Episode 13 : Push for healthier diets and sustainability for made in Bangladesh

This episode of "Bite the Talk: Push for healthier diets and sustainability for ‘made in Bangladesh’ will tackle how Apparel Brands ‘Made in Bangladesh’ must shift to greener products, safer workspace, and healthier workforce if they want to keep up with new consumers’ trends.

According to the World Trade Organization, Bangladesh, with an export growing to 36 billion a year, is the second largest garment-exporting country in the world after China. So how is the sector faring in terms of the wellbeing of their workers? How can we scale up SWAPNO or the "dream" pilot project that focuses on ensuring workers' access to nutritious safe foods that did wonders for workers in Snowtex Outerwear limited? What are the other current relevant trends for garment factories in Bangladesh?

On her very first visit to Bangladesh, Sadia Kaenzig, Head of Communications at GAIN interviews her colleague Moniruzzaman Bipul, Portfolio Lead, Drivers of Food Systems Change. Both will walk us through 'SWAPNO' for the ready-made garment factories. Enjoy it, share it and comment on it as you, our precious reader, see fit.

Full Transcript below

Intro: Welcome to Bite the Talk, a podcast hosted by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, known as GAIN.  

Join us, as we discuss all things, food systems related: diets, nutrition, environment, health… You name it!  

Meet fascinating people, working in the nutrition and food community.

Tune in to Bite the Talk and let's explore together!

Sadia Kaenzig (SK) - Welcome to this new episode of Bite the Talk "Push for healthier diets and sustainability for 'Made in Bangladesh'.

We're going to talk about apparel brands made in Bangladesh: how they must shift to greener products, safer workspace, and healthier workforce, if they want to keep up with new consumer trends.  

According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Bangladesh with an export growing up to 36 billion a year is the second largest garment exporting country in the world, after China. A sector that employs more than 4 million people, out of which 61% are women, with low wages averaging 96 USD per month. An industry that is booming and very competitive: woven products alone fetched 16 USD billion in 2021, up by 22% from previous year.

I am Sadia Kaenzig, Head of Communications at GAIN, paying my first ever visit to a garment factory in Bangladesh this week.

Reading also a book on Bangladesh at 50, with the motto, "Realizing dreams through humane and patriotic leadership." GAIN and partners here had a dream or a SAWPNO, - as they call it- a few years ago of introducing nutritious, safe food for those working in the ready-made garment factories. That dream of Swapno did come true for workers at Snowtex Outerwear Limited - a leading woven heavy garments manufacturing company - located at 40 km away from centre Dhaka in Dhulivita Dhamrai.  

Armed with 12,000 workers, its major buyers are giant brands like Decathlon, VF corporation, C&A, Bestseller, and Mango.  

Today with me, I have my colleague Moniruzzaman Bipul. He is the portfolio Lead, among many other portfolios and programmes on Drivers of Food System Change, he is also managing the Workforce Nutrition.  

So Monir, tell us what is Swapno, in a nutshell?

Moniruzzaman Bipul (MB): Swapno is actually an abbreviation meaning “dream”. Dream in Bengali it is “Swapno”. Swapno is extending workers access to be part of nutrition opportunities. Meaning this is a factory-driven model and factory drives this nutrition education and food diversification model to make these services, factory owned services, as well as government and business sector services, available to the workers.  

So, their worker can have some nutrition education. That education they can use within the workplaces, as well as with their families and practicing this nutrition education and food diversification practices, they can relate with how they want to see their life in the future, how they want to see their children's life in the future.

So there comes the “dream”. So, this Swapno model, the way it is approaching both workers and the investors, is making a person more visionary.  

SK - Can you tell us a bit what triggered this whole shift in the garment industry here in Bangladesh?  

MB - In 2013, there was a tragedy. We called it the “Rana Plaza tragedy.” So many people died.

News headline clip -  "The death toll continues to rise following the collapse of a building in Bangladesh on Wednesday morning. We didn't want to go up to the factory this morning, but the management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building."

MB - And after this, governments, as well as international audience, both buyers, investors and their governments really tried to make a point that this had to be addressed.

So how this can be addressed? There is some safety compliance need to be installed. There are some [compliance-building] that needed to be installed, and simultaneously, and very significantly, importantly, they address the wellbeing of the workers’ that needed to be addressed.  

In a common understanding with the national and international community, in a common understanding, they developed that workers’ health needed to be more supported. So that factory owners should invest and run the health centres, the children’s nutrition centres, as well as particularly food diversification, food modification: either these foods are provided from the factory or not, that improved diet practice needed to be focused to comply with the factories’ capability, workers capability.  

