Technical innovation and an increased focus on social responsibility mean Bangladeshi denim is thriving. Denim manufacturing in Bangladesh is on the rise. Five new denim factories have opened in the country in the last five years and five more are set to open in the region. The country's denim industry grew 15.5% year on year in 2014 and 8% in 2015, data compiled by the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association shows.
Western brands, such as H&M, Levi's, Zara, River Island and Wrangler, source denim from Bangladesh, while Marks & Spencer describes it as a "key market" for denim production. And, as the number of technologically advanced factories rises, the industry looks set to grow even further. Consultancy firm Kurt Salmon predicts that an increased focus on high-quality technical fabrics will give Bangladesh a boost, particularly as brands turn away from China, where production costs are increasing.
The focus on innovation has helped, agrees Mostafiz Uddin, who founded the Bangladesh Denim Expo and is managing director of textile company Denim Expert. "Denim production in Bangladesh has slowly come of age over the last few years," he explains. "We have always had a production background, but more recently that production is being combined with more knowledgeable fabric selection, style and wash development, leading to a more informed, upgraded product. Factories are investing in trend-led collections and process innovation. The country has geared up to use the best of the technology that is available today."
Uddin says the use of technologies such as process automation (which aims to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency), low liquor ratio dying machines (which use a lower water to dye ratio to reduce the amount of water used and improve dye fixation in fabric), and servomotors (which allow for precise control of machinery positioning and acceleration), have become commonplace in Bangladesh. Ecologically friendly rainwater harvesting and co-generation heat recovery - where hot gases produced in manufacturing are used to heat water and create steam, which in turn powers additional processes - are also becoming increasingly popular and widespread.
One company using such innovations is Pacific Jeans, based in the Chittagong region of Bangladesh, which is fast becoming a hub for denim mills. The factory has an "innovation centre", which uses market research and trends to develop its product offer. Syed Tanvir, director of Pacific Jeans, says this focus on quality and technology has driven its success - it produces more than 36 million pairs of jeans each year for companies including Zara and H&M.
He told Drapers: "We continuously focus on quality improvement, value addition, adoption of top-of-the- line technology, commitment towards maintaining sustainable and eco-friendly production processes and strict adherence to customers' compliance requirements."
This combination of innovation and value is what makes Bangladesh appealing for brands. Anika Islam, founder of denim label Wåven - which has 300 stockists, including John Lewis and Topshop - sources all of her denim from Bangladesh. She has family connections in the Bangladeshi garment industry and is extremely positive about the region's potential. Islam buys raw ecru fabrics, which are then treated, processed and produced in a Nassa Group factory in Bangladesh.
"I feel there is a huge gain in working with Bangladesh," she says. "I find them very flexible and they understand the process. For us, cost is a big factor, too. We are an accessible price-pointed denim brand, so manufacturing in Bangladesh really allows us to experiment with our jeans. I've done sampling out of China and Turkey - it's nowhere near as good price-wise, and the quality is no different."
Islam has worked with Bangladesh suppliers since starting her brand in autumn 2014. Even after two years, she says, she has noticed that the industry is "hugely different".
"People's attitudes are changing massively - throughout the country and throughout the industry," she explains. "People are more willing to try new things. They see the trends and they want to try them out. They can see that what they're producing is well received across the world and they feel encouraged by it and they're willing to do more."
This shift in attitude can be seen in the increasing outreach of denim manufacturers. Bangladesh now hosts two denim trade shows - Denim and Jeans Bangladesh, and Denim Expo Bangladesh, both founded in 2014. As well as raising awareness, these events are aiming to develop specific skills and knowledge within the workforce.
Uddin set up the Expo as a social enterprise, with the goal of promoting denim manufacturing in Bangladesh and raising standards within the industry. The fifth edition will run on November 8 to November 9, with 55 exhibitors and an expected attendance of 5,000. In July, the expo announced a scheme of monthly workshops and seminars for local designers and developers, through which the expo hopes to develop local talent in the denim sector. The first seminar was held on October 3, focusing on trends, washing and styling. Future sessions will cover advances in technology and finishing, as well as fabric trend directions.
Despite these advances in technology and an increased investment in innovation, the garment sourcing industry still faces lingering concerns over worker welfare, and the memories of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse still loom large for many considering sourcing from the country.
Srinivas Reddy, the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) country director for Bangladesh, says progress is being made: "Virtually all export-oriented ready-made garment factories have been inspected for structural, fire and electrical safety, and those that pose an immediate danger to worker safety have been closed," he explains. "All others are currently undergoing a process of remediation to solve the issues highlighted by inspection reports."
"Significant progress has been made to strengthen the capacity of regulatory bodies such as the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments," he added. "This body is now better resourced, has enhanced capacity and is able to carry out its mandate strategically and in a more accountable manner."
As recently as this September, the ILO announced a scheme to increase the number of Bangladesh fire service staff trained to carry out factory electrical safety inspections, and earlier this month, it launched a programme to train 800,000 garment workers in occupational health and safety in an effort to improve conditions in the country.
While there have been significant changes, Sarah Ditty, head of policy for ethical fashion charity Fashion Revolution, stresses the importance of directly engaging with the issues that remain: "The only way that brands can ensure good working conditions in their chosen factories is to spend time there. Working inside and alongside your factory, understanding how they work, getting to know the people who work there making your products, and finding ways to build trust, honest communications and collaboration."
She advises considering factories that are covered by the Bangladesh Accord inspection programme (set up following the Rana Plaza disaster) and working with ones that have improved their fire, electrical and building structure safety since being inspected. She also suggests ensuring prospective factories support freedom of association, meaning there is a workers' trade union active in the factory.
"This means that workers will have at least some ability to speak out about their working conditions without fear of punishment or reprisal," she explains. "The government of Bangladesh has eased the union registration process somewhat since Rana Plaza, which is a big step forward, but unions are still very constrained, and unionised workers are routinely targeted."
Overall, both working conditions and product quality continue to improve within the Bangladeshi garment sector.
"Traditionally, Bangladesh has been regarded as a volume driven production source where price used to be (more important than) product value and sophistication," says Denim Expo's Uddin. "Attitudes are beginning to change and Bangladesh is gradually being recognised as a trusted source for good-value products, rather than a purely price-orientated manufacturing base."
"In recent years, Bangladesh has taken great strides in ensuring responsible apparel business in the country: whether it be regarding the overall welfare of employees, compliance and dignity. This gives customers extra comfort in sourcing. It is exciting to see the rapid changes in Bangladesh's apparel industry. This is an inspiring development in a country that is traditionally slow to adopt new methods."
Bangladesh seems determined to reinvent its reputation - and as standards of technology, safety and ethics improve, brands are starting to reconsider the country as a sourcing destination
Key stats about Bangladeshi denim
a. US$ 600m (£485m) - the annual value of denim exports from Bangladesh
b. 40 million yards - how much denim is produced per year
c. 22.9% - Bangladesh's share of EU denim imports
d. 30 - the number of denim factories in Bangladesh
Brands manufacturing denim in Bangladesh
H&M, Wrangler, Zara, Gap, C&A, M&S, Levi's, Lee, Replay, Wåven and TAGS