HK garment siblings raise Dhaka's profile

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

Garment manufacturing wasn't known as the 'rag trade' for nothing. The slang for mass-produced clothing hinted at the varying quality and tough conditions under which it was made.

The decline of the industry in Britain and elsewhere was met in those former powerhouses with a mixture of bitter-sweet nostalgia and relief.

Over the past 25 years, the efforts of two Hong Kong-based brothers have been banishing sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh, one of the countries where the ready-made garment industry has flourished.

At one time, many consumers would have turned a blind eye to exploitative working conditions or products from a supply chain that took a toll on people's health and the environment. Now, attitudes have changed and big clothing brands are keen to assure the market of the ethical integrity of their products. For Bangladesh, much of this is thanks to the India-born siblings (and business competitors) who run their global operations from two separate entities in Kwun Tong.

Another development welcomed by Ranjan Mahtani, CEO of Epic Group, and Sanjeev Mahtani, managing director of Must Garments, is that top executives from the likes of Wal-Mart, Gap and big European brands now see Bangladesh as an essential stopover because of the huge number of products being produced there.

'Bangladesh is noted for the flannel shirt business ... the garment industry was known as a down and dirty business. I have tried to stay away from that,' Sanjeev says. 'What we have done is take the business that was done in China into Bangladesh. That has been the key to how we have done our expansion and the value we have brought is going to grow more value.'

Alongside business acumen and efficient production, both have instigated an industrial revolution of their own in Bangladesh by pioneering vastly improved working conditions and eco-friendly manufacturing, creating opportunities for communities and families. Not only has this more than met the stringent ethical compliance now demanded by the West, it has set the benchmark for better conditions among other garment manufacturers.

By the end of this year, Ranjan hopes to have put the finishing touches to his second fully certified green factory in Bangladesh. Epic already transformed its factory in Dhaka to stringent Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards by the United States Green Building Council.

'Our flagship building was not planned as a green facility, so that was a more complicated task,' he says. 'But building one from scratch and doing it bit by bit for the evaluation is easier to get the basics right like gas generators and electronic monitors to measure carbon dioxide levels.'

Adopting ethical and eco-friendly measures is not a mere sop to corporate social responsibility. Both agree that a more content workforce makes for better production and staff retention, while energy saving and recycling lead to a more impressive balance sheet.

'Wal-Mart has really stepped up the pressure as every customer is studying what they are buying,' Ranjan says. 'Most customers have strict environmental audits. It's reached a point where we are not only trying for the compliance, we are doing it for ourselves. Doing the right thing in terms of sustainability is cost effective.'

As Bangladesh becomes a vital part of the supply chain, designers and buyers are now spending more time in Dhaka. To cater for this, Must Garments built a 30,000 sqft facility with latest laboratories, showrooms and studios.

'The European businesses are now moving more specialists to Bangladesh for almost everything in garments,' Sanjeev says. 'Designs can be thrashed out on the spot and buyers can see their samples up close without travelling the extra journey to Hong Kong.'

Must's design facility and Epic's green factory could well be the last the brothers build in Dhaka's Enterprise Processing Zones for a while. The pace of growth in Bangladesh has seen a rise in the capital's population, traffic problems and barely any room for more construction.

That is why Sanjeev is planning satellite factories north of the River Brahmaputra so his workers from there have the choice of being nearer their families. Commodity price inflation has been another concern, but one which they believe can work in Bangladesh's favour as manufacturers seek competitive sourcing. The doubling of cotton prices has prompted Epic to make its next big investment: its own weaving of fabrics and dyeing facilities.