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Q&A with Ummaima Jahan Dawood, Director at DJ Agro Ltd on Bio-Textiles and Sustainability within the Fashion Industry

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What is the history of DJ Agro Ltd and FRC Bangladesh?

FRC Bangladesh (Fiber Resource Centre), as the name implies, is an organisation that researches and develops plant-based fibres with the objective of developing them into bio-degradable fabrics with commercial value. The organisation, however, has broader social and environmental goals. While the environmental goal is self-explanatory - developing environmentally-friendly fabrics - the social objectives include introducing innovative ideas in the agricultural scene of Bangladesh as well as generating employment in the less privileged farming communities. The parent company of FRC Bangladesh is DJ Agro Ltd which stands for DesherJonno (translation: For the country). FRC’s genesis lies in a not for profit project founded by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC Bangladesh), an international development organisation. After the completion of the research project, MCC was looking for a like-minded company to start off on a commercial stepping, and it was spun off to DJ Agro Ltd, both for the organisation’s social objectives and the expertise of Mr Dawood Farhan, CEO of DJ Agro Ltd, in the field of organic agriculture, marking the birth of FRC Bangladesh.

Can you tell us a bit more about the business model? We know there is a very important ethical approach when it comes to FRC workforce. (Tribal groups and former sex-workers)

Following the pineapple harvesting season, the leaves from the fruit are usually piled up on the street sides, but these leaves have a damaging effect on the environment, leaking methane gas and they are also unsuitable to be fed to livestock. The initial objective of this project was to utilise this dumped resource to develop plant-based fibres for yarn and fabric. In addition to its green objectives, the organisation employs ethnic tribal minorities and women wanting to rehabilitate from the sex trade.

What triggered your interest in bio-textiles?

I was intrigued by bio-textiles from an early age, when it was introduced to me by my mother, Rosy Dawood, who is also the Chairman of our company. I wanted to explore more and get to know the people behind it! Eventually, learning about the fascinating history of Bangladesh’s rich textile industry, famous for Muslin, khaadi, jamdaani, silk and so much more, peaked my interest more.

There are many initiatives worldwide developing technologies around bio-textiles, in what way is DJ Agro Ltd/FRC unique?

FRC Bangladesh is not just an all-natural bio-degradable fabric, but aims to be a force for positive social change. The organisation’s objectives are to promote the use of natural fabrics, made 100% in Bangladesh, to create employment and rehabilitate socially marginalised people into mainstream employment. We intend to make it an epitome of ethical labels. While being socially conscientious and environmentally friendly, FRC is also fast developing to become more and more commercially viable. FRC Bangladesh is constantly looking to better its customer experience by keeping ahead of the innovation and the fabric’s value rests in its versatility, appealing to a wide spectrum of industries through its multiple applications. In summary, its uniqueness is in its ability to combine all these factors under one umbrella.

How does the processing work? How do you turn pineapple leaves into threads and fabrics?

Pineapple leaves are bought from farmers during the harvesting season, which also serves as an additional income for the farmers. These leaves are then processed by hand and machine to extract fibre. The fibres are then washed and dried to finally make them ready to be spun into yarn and fabric. No chemicals are used in the entire process, thus leaving no carbon footprint!

Extracted Fiber 580 Pinapple Threads

Consumers today are increasingly concerned about the ecological impact of manufacturing processes like colouring and dying, what is FRC’s view on this?

The concept of FRC Bangladesh revolves around an ecological standpoint and hence only vegetable dyes are used to keep the process all natural. This is still a rather unexplored process in many parts of the world. Our ranges are limited at this point as we work with only four basic colours but we offer various shades in the colour frames.

In this sense, what are your views on the limitations of bio-textiles within the apparel and footwear industry, especially given the growth of ‘fast fashion’, utilising inexpensive fabric mixes in the West?

Bio-textiles is not able to keep up with the high turnover of fast fashion, but the question is if one should consider this as a weakness at all? Keeping up with this fast turnover rate, while pushing the cost down, exerts a lot of pressure on the supply chains, but brands need to cater to the needs of the millennial for whom fashion is fast moving. On the other hand, bio-degradable fabrics are able to provide superior quality, durability and the satisfaction of being a clean label, albeit at a higher price and slower pace, but it is worth the price and wait.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the implications on the supply chains and are showing preferences for more green and ethical labels. However, given the extent of social activities and need for variety at more accessible price points, it is harder to forsake fast fashion altogether, but it is likely that consumers will mix and match both for the unique value proposition of each type. In the end, both are complimentary and bio fashion can even help fast fashion to slow down its pace a bit, thus reducing the pressure on the supply chains: a win/win situation for all.

Alternatively, do you think the upper-segment of the clothing industry (luxury brands) could be keener on moving towards this territory? Is this where you position your fabric?

The FRC Pina Silk Fabric is positioned in the luxury line, owing to its regal feel and look. The texture has an inherent sheerness and sheen, making it suitable for glamorous evening and wedding wear.

What type of customer do you think is especially keen on these materials?

A diverse range of consumers are interested in our products, but mostly those who are looking for ethical labels. However, others too have been drawn by the uniqueness and the look and feel of the fabrics.

What kind of industry players have shown interest in the product?

A very wide range of players have shown interest in our fabrics. Designers keen to work with new products and explore the concept of eco-friendliness have shown an interest. Some accessories manufacturers think our texture offers something different to their offerings. FRC Pina can also be positioned as skin friendly, particularly for baby skin. We have even had interest from footwear designers. I have been requested to produce fabrics with different patterns, during the weaving stage; something that I am currently looking into.

How do you see the business evolving in the short term? Is this an enterprise focused on the textile side of the business or more on the final product (clothing) side?

I would definitely have to say that the versatility of this product makes it that much more interesting to venture further out in different areas. FRC Bangladesh started off as a business offering just textiles and yarn, wanting to be sure footed with its initial offering first. Now that it has been received so warmly in the industry, a final product line is being developed at present, scheduled to be launched at the end of March/April this year, for both local and international buyers. The finished line will comprise of luxury womenswear and menswear, a casual range of womenswear and menswear, and also a luxury home textiles range. We are also looking to launch a luxury babywear range soon. We are planning a fashion show at the end of this year, the aim of which is to showcase product applications and connect with designers who are working with natural fabrics/dyes/handwork and similar works, locally and internationally, to expand our network and raise the profile of FRC products globally.

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