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Mapping Every Factory in Bangladesh, for Transparency's Sake

A new initiative to make Bangladesh's garment industry more transparent is unlike anything that has existed before.
Garment workers in Bangladesh. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Garment workers in Bangladesh. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

When it comes to making the fashion industry more ethical, a lack of transparency can be a huge obstacle. Every time there are new reports of a given brand's environmental abuses or child labor use in the news, it's easy for everyone from consumers to brand CEOs to evade responsibility because they "just didn't know" what was going on. And though that's sometimes a cop out, it's hard to keep anyone truly accountable when information about the inner workings of the garment manufacturing process is often obscure, if available at all.

For decades, this has been true of Bangladesh, which is the world's second-largest garment-producing country. The 2013 factory fire at Rana Plaza in the nation's capital city of Dhaka, which was the deadliest accident in the history of the global garment industry, catalyzed international awareness about the need for better regulation. But it didn't mean that things automatically changed for the better, and the Bangladeshi garment industry has remained largely opaque. 

That's about to change in a dramatic way. On Monday, an initiative to publicly map out every single apparel factory in Bangladesh was announced. Called "Digital RMG Factory Mapping in Bangladesh" or DRFM-B for short, the map will list the location, number of employees, product types, export countries, factory building structure, trade union information, certifications and more for every single Bangladeshi factory that makes clothing. All of the information will be available in a Google Maps-like format once DFRM-B goes live in 2018, according to the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development at BRAC University.

"This will be the first industry-wide database in the world providing this much real time detail on garment factories," C&A Foundation program manager of supply chain innovation and transformation Naureen Chowdhury tells Fashionista via email. "The initiative signals a push for transformative industry change through transparency and traceability, which we believe leads to long-term industry advancements and improved working conditions."

The database will help everyone from consumers to watchdog organizations to brands themselves gain access to important information that can keep all stakeholders more accountable.

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Chowdhury goes on to explain that the program is a scale-up of an initial C&A Foundation-funded pilot that focused on two districts within Bangladesh. After the pilot, the results were shared with a range of stakeholders including trade unions, donors, brands, NGOs, government and a local garment manufacturers' association. The feedback helped C&A see the value of the program and convinced them to try and scale it.

"Trade union participants commented: 'If we had such a map during the Rana Plaza tragedy, we could have reacted more quickly, and we would have known how many factories and workers were in the building and which brands were being produced there,'" Chowdhury notes. "Brand participants stated that the map would help them to manage risk by identifying unauthorized subcontract facilities. The ILO and civil society organizations noted that they would use the map to focus their activities... The primary program outcome is thus a map that would be used by industry stakeholders to gain efficiencies and improve accountability."

While the C&A Foundation is the primary funder, it is joined by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and BRAC University in collaborating on the project, which kicked off on Saturday with an event in Dhaka hosted by the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor. Bangladeshi officials hope that the initiative will help them re-brand Bangladeshi manufacturing for an international audience that may view the "Made in Bangladesh" label with distaste in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse.

Will the DRFM-B project transform Bangladesh's garment industry into an eco- and worker-friendly space overnight? Almost certainly not. But it could go a long way toward making it possible for things to get better, slowly and surely.

"Bangladesh is now taking the lead for transformative industry change," Chowdhury says. "We sincerely hope that other countries will follow suit."

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