Once considered a cheap sourcing location with unsafe factories by some international buyers, Bangladesh has come a long way in just ten short years: After the deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions in 2012 and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013, Bangladesh sourcing seemed at an all-time low, its reputation tarnished as a manufacturing destination.
Many naysayers predicted then that the damage would be beyond mending, but just ten years later, eight of the world’s top ten LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) garment factories are in Bangladesh; 18 of them recently got recognised at the Sustainable Leadership Award. In addition, with 48, almost half of the world’s top 100 LEED-certified factories are here, with hundreds more coming up.
FashionUnited wanted to know how that was possible and what the situation was on the ground and visited the Green Smart Shirts Ltd. (GSSL) factory when in Dhaka for the Made in Bangladesh Week. GSSL is owned by PDS Limited, which manages supply chains for major brands and retailers worldwide including American Eagle, C&A, Carrefour, Pantaloons, Primark, Topshop, Reliance Trends and Walmart. Apart from Bangladesh, the group has sourcing and manufacturing operations in Turkey, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and China.
A shockingly serene campus
The factory consists of eight buildings of varying sizes, which have been arranged on an area of eight acres (32,000 square metres). Upon reaching the factory and strolling along the road that leads to the main building inside the sprawling compound, one member of the visiting party exclaimed, wide-eyed: “You told us we would be visiting a factory; this looks more like a resort!”
And indeed, looking at the two-storey, red-brick structures that blend harmoniously into the landscape and the lush, tropical vegetation of palm trees, Gulmohar trees, tall bamboo plants and even a lotus pond, one might mistake the factory premises for a peaceful oasis. Especially after the hustle and bustle and honking of Dhaka’s never-ending traffic, the silence in Gazipur is soothing. Though a major industrial city and textile hub only 25 kilometres (16 miles) north of Dhaka with a population of close to six million people, one would not know it, as factories are spaced out and compounds are lush, green and quiet.
That is, except for the upbeat music coming from the loudspeakers installed inside and outside the different buildings. “Music makes everything better, has a calming effect and helps keep up the tempo,” explains Fateh Ul Islam, managing director and CEO of Green Smart Shirts Ltd. “The workers like it and it breaks the monotony,” he adds.
Green building features
Ul Islam is happy to point out how many green building features the LEED Gold-certified factory sports: Recycled building materials were used when constructing the factory and high performance glass reduces heat and makes maximum use of natural light. Energy-efficient lighting inside reduces light pollution, and the slanted roof of the main factory halls balances heating, ventilation and air efficiently. Overall, efforts have been taken to improve indoor air quality. The factory also has a sewage treatment plant and maximises water efficiency through rain water harvesting with an underground tank that holds 600,000 litres of water.
In terms of building, fire and electrical safety, all designs were approved by the government and the Accord and Alliance. The factory also has its own automated fire hydrant system, sprinklers throughout and fire doors that will contain a fire in a certain area should one break out.
By this December, GSSL will also have a one megawatt solar power plant in operation, which will not only bump up its LEED certification to Platinum status but fully cover its complete energy usage, which is currently 800 kilowatt. And speaking of energy, when construction started in October 2016, there was no power in the area around it; GSSL had to connect it to the grid and now has its own power station and a one megawatt stand-by power generator.
As mentioned during the Dhaka Apparel Summit talks, nowadays, it is not possible for a factory to have just one accreditation as different buyers adhere to different standards, often their very own. Accordingly, GSSL boasts a host of accreditations, from the Accord and BSCI to Oeko-Tex, Sedex and Wrap.
The factory makes men’s formal and casual shirts as well as women’s tops, blouses and dresses, with about 50 percent devoted to each mens- and womenswear and the same ration for wash and non-wash garments.
“GSSL started in July 2017 intentionally with a soft opening, with only two lines, and then grew gradually to its current capacity of 30 lines and between 800,000 to 900,000 pieces a month,” explains Ul Islam. This amounts to around 10 million pieces a year.
The factory currently employs about 3.000 workers, 90 percent of them women. The plan is to double capacities by 2025, to 60 lines, a workforce of more than 6,000 workers and a volume of about 18 to 20 million pieces a year.
The warehouse, which seemed big upon opening, now is bursting at the seams, with a second facility needed. The material is about 80 percent imported as buyers determine what kind of fabric and from where they would like to use for a particular garment.
The working atmosphere has changed drastically from just ten years ago, with smart factories leading the way. GSSL currently operates only one shift, from 8 am to 5 pm, and optional overtime of two hours after that. Wages are above the minimum wage, as Ul Islam assures, “we have to stay competitive,” he says. There is also an additional attendance incentive of 800 takas (around 7.50 euros).
Any new worker is put on the training line for a month and shown the trade before being put on a regular line. Then, there is more training for specialised and technical work. Apart from the job at hand, the workers also experience team building exercises and celebrate festivals together. “Valentine’s Day is very popular here,” reveals Ul Islam, “and retention rates are high”.
What about Covid times? “We had zero cases of Covid,” recounts Ul Islam proudly. “The workers were very disciplined, followed all safety instructions, and got two doses of the vaccine. They were also not traveling outside like the management, which was hit harder.”
Speaking of management, one area that could be improved - as in so many other industries - is women in leadership positions and women in technical jobs. Though efforts are underway to train the women, it is a slow process and technical (and thus better paid) positions are still mostly staffed by men.
A day in the life of a garment worker
Let’s look at what the typical day of a garment worker at GSSL would look like to get a better idea: The worker would reach the factory gates from her home, most likely in Gazipur, just before 8 am, stepping off the free shuttle bus together with her toddler. She would quickly drop into the fair price shop at the factory entrance to place her order for household staples like rice, oil, wheat but also soaps and shampoos.
Then, she would drop off her child at the factory’s childcare centre, located right next to the health centre, before proceeding to her work station on the factory floor. After putting on her vest indicating her to be a “line bandhu” or “line friend” ready to help with problems, she would sit down at her Juki sewing machine to sew the arms onto a blouse for a well known western brand. In her lunch break, she would go to the childcare centre to have lunch together with her child.
At 5 pm, her shift would be over. Sometimes, she may do overtime until 7 pm. Then, she would pick up her child from the childcare centre and visit the fair price shop again where the groceries that she ordered in the morning had been packed and are ready to be picked up; payment is done electronically. As she exits the gate, she may realise that she needs cash and enters the ATM located on the factory premises. Once outside, she may pick up some fresh vegetables from the waiting vendors outside and then - laden with groceries and the child by her side - would hop into one of the waiting buses and head home.
What is Bangladesh’s secret? There is no secret; “green” and socially responsible factories existed even before the Tazreen Fashion fire and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, they were just under the radar of the average international buyer (and foreign media) because they did not make any headlines. That is, until now - for the third year in a row, the Sustainability Leadership Award has been given to exceptional garment factories in Bangladesh, this year to 18 of them, as role models and inspiration even beyond borders.
FashionUnited was invited by the PDS Group for the factory tour.