The footprint of Bangladesh in the global apparel industry goes back to the early 1980s and by now the industry has achieved phenomenal growth in exports. Until recently, the global apparel sourcing trajectory had been following a cost-based model and always found its way to cheaper destinations. But as the evolution of fashion continues, global trade is increasingly affected by factors like fast fashion, social and environmental compliance, and responsible business. Fortunately enough, the strategies adopted by Bangladesh over the years have mostly been in favour of the industry, which is why we could position ourselves as the second largest apparel exporting country in the world. Our exports reached a value of $29.21 billion in 2017 from a meager $31 million in 1983. In recent years workplace safety has become a major concern for the industry, and after addressing this issue the apparel industry is now making commendable strides towards environmental sustainability.
Smart world, smart fashion
The world is progressing faster in information technology and connectivity through smart devices. Only in 1985 we started to learn how to connect our files in the computer storage through a network system. The world now is virtually connected with almost zero lapses in time.
As we are pursuing a vision of almost doubling our exports in the next few years, technology and innovation are the only way to get there.
We are now preparing to enter an advanced stage where the Internet of Things (IOT) will connect every object to big data and IOT compatibility will be a requirement – be it an industrial good or a personal belonging. Big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have transformed from being mere buzzwords to truly state-of-the-art, leading-edge technology enablers which are now helping many savvy apparel brands enhance customer experience. According to the International Data Corporation, as many as 102 million wearable devices were shipped in 2016 to be stitched into our clothing. Smart wearables are seen as a great value to life and this has marked a new era in fashion evolution.
The dimensions of smart fashion
With the fast pace of technological change, the apparel and fashion industry is on the cusp of a huge transformation. Innovation and technological advances are sweeping the fashion landscape, particularly in manufacturing, electronic retailing, mass customization, and consumer expectations. Apparel manufacturing is set to enter a new era of smart, connected cyber physical systems. The RFID-enabled floor control systems and tracking and monitoring the entire production process in real time at the touch of a button on mobile devices from anywhere in the world is now in practice. Digitization is pervading every aspect of business and leading to higher productivity, reduced costs, reduced man to machine ratios, efficient use of resources, and so on. Nowadays, digital technology enables virtual photo-realistic simulation of garments that makes physical samples and proto-typing redundant. Though automation in apparel manufacturing is not expected to go to the same extent as other developed industries, like automotive, but significant progress has already been made in terms of introducing robots and co-bots on the apparel production floor. Among other future technologies, 3D printing or additive manufacturing could absolutely revolutionize the fashion business through downloadable clothing. With continuous pressure on fashion brands to speed up marketing products and make turn-around time faster for product development, the only way forward is digital. Changing customer expectations are forcing the traditional fashion business models to re-think and change their business especially when they feel the threat from tech-savvy heavy-weights like Amazon and young start-ups like Shoes of Prey, Unmade, Farfetched etc, with innovative ways to serve customers and provide newer and elevated levels of customer experiences, giving the customer what they want, when they want, and where they want. The focus now is on business-to-customer (B2C) throughout the value chain and no longer on B2B2C.
A smart way to pursue the SDGs
The world is increasingly leaning toward environmentally sustainable products and services. Bangladesh was an outstanding achiever of MDGs and is committed to pursuing the SDGs. Our next generations also care about the environment as they make their purchase decisions based on their deepest held value systems. Brands are now paying heed to sustainability and environmental impact of their products, and the whole apparel eco-system is buzzing with innovations. Bangladesh has already made a robust start in the area of green industrialization within apparel. We have 67 LEED certified factories, of which 13 are platinum. The latest technologies and innovations are bringing major solution to saving water, energy, and resources which are of great value to the planet. Bio-fibers, waterless dyeing, and converting waste to brand new fibers – it’s all happening these days.
>Switch-on to smart Bangladesh
In recent times, Bangladesh has made considerable progress in social and environmental sustainability. Now it is time to take a more aggressive step to enhance competitiveness and get compatible with industry 4.0. For us, the big questions are: Are we prepared to cope-up with industry 4.0? Do we have the strategy and required policies to create an enabling environment? Do we have the knowledge, resources, and motivation to go for smart factories? As we are pursuing a vision of almost doubling our exports in the next few years, technology and innovation are the only way to get there. Bangladesh has already started in that direction. There is still a huge technological gap between our industry and those of competing countries. In order to accelerate technological progress, we must invest more in human capital. We need to keep track of the future state of technologies to be used by the fashion industry, what type of skills would be required to operate them, and at what quantity and quality. We need to equip workers with the right skills sets, with tech in mind. Technology will be a game-changer for us in terms of sustaining competitiveness, product innovation, and sustainability. “Manufacturing as usual” will be obsolete in a decade. Are we ready to embrace change?
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited and Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).