I began a 24 hour Instagram poll with a hypothesis about general perceptions of sustainable garment manufacturing. It was: ‘Fast fashion manufacturing hubs are seen as having less sustainable factories, while premium and luxury manufacturing hub factories are seen as inherently more sustainable.’ I received over 80 responses spanning Vogue editors, fashion designers (from LVMH brands to independents), a fashion retail journalist, sustainability influencers, architects and fashion academics. They spanned the globe, with locations in Russia, Germany, the US, Australia and across Asia. But did my hypothesis ring true?

Throughout the poll my hypothesis was proven, and disproven. This is a complex subject, not least because ‘sustainable’ is interpreted in many ways. For this poll, I quoted the LEED certification as the benchmark in my Instagram post. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. LEED provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. Its certification extends to buildings providing a safe and healthy work environment. In addition, within 500 sq. feet of the factory there should be residences, school facilities, markets and transport stands for the workers. To be clear about the scope, this poll specifically focused on environmental sustainability, not wages or ethics, which I address later in this article.

I did not quote LEED on the Insta Story, so the full sustainable context was on the feed only, however I saw the same pattern of responses in both Insta Stories and in the comments on my feed.

To the results and what they mean:

Votes by country - Most certified sustainable garment factories
Votes by country – Most certified sustainable garment factories

To put the numbers into context, respondents cited varied (and fascinating) rationales. A common thread throughout the most popular response ‘Netherlands’ was a general perception of it being a progressive and clean country with robust frameworks across industry and government to put environmental initiatives in place – so by extension, most respondents thought it would have the most certified sustainable garment factories.

I chose the Netherlands because of “a more generally progressive eco-ethical attitude to consumption” and a “greater than average awareness of climate change because of being one of the first countries in line to really feel the pain with rising sea levels…”

Fashion Journalist and Retail Innovation Specialist, London

My assumption was completely based on (an) economical front. As most certifications cost a bomb, I am not sure if third world countries can initially afford it themselves (Bangladesh) without western companies sponsoring that particular company. In India I have seen most production companies go for GOTS. But I believe there are many more certifications OekoTex etc…. “

Sustainable Designer, London (originally from India)

Italy and China ranked equal second in the poll, closely followed by India, with these rationales:

“China. I did research 6 years ago and found it was changing towards sustainability because the west had asked for it and also because they thought investing in new technologies would be better for business in the long run. I imagine they now have the certification to prove it.”

Fashion Designer and brand owner, London

“India. We have been making sustainable (GOTS certified) tees there since 2005 – they were very early to embrace this with perfect finishing and details and also fair wages, health insurance for everybody and a space for their children on school holidays”

Ninette Murk, Founder, Designers Against Aids

Italy had the fewest explanations and comments as to why respondents believed it had the most certified sustainable factories in the world. This has left me wondering if their impression of sustainability comes from the power of the ‘Made in Italy’ brand being synonymous with premium and luxury goods and strongly linked to craft and quality.

“Italy. I base my guess on the assumption that there are certain EU regulations and maybe the history of more sustainable practice within independent makers”

Emerging Technology Innovator and Blockchain Researcher, Singapore

So to the facts.

The country with the most certified sustainable factories in the world (in terms of overall number, percentage and the most factories in the world’s top ten) is Bangladesh. 55% of respondents citing this were either working directly with Bangladesh manufacturers or had been at a recent event of mine where I presented this statistic. So apart from me sharing this information to some respondents already, Bangladesh would have ranked lowest in opinion (equal to Indonesia and France).

I believe this impression of Bangladesh being least sustainable reflects a number of dominant themes about the Bangladesh garment manufacturing industry. 1, that the Rana Plaza tragedy and the heavy ‘promotion’ of it during Fashion Revolution Week and across mainstream media generally, gives an overall impression that Bangladesh has a poor record in all areas of sustainability and ethics. 2, the general impression that fast fashion manufacturing hubs are unsustainable and premium/luxury ones are. 3, Less developed and ‘third world’ nations are seen as less able to achieve sustainability and best practice in general. 4, many respondents have confused a sustainability rating for an ethical or wage-related measure.

Here is a fuller picture of the rankings:

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Bangladesh’s RMG sector now has 67 LEED green factories. Among them 13 are LEED Platinum rated (the highest rating) while more than 280 factories are registered with USGBC for LEED certification. Indonesia has the second largest number with 40 green factories followed by India with 30 and Sri Lanka with 10.

