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Social Sustainability from Upstream: Important Takeaways from DBL Group’s People Programmes in the Bangladeshi Apparel Supply Chain

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Sustainable Consumption and Production, Volume II
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Despite the increasing attention of Global Value Chain (GVC) scholars towards multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) for social sustainability, international buyers such as apparel retailers (buyers) keep being referred to as ‘lead’ change agents. In this chapter, I problematize this inherent notion of buyers’ change agency in GVC literature, arguing for the need to understand more deeply the contribution of developing countries’ manufacturers to MSIs and their ability to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from upstream. I do so by conveying a powerful analysis of DBL Group (DBL), one of the most socially proactive manufacturers operating in the Bangladeshi apparel supply chain. By drawing closely on DBL’s approach in articulating its People programmes for social sustainability, this chapter helps conceptualize a three-step governance process based on: (1) learning, (2) integrating and (3) scaling. This process informs how developing countries’ manufacturers can participate with MSIs to lead and diffuse social sustainability programmes in the chain, ultimately helping achieve the SDGs. The chapter concludes with a main discussion on the implications of buyers’ change agency assumed in GVC literature. In so doing, it conveys five distinct takeaways of theoretical and practical import.

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  1. 1.

    DBL is an acronym for Dulal Brothers Limited.

  2. 2.

    In line with Ponte and Sturgeon (2014), this chapter defines “buyers” as global firms that place merchandise orders outside their home country, and “manufacturers” as export-oriented supplier firms operating in the developing world.

  3. 3.

    DBL publishes its annual sustainability reports with reference to the year before (e.g., the first 2013 Report was published in 2014. The 2015/16 report is the only exception where DBL published one report in two consecutive years).

  4. 4.

    DBL created the Bandhan Fair Price Shop programme as in-factory point of sale to provide basic commodities to workers at a non-market rate.

  5. 5.

    The Mothers@Work programme aims to provide facilities and expert personnel to support pregnant and lactating female workers and their infants.

  6. 6.

    The Nirapod programme promotes awareness on health and sexual reproduction issues through peer education.


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I am very thankful to Mr. Mohammed Zahidullah, Chief Sustainability Officer at DBL, and his team for their transparency and willingness to share insights. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Mashook Mujib Chowdhury, Manager Sustainability at DBL, for his continuous cooperation and visionary efforts. It came as no surprise to me he has been selected as the 2019 Global Compact Network Bangladesh SDG Pioneer for his contribution in advancing the SDGs, especially in relation to improving female workers’ welfare. I am also indebted to a large number of experts from development agencies and nongovernment organizations (e.g. GiZ, UNICEF, Phulki, BRAC, CDD) in Bangladesh who shared their insights and viewpoints with me. Part of this research was conducted while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation (CSSI) at the Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. CSSI receives funding from Newmont Goldcorp Inc.

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Fontana, E. (2021). Social Sustainability from Upstream: Important Takeaways from DBL Group’s People Programmes in the Bangladeshi Apparel Supply Chain. In: Bali Swain, R., Sweet, S. (eds) Sustainable Consumption and Production, Volume II. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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