Nurjahan Begum has taken her extensive supply chain experience in Bangladesh and Canada and co-founded a social enterprise in the form of clothing brand Progoti, created to improve the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh through future financial security.
In this interview, Nurjahan discusses the genesis of the Progoti idea, how its unique model works, and the progress made so far. She finishes off with her wider hope for the industry’s future and how we can all pitch in to make that vision happen.
You can learn more about Progoti, follow its progress, and shop online at www.progoti.ca.
What is Progoti about?
Progoti is a social enterprise clothing brand offering its products at cost, covering all expenses, and gives customers an option to add voluntary contributions. With these contributions we purchase individual life insurance/pension policies for garment workers in Bangladesh. We are empowering customers to vote with their wallet and improve the lives of garment workers.
Priority is given to workers who are directly involved in producing Progoti clothing and who have worked in the industry for a long time.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
I worked for over 10 years in the fashion industry supply chain. I have seen how workers’ welfare is not considered in the decision-making process of any brand. Most fast-fashion brands source garments from Bangladesh for its low labour cost with the result that it is the workers who pay the cost – physically, financially and emotionally. I dreamt of finding a way to do something about this imbalance in the supply chain.
My previous experience working with international development organisations showed me that often a lot of the resources spent through international agencies go towards policy-making and the management of aid, while less money actually trickles down to the grassroots level.
Similarly, in corporations, the highest margin of a product goes towards managing the business, real estate, selling and marketing, rather than the actual labour force, which has created widespread social inequalities around the world, including in Bangladesh.
I wanted a business model that can improve social inequalities and reduce the gap between one end of the supply chain and the other. A win-win solution for all.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
The idea came during a work/vacation visit to Bangladesh in 2017 with my partner, Neil Taylor. We had planned some factory visits to develop some samples and build relationships for the wholesale side of our business. During our (long, slow Dhaka) commutes to and from various factories we discussed different ideas about what garment workers needed and what might be done to support them. We were not in a position to change the wages of garment workers on the whole, because of our limited influence. We needed something that we could control and oversee directly without interference.
We decided to create our own brand with the model of collecting voluntary customer contributions to fund…something on behalf of garment workers. After some discussion, we chose to focus on pensions as something that garment workers cannot afford themselves but that would provide longer-term security for them. Purchasing individual policies attached to each worker ensures they won’t lose the benefit if they move factories or leave the industry for some reason (starting a family, etc.). It enables us to maintain control of the programme because it is between us, the insurance company, and the worker – factory owners/management are not involved. 100% of all contribution money goes towards these policies, which have the additional benefit of life and accident insurance for the workers. Finally, we pay the workers a higher amount than usual when they work on our product lines.
Two benefits: Customers are happy to get a quality product at an affordable price and have the option to make a direct impact on workers’ lives.
After we returned to Toronto, we surveyed 120 people and found that 78% of people were supportive of the idea and would be willing to make contributions to a model such as ours.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
The greatest fear/concern was funding the business and finding the necessary sources of income/funds until it reached the stage where it could be self-sustaining. We are not there yet but we continue to grow on both the Progoti and the wholesale side of the company, which is encouraging.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation?
Our initial product lines were developed through personal savings, family support and institutional borrowing. Progoti entered the market in October 2017 and started collecting contributions from both interested wholesale partners and end customers. Each worker’s individual pension policy costs a little over CDN $200 per year. In the final three months of 2017 we raised CDN $1100 and enrolled 6 workers for 2018. This year, in 2020, we have 22 workers covered by the programme.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
We sell our products online, but so far, the largest impact has been through various vendor fairs and small business markets. We have also been a part of various networking events and programmes at different colleges, including the Seneca College HELIX programme for entrepreneurs. Due to the coverage of terrible accidents in the industry (Rana Plaza collapse), a lot of customers are at least somewhat aware of the working conditions but don’t always realise the connection to their everyday purchasing decisions. Many are happy to see that we are providing a means to do something about it.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
Most garment workers live paycheque to paycheque. Whenever I am in Bangladesh for production I talk to the workers to find out what is happening and have been a guest in their homes. Most workers’ income is distributed in three major areas: rent, food and supporting elderly parents or children’s education, if they have any. They do not make enough to save for their future or to cover situations in the event of accidents/death. The industry or government provide little or no safety net or benefits for these workers and that which is provided is of limited utility.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
We did not want to raise funds to support garment workers as a charity organisation. Instead, we wanted to build the connection in customers’ minds between the clothes they buy and the people who make them. We want customers to buy a quality product at a reasonable price and be willing to directly support the hard-working people who have been clothing the world for decades now. The improvement of workers’ lives is a continuous process, not a one-time effort, and can only be accomplished by expanding the effort so that today’s conditions (working, pricing, quality) are seen as abnormal, not the expected. Products with mass appeal create greater impacts because more people are in the market for them so will come into contact with your ideas/initiatives. Our products also provide a direct connection/reminder for customers of what we are trying to achieve.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
Designing the contribution model in the way we did, naturally scales the support. The more customers contribute, the more people we are able to enrol in pension policies. If we happen to plateau at a certain point, the coverage will consolidate there until we are able to resume growing, which protects the business from becoming overextended. It can also be a signal that we need to step up or change our efforts to encourage customers to contribute if something isn’t working.
How do you change the whole system?
We are hoping to demonstrate that customers will support efforts to help garment workers and make the fashion industry fairer and more equitable when given the opportunity. The more Progoti succeeds, the more other, bigger brands can see that it isn’t just about the cheapest products if it forces the people involved to live and work in terrible conditions. Our dream would be for larger brands to adopt our model and help those workers who make their business possible, but by treating them as human beings with needs rather than faceless machines on the other side of the world.
Customers also need to understand the impact of their buying decisions and the power they do have to change the system if they use it. The piles and piles of cheap fast-fashion products in stores wouldn’t be there if customers didn’t continue to buy them. Fewer, higher-quality clothes in stores and clothing companies treating the garment workers who made them as people should be the goal.
By selling Progoti products we encourage our customers to think differently when they buy a product. That’s why we don’t even have a suggested contribution amount. We want customers to stop and think about how much value they are attaching to the people on the other end of the supply chain. We are cautiously optimistic so far.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, who has only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
We, who live in the western world, are very fortunate to have many opportunities to acquire the necessary skills and resources to make a difference in our world. A better world for all is possible if each of us makes even a small initiative. Everyone has a role to play, we just need to discover where our strengths and passions fit. After I started my business, I might have felt tired sometimes, but never bored or unhappy with the work I was doing. Financial is not the only type of reward – my driving force is knowing I have assisted people’s and their families lives for a better future.
Nurjahan Begum is the co-founder of social enterprise clothing brand Progoti. Previously, she experienced all stages of the supply chain working for a variety of companies, including Bata Shoe Company in Dhaka and Hudson’s Bay Company in Toronto.
Prior to working in the supply chain, Nurjahan was involved with administrative support for various health projects in Bangladesh led by major international development organisations including The British Council, WHO and World Bank. She has an MBA from Dhaka University and completed courses in Fashion Merchandising and Marketing in Toronto.
Social Media Handles: LinkedIn
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