That's why, after 2013, several years with many several piloting and evidence, nowadays, we are at a very agreeable point that with other compliance procedures, health and nutrition should be [part] of the compliance. That’s why every factory in Bangladesh, even in the global, now are very much focusing on workers’ wellbeing through health and nutrition education.

So, this is a very important point in triggering shifting the whole workers and business-oriented model into the workers' wellbeing model.  

Newspaper clip: "Snowtex is one of the renowned export oriented, diversified, and integrated apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh. The facility offers a medical care centre, with in-house doctor, separate prayer rooms for male and female, day-care centre for their children with amusement and nursing facility. The organization provides quality lunch for its 8,000+ employees on a daily basis, completely free of charge that gives our employees more satisfaction. Its strong security force and system keep the asset safe and secured. All foods are prepared in hygienic kitchen. And hygienic sanitary napkin with subsidy are served to consider health safety of our female employees.

SK: What drives the ready-made garment industry [factory] like Snowtex to implement such program?

Let us hear first, Mr. Abdus Salam, who is the assistant General Manager of Snowtex.  

Mr. Abdus Salam (AS) - When we saw the report, then we understood where we add our food value, then our management had a better understanding of what food value should be.

SK: Yeah, the food value, which is really great.  

AS -  Now we have better understanding of what kind of food we should provide our family members [workers]. And family members also know what food they should take.  

MB -  Before starting the project, they were providing food, not managing any nutritious value, but after starting the project, they are providing food, with nutritious food with diversified value they are providing and after that, factory workers are more energetic and more proactive, and their absenteeism has already reduced, and their productivity capacity already increased. So, these are the main change they have already found by the management.  

One example is that with this type of food, most of the workers have time to take one hour rest in the factory but that was a reduction of their productivity. But since they provide the nutritious food, their absenteeism and their energy have already increased.

SK- Hearing Abdus Salam, what is your take on that?

MB -  From Abdus Salam’s statement, one thing is really highlighted: that is when a factory makes their shipment very timely, then they will make their commitment as well as making their business. So, this shipment depends on workers' capability, workers' productivity, and workers' fitness, because if workers have some health or other sickness, or unfitness related causes, shipment will not be on time.

So directly, factory owners always try to make the options available for the workers' fitness. And that fitness comes from this Swapno model. This is the first point.

Another point is, when workers really learned and practiced about the Swapno learnings, then her or his family environment will be changed. Family livelihood will be changed. Their future generation will be developed in a way that everyone is contributing to the business. So, Abdus Salam's point is very much right, and he articulated the situation very well.

SK -  Walking throughout the factory, we have seen many banners raising awareness on many things, not only about food safety, not only about hygiene, but also some messages targeting women. Let's hear one about women's health in particular. Let's hear her out.

Woman - This picture is saying that, pregnant and lactating women should eat balanced and nutritious food during her pregnancy and after her pregnancy, lactating period, for her and her child. And there are some other,..,  other necessary awareness messages for the pregnant woman. This picture is saying that the child should eat only breastmilk in their first six months, this, these are the main messages.  

SK -  And here we can see also that the factory had invested in even hiring some specialists, nutritionists, and also some microbiologists. Let's hear his take here.  

Microbiologist -  I'm microbiologist, at Snowtex Outerwear Limited Mahmoud Rakib El Rahman.  

MB -  He's monitoring the kitchen and food items from here. And keeps any types of mismanagement he found, or something unhygienic he found, he instantly he instructs them to stop that or to reinvent again.  

SK -  And what can you tell us about your work here?

Microbiologist -  I test every food item from every specimen. I collect samples from every specimen. Then I test it to see if it is poison-free or bacteria-free and then I send a report. If all is good, we then serve our worker.

SK - Monir, with the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine, we know that garment industry is also affected by everything that's happening at the global level. So here let's hear first, what Abdus Salam is saying about how the impact, especially on how the impact of COVID-19 had on his factory.

AS -  Last year during COVID, we faced many problems. To start with, all buyers, hold the shipment. Our production also dropped behind one month, but all the year we were passing very slow season. The shipment already slowed. The Bangladesh government [to attenuate] worker situation provided salary from government. The government ensured some company that if we continue [to pay] the salary, then the government ensured the salary.

SK - What's your take on that Monir?

MB - To cope with this COVID-type of shocks or crisis period, the government was really helping, trying [to support] the sector for not only this single factory, but also all the factories, all the business sectors, they tried to support. One example, the government tried to support by providing at least six month-compensation type of package for the workers, even after a certain time, factory and workers needed to pay it back, but it was a good option for the workers to, at least, make their continuation of the employment so that after the crisis period was gone, they could, again, come to their job and make their duties. This is one.  

