Ziaur Rahman, the first-ever Bangladeshi citizen to be the Regional Head of the Swedish fashion brand H&M for Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia, talks about his personal journey towards a successful career with The Business Standard
How did you start your career?
Ziaur Rahman: In 1997, I started my career in the apparel industry at Alana Group as an assistant merchandiser. Before that, I joined there as a computer operator. Then I moved to Ananta Group where I learned the basics of the apparel industry.
In 2002, I switched to a buying office. From 2006 to 2008, I tried being an entrepreneur myself, but that was not a success story. Then I was looking for opportunities and joined the Swedish fashion brand H&M. I have been with this great company since then.
Before taking charge as the regional manager for Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia, I served at the production office of H&M Indonesia.
We know that you were a dropout. Why was that?
Ziaur Rahman: My education was not smooth; in fact, it was rather bumpy! I was an undergraduate student at Jagannath College in 1996 when my father died. His death came as a bolt from the blue. Things were not the same for me anymore. I dropped out.
I had to start looking for a job and joined Alana Group. But I wanted to continue my education, and three years later I earned a BA degree as a private student.
I felt the need to continue my education again 12 years later when I was with H&M. With the inspiration and support from the company, I completed an evening MBA course from AIUB.
What do you have to say to youngsters who are interested in starting a career in the apparel industry?
Ziaur Rahman: Passion and hunger to do something great that inspires and surprises you are very important. You do not compete with anyone, only yourself.
The scope and opportunities for building a career in the apparel industry of Bangladesh are sky-high. Be humble, respect elders, learn from your mistakes. You are not the one who knows everything.
What are the reasons behind the downward export growth of Bangladeshi apparels?
Ziaur Rahman: The fashion retail landscape has changed a lot along with consumers' reaction and perception towards fashion. Our traditional approach to this industry was that it's a "seller's market", but this is shifting towards being a "buyer's market".
The Bangladesh apparel industry is now facing stiff competition from Vietnam, Cambodia and Pakistan. We are still lagging behind in product development, product diversification and production efficiency.
What will happen if these three weaknesses cannot be overcome?
Ziaur Rahman: I am not worried at all. In fact, I am very hopeful because we have world-class factories here. Our approach towards sustainability is unbeatable, and local entrepreneurship is very strong. We are going in the right direction.
Both retailers and suppliers should work together as a team. Investment on human resources and positive approaches are key to improving product development, diversification and efficiency.
Why is Bangladesh losing competitiveness?
Ziaur Rahman: The Bangladesh apparel industry has made commendable strides in safety and sustainability. But the country's reaction to fashion is slow and traditional.
Product diversification is also low. The industry is still heavily depended on cotton. Waste management is not up to the mark. Bangladesh will not be able to attract international brands and retailers if improvements are not made in these areas.
There is a common allegation that the buyers are not willing to pay a better price?
Ziaur Rahman: As I said before, the landscape of the retail industry has changed a lot. The brands are now not only competing on the high street. Digitalisation and consumers' shopping experience and perception have changed the approach of the whole industry. In the new digital world, even a local brand has the opportunity of competing with global brands. The competition becomes very tough. Price is one of the key factors in the competition, but it is not the only factor.
Many brands produce large amounts of items in China and in Turkey where the prices are higher than in Bangladesh. The reason brands are willing to pay more there is because of their strong product development capability and capacity to react faster to fashion.
What is H&M's sourcing approach in Bangladesh?
Ziaur Rahman: Our sourcing approach to this market is very strong and ethical. We will stay here and will be a part of the development. Local entrepreneurship is very strong here, so anything and everything is possible. I truly believe that Bangladesh is capable of overcoming the challenges.
What do you think are the main challenges for the Bangladeshi apparel industry?
Ziaur Rahman: It's time for Bangladesh to go to the next level riding on the experiences of forty years.
The industry should focus on and invest in human resources, new technologies and approaches towards product development, diversification, efficiency and waste management.
How can buyers help increase the capacity and efficiency level of apparel makers?
Ziaur Rahman: As a brand, we provide technical support to all our suppliers. We have a team of 20-plus industrial engineers who assist our supplier factories. We also work together to set up teams at the factories and create a methodology to improve their efficiency.
What is the target of H&M by 2040?
Ziaur Rahman: Our business idea is "fashion and quality at the best price in a sustainable way". We as a brand want to be climate positive by 2040.
Here, Bangladesh can play a vital role because the country has world-class factories which practice sustainability. I must mention here that we already have more than 120 effluent treatment plants, and all of them are "green". This is a great achievement and the credit goes to our suppliers.
At the same time, we would like to drive green energy in our supply chain. I am aware that we have a lot of limitations, but I believe in the local entrepreneurial spirit and commitment towards sustainability.
Why has H&M joined the Sustainability Apparel Forum and Bangladesh Denim Expo?
Ziaur Rahman: Our approach to sustainability is very straightforward. As a brand, we work on energy consumption, renewable energy, reducing carbon footprints and water consumption etc.
It is not a job for only one company. And it is not about one supplier, one person, one brand, and one nation. We all need to collaborate. At one point everyone needs to be aligned.
If you think about doing something to combat climate change, you cannot do it alone. Collaboration is the key.
From this realisation, H&M joined the 2nd Sustainable Apparel Forum and 11th Bangladesh Denim Expo to accelerate the momentum of sustainability and responsible production in the Bangladesh apparel industry.