts of the industry. Minimum wage is currently proposed to be $3.22 per day, which is also being protested by the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) as they don’t want to pay more than $2.21 per day.

Bangladesh has stabilised minimum wages and is now working towards a more sustainable level of wages based on increased product efficiency and better value added product.

Bottom line: Bangladesh can be branded in a better fashion than many other countries if we so “desire.”

Six: Cambodia, in spite of having massive labour unrests, unstable production units, increasing number of strikes over wages, benefits and alleged labour abuses, still continues to attempt to look better. The French Development Agency and Sipar have decided to invest $640,000 to provide a library resource center at garment factories for workers. This, they claim, will improve opportunities for women to access information and to fight illiteracy. At our end, Bangladesh, too, has many humane stories to tell. . .

Bottom line: Bangladesh just needs to be aptly showcased.
Now, how does a country become a brand?
Unfortunately, branding requires strong assistance, guidance and endorsements.

Firstly, the country needs to subscribe to a “do-good; look-good; feel-good” policy. Entrepreneurs need to undertake good practices, eventually leading us to look good to the rest of the world and ultimately resulting in us feeing good about who we truly have become. Thanks to the brands and their interest in remediation, the country is moving forward and in spite of most of us being critically pushed to be the best in the league, considerable progress is in sight. Meantime, some of us are also waiting for the monitoring platforms to exit the country. That will, however, not solve any of our problems. If we have done good and set up or are setting up good practices in our factories, we need to be noticed, talked about, and written about in the international arena. Most of all, we need to be endorsed. Mutual shoulder patting or self-endorsement will not suffice. Only a national trophy will not be enough. Since we are part of an international supply chain, we need to stay tuned to the international channels in order to be part of an international success story.

This can’t be achieved in isolation or through a smear campaign against any platform where we stand to lose our own credibility. So, if we are to brand ourselves, let’s all join hands so that while we strive towards becoming the best in the world, we will rise to such a position of strength where no one will anymore be able to touch us with any stories of misconduct, failure or abuse.

Bottom line: Bangladesh needs to be indispensably branded for all times to come.

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