James Pozzi reviews the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry Conference, which took place in Leicestershire recently.
With reshoring a buzzword of manufacturing vernacular in recent years, intense focus has been placed on how industry has put this expansive term into action. One sector particularly at the centre of this focus has been the textile sector. With the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) bringing its annual conference to one of UK textile’s strongest hubs in the East Midlands, companies large and small were given the opportunity to discuss pressing industry matters.
The UK: fit for purpose?
At the start of the day, a question was posed: “Is the UK ready for the return of clothing?” If the 50/50 turnout of clothing retailers and manufacturers was anything to measure it by, then it would be a resounding yes. But the reality is there are great challenges currently affecting the industry. As is the general form barring the lucky few, textiles is suffering from a skills shortage, particularly at manufacturing level.
Chris Taylor, operations director at Leicester manufacturer Basic Thinking, encompassed many of these issues in his address. He spoke of being inspired by Top Gear’s recent show which paid tribute to British manufacturing. “For too long Britain has been thought of as no more than a bank,” he said. “But Britain is still the world’s 11th largest manufacturer in a global industry worth £7trn.” Taylor explained the global pursuit of the “cheapest needle” during the 1980s which resulted in mass offshoring of textile production was a particularly key moment.
But Basic Thinking is a company very much leading the reversal of this. Having opened a new facility in Leicester just last year, one of its primary objectives has been to increase its UK output. But in doing this, challenges have arisen on the manufacturing side. Primarily, these challenges lay in those common business bedfellows: regulation and skills. The latter, an affliction described by Taylor as “overcoming bad press,” has seen the company partake in initiatives such as providing 10-week training courses to the unemployed, while it ensures it adheres to minimum wage policies.
But while products being designed and manufactured in the UK resonates with the public, Taylor concluded with the notion that the industry needs local and central government to increase sector contribution to speed up the process.
Following on was Lorna Fitzsimons, the infectiously enthusiastic director of The Alliance Project, established to examine the potential for repatriating textiles manufacturing to the UK. Started by Lord Alliance, the project recently undertook the biggest industry research in over 20 years to discover some telling facts. For starters, the UK currently lies 15th in a global table of textile producers, while its four strongest regions – Lancashire, Greater Manchester, East Midlands and West Yorkshire – lie in some of the poorest communities in the country.
Fitzsimons spoke in depth about the political interaction with the industry, and noted it was interesting to see the look on politician’s faces when told textile too can be classed as high value manufacturing. This is because like the aerospace and automotive sectors, textiles is also looking to use less metals in its manufacturing processes. Having long been overlooked as a hi-tech industry, this is seemingly all about to change with the increase in automation and enhanced design and manufacturing techniques.
Interestingly, Fitzsimons mentioned the recent awarding of a Regional Growth Fund for the sector for £12.8m to spend in regions outside of London and Scotland. Having stated the UK’s textile economy “isn’t just about designer brands, On its board, chaired by a host of leading UK retail names such as Marks and Spencer and ASOS,
Why buy British?
Another local company, Crystal Martin, was represented by executive director Jonny Mitchell, who spoke on the challenges faced in supplying the UK high street. He listed the fundamentals of being a good UK supplier as:
- Design & Innovation
- Supply Chain
But achieving success lies in having the right strategy and understanding the marketplace. While this all sounds very straightforward, manufacturers across many industries haven’t always known their market. Achieving this leads to being able to capitalise on the good will associated with buying British by the consumer, said Mitchell.
Factors behind the British consumers leaning towards buying from these shores are:
- Feel good factor
- Social responsibility
- Speed of response
- Customer demand
- Price + flexibility
- Unique product brand
Adding a new aspect to the common theme of skills, Mitchell said that of Crystal’ 70 staff, the average age is around 50. This coupled with the ageing population and the shortage of key skills in textiles raises problems. Another issue has been in value erosion of products and that old British love of a bargain. Every time you pick up that nice jacket for a steal, someone is taking a hit.
But in overcoming the array of problems, Mitchell believes a collective approach from the industry is key. Owners investing in people and infrastructure, while balancing intake margins, can aid ensure the UK remains competitive against the rest of the world. “The UK needs to act in a world class way,” says Mitchell. “If it can all be done in Bangladesh then we should be able to do it in the UK also.”
Finishing the day’s proceedings was Kate Hills, creator of the Make It British website. As a former buyer for British fashion staples in both luxury (Burberry) and high street (Marks and Spencer), Hills spoke of what she sees as disconnect between the buying and manufacturing side of businesses. In short, not enough buyers are looking at the manufacturing.
Most tellingly, less than a quarter of UK textile manufacturers are proactively looking for business. But while there are many issues and concerns as detailed, the outlook for the industry looks finely balanced. With demand for British products high and the reshoring movement showing signs of moving forward, the future of the industry lies very much in its own hands.