Another one is the factory, this sector really explored diversifying their client with different countries, with different brands, and buyers.  

SK -  Because right now, 51% of the exports are going to Europe, right?

MB -  Yes, yes. And sometimes during COVID, the initial state, some orders were cancelled. Then, the factory owner and the buyers needed to explore other countries’ orders.

So, this type of shifting clients and countries was really a different type of alternative process to make a factory run.  

SK -  What is the strategy that we can adopt to scale this up? Because right now we are working in introducing balanced diets for workers in one or two factories here in Bangladesh as a model, as a pilot. And to scale this up to other garment factories in Bangladesh to follow suit, what is the strategy here?  

MB -  This is a very interesting point, Sadia. Actually, it requires from the government end some policy reform or development to ensure to entice other factories, as well as from the factory end, [reform] need to be copped into the factory own arrangement, as well as regulatory monitoring of both government spec policies, as well as factories guideline for the workers' capacity building. This is one.  

Another one is, for the long-term sustainability point of view, from the factory owners end, their associations end, and the government end, it requires some kind of alliance building, so that the health nutrition piece of operation can be continued for not only the workers, but also for the business sustainability. This is the [second] point.

And the third point is, if the whole environment, health, and demand creation is required to make a business more profitable, then every person needs to consider that health system as well as nutrition-based food system, and then coming to the balanced diet and other supplementations need to be continued.

So, all these things need to be strategized more so that a system can be developed within the sector that requires from the policy end to the actors’ end and, ultimately to the consumers’ end.

SK -  Right now, our focus was more about making workplace safer, making workforce healthier. Now going to this greener part of the product that they are producing and delivering. We see that there are some consumer trends, in changing and having that hunger for greener products. This includes the sustainable fashion, right? So, tell us about what the consumers trends are for now. And what is your take regarding the factories in Bangladesh?

MB -  Nowadays, everybody is trying to make our planet [more] friendly. So, from these initiatives, from this Swapno workforce nutrition initiative, so far, we are observing that some factories are making different options, doing different things. For example, they are trying to make their energy a renewable process within their factory premises.

SK -  Let us hear, on this aspect here, Abdus Salam again, talking about the solar panels that they have on the rooftop of his factory.

AS - Considering the environment and fresh air and everything, we extended some area for green plantation, like [inaudible] among other facilities. So, we extended more, and we did the same in another factory we have established in 2019.

SK -  So here we can see from the top roof, big spaces, green space, people relaxing, people walking by, having their rest time. And you can see also the three different sections, and big solar panels on the top roof here. Can you talk to us a bit about the renewable energy that you use in this plant?

AS -  Considering the renewable energy, we have installed this solar for both buildings, so we can cover 10% of total electricity, for emergency purpose. Also, we donate 20,000 USD to another company who produce solar on the government grid as our best practice.  

MB -  The second point is very important here. Managing waste and this food waste has a large volume.  

SK - For 15,000 food that are made for 15,000 workers every day,  

MB -  Every day, they are making food for 15,000 workers – this requires a big amount of raw food items. So, after cooking food, a large quantity of raw food items, they are now producing, supplying to the municipality to produce organic fertilizer. So, this waste management is contributing again to the production cycle of the food items. So, this is very important [what] this factory is maintaining. And particularly, all of us [can consider] for the future other alternatives can be also taken.

For example, they are recycling of their garments, or waste, as a repurposing waste material. They can produce any other items, so they can use these garment items in any other way that that cannot be lost. This is one.

Another one is [that] they need to be very careful to manage the whole value-chain, meaning from production level to shipment level, there is every span of the actions.

So, all actors need to be very carbon-free process of making the value chain so that ultimately, the sector can be more environmentally and economically friendly. This is [another point].  

And the last point, I can mention here that nowadays everything is going to be online, digital process. So, from the global actors, both consumers, buyers, even from the investors, they can make a digital design of any mechanism of marketing.

So that, sometimes physical negotiation, physical purchasing, bargaining may not require. It can be done through digitally, making all the industry and all the actors more sustainable.  

SK - Let me end this episode by praising and congratulating all the stakeholders from government of Bangladesh, the associations, and partners, working in the readymade garment government sector for demonstrating successful public private partnerships and making huge difference for laborers in this industry with great focus of ultimately uplifting the country's economy and bringing women and environment at the forefront.

I've been very privileged in seeing this in person. And I hope our listeners, everywhere, enjoyed it as much as I did.  

Thanks for listening. Stay safe and eat healthy.