Vibrant colours, intricate designs and an array of textures line the shelves of Aarong, Bangladesh’s premier fashion store. But behind these eye-catching and appealing products is the story of how indigenous craft, contemporary design, innovate marketing, social compliance norms and even digital technology came together to develop this brand into what it has become today. Aarong’s background goes back a few decades, when, in 1978, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) was looking to create opportunity for disadvantaged artisans and rural women. Today it has become the favourite shopping destination for Bangladesh’s upper middle class; and with its twenty one outlets, it supports more than 65,000 artisans across 42 districts (out of 64) covering all the 7 divisions in Bangladesh.
Aarong is unique in terms of the different models it employs – in design, production, marketing and sustainability. The design model was initiated by studying and cataloguing the designs of traditional art forms. Elderly, experienced craft persons were hired to help train women. Textile and design services were set up to experiment with materials and technologies, stitching, weaving, and dyeing. Its designers blended the traditional with the contemporary, generating instant consumer appeal, setting off a revolution in trends, making it a model that several other stores adopted as well. On the production front, BRAC decided on a decentralized one in which the work is outsourced to local producers/artisans in various semi-urban and rural areas, rather than operating from a single hub with infrastructure and cheap labour. The artisans work from home or kharkhanas (small factories), which must comply with a certain set of conditions that enable a sustainable work life. In line with BRAC’s business model, 85 per cent of the artisans employed are women. Adding to that, all kinds of craftsmen – from potters to weavers flock here for marketing and support services.
To become a leading fashion label with such a strong national identity, Aarong also took on some marketing initiatives like organizing photo-shoots, fashion shows, exhibitions and other media-focused events. All of these helped to make it the leading fashion house in Bangladesh.
Yet, if there is a singular factor that most differentiates Aarong from just about any brand, it is that Aarong is a social enterprise first. BRAC adopts sustainable practices, and is a member of the World Fair Trade Association. Aarong had integrated sustainability and fair-trade principles into its original business plan 40 years ago. It provides producers with design input and immediate payment for work, as well as marketing and retailing support. In return, Aarong requires that producer groups maintain good working conditions, fair employment practices, and respect for the environment – all principles of fair trade. This consideration for its producers and artisans is another reason why customers love to shop here – they know that the artisans not only receive fair wages, but that their working conditions are environmentally and structurally safe and sustainable. During the time of the Rana Plaza fire, a major Bangladesh garment factory mishap, Aarong stood tall with its sustainability practices well in place. In fact, that was an incident that pushed many brands into reconsidering their ethical practices.
While following sustainable principles, the real back-end challenge in this model was monitoring compliance to these principles. A social audit, which is the practice of evaluating a business’s adherence to the fair trade criteria, is a cumbersome process, especially while using a manual pen and paper method. Here, Aarong has been helped on through SourceTrace’s digital solutions.
By using SourceTrace’s digital monitoring system, Aarong has changed the rules of the game in social auditing. When these annual audits are conducted, the most remote production units can be provided the support they require to sustain a safe and environmentally friendly working area. Being able to centrally analyse their conditions with real-time data makes it an efficient way to provide the necessary consultation to these enterprises. SourceTrace’s solution was customized for Aarong, and the enterprise is happy that geographical limitations will no longer be the reason for ignorance in business intelligence.
“The handicraft sector, which isn’t quite known to be technology driven, is now using a low cost android mobile application, and is undergoing a revolution” – Aarong.
This digitized audit system covers various heads such as environment management, waste management, chemical storage, and others. The field staff of Aarong conduct this digital audit annually, which includes observations and corresponding scores.
For the fourth consecutive year, Aarong continues to use SourceTrace’s certification module. Its management now has the benefit of having the information available anywhere, anytime, and can see at any point, how many producers have been audited. Aarong can claim, with greater transparency than before, that it is a practicing fair trade member. This module allows for follow-up audits to be conducted, and many types of reports to be automatically generated – such as audit report, achievement report, and others – all built into this solution.
Today’s ‘concerned’ consumers demand to know what they are buying, and under what conditions the goods were produced. This has given rise to a new ‘social contract’, in which more and more consumers are entering into this trade-off in which they can enjoy high-quality goods at affordable prices, while ensuring that the bottom-of-the pyramid workforce receives a fair share of the benefits. Through the continued synergy between digital technologies and their application in social compliance, a larger number of producer companies can come into the fair trade system with the kind of ease not imagined before.
Today, at SourceTrace we’re happy to share our moment of pride and fulfillment, having made it as the cover story in the Food and Beverage Tech Review.