As London