Number of LEED Certified Green Factories by country according to USGBC
Number of LEED Certified Green Factories by country according to USGBC

Interestingly, one of the respondents not involved professionally in the fashion industry chose Bangladesh, with this explanation:

It was a bit of a gut reaction. I remembered the tragic collapse of the building where so many garment workers were killed, and how shocking that was. Then of course it came out that American and European clothing companies had some of their clothing made there, and that in general it was such an unregulated industry. I wondered if, because of that, Bangladesh and their clothing partners had to step up their game and improve conditions. Sadly I seem to be completely wrong. I’ve investigated a bit more since then and found that not much has changed.

Artist, UK

So despite this respondent correctly answering Bangladesh on impulse, the predominant representation of Bangladesh online gave her the impression that factories in Bangladesh remain largely the same as they were in 2013. I also asked which sources she had researched for her assertion that not much has changed, but I did not hear back. This supports my hypothesis that people’s opinions are being shaped by continuing ‘promotion’ of the Rana Plaza tragedy. To be clear, I am not saying there are no issues to be resolved in the RMG industry in Bangladesh. In terms of ethics, a living wage is not paid to some workers and some factories are still in remediation measures following the Bangladesh Accord. There is still much work to be done. This is not unique to Bangladesh, though, and there are similar issues in the UK, as well as some of the other countries mentioned in the poll. However, these examples are not then attributed to garment manufacture and working conditions in general across the UK and shared worldwide.

In terms of achieving the certification, LEED has 9 conditions with a total of 110 points to fulfil. 80+ points gives Platinum Certification and Bangladesh has the largest number of platinum certified factories in the world. In order to achieve Platinum status the factory must be built brand new, following a framework that can be independently verified by LEED. Existing factories can upgrade facilities and structure but will only achieve a maximum of Gold Certification. The world’s highest-rated green denim, knitwear, washing and textiles mills are all located in Bangladesh. Eight of the top 11 LEED Platinum-certified factories globally are in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry figures
Bangladesh Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry figures

According to the Ethical Trading Initiative, the country’s garment sector not only contributes significantly to national income but has made a real difference in helping raise people out of poverty. The initiative goes on to say that it has helped to transform the country’s economic and social landscape. There is no question of the industry’s importance, since it makes up a significant portion of the country’s GDP.

During my research, it became apparent that European garment factories do not appear to see a need to be LEEDS certified. I wondered why this is. Part of the reason could be that they already have the unquestioned trust of brands and consumers and a clean image. Also, on a financial note, they would have to build brand new factories from the ground up in order to achieve Platinum certification. I spoke to a Bangladesh-based architect and construction expert about the prevalence of LEED certified factories in Bangladesh and Asia generally. His response was “Bangladesh has an image problem”. Meaning that in a global, competitive industry, with negative views prevailing, Bangladesh has to make additional efforts to remain competitive and gain external and objective validation of the progress they have made. In terms of the credibility of LEED, he confirmed it is robust. The equivalent certification in the UK and Europe is BREAM, although LEED is also used, confirmed the expert.

Plummy Fashions Ltd  - plummyfashions.com
Plummy Fashions Ltd – plummyfashions.com

What has driven the huge push for Platinum LEED certification in Bangladesh, apart from the image problem? Ahmed Mukta, the architect and building expert I spoke to, explained that factory owners in Bangladesh have approached sustainability as a business opportunity. They have profits and choose to invest them in green buildings to boost their credentials and help to command premium prices for the garments they manufacture. Through the adoption of new technologies and renewable energy sources it also provides real efficiencies. There is no question of the achievements of these LEED certified factories and they are clearly a testament to the desire to progress and future-proof the RMG industry in Bangladesh. However, this does not necessarily translate to buyers paying a higher unit price for garments manufactured in these factories – “The buyers do not pay even a single cent more for sourcing from a green garment factory,” claims one factory owner.

Why this poll and why now? I just arrived in Dhaka for the Bangladesh Fashionology Summit, taking place on May 2nd. I wanted to get a barometer of opinion on garment factories here ahead of a day of discussions on how the garment industry is transforming through new technologies. As the industry heads towards the fourth industrial revolution, the need to balance climate impact with manufacturing outputs is ever more urgent. Can fast fashion ever be sustainable? This article is essential reading regarding fashion fashion and ethics, and be sure to follow Techstyler as I explore and report on this further as the conversation evolves. For now, I will close with this on point quote from one respondent:

“Netherlands, but Bangladesh might be a surprise – Indonesia peeking through too. Asian countries don’t get enough credit for their stand towards sustainable fashion and more favourable manufacturing”

@mariamaduke, Fashion Stylist, London

More information from the Accord website on Bangladesh LEED factory certifications and those in the top ten can be found here.

More information on the LEED scope and certification process can be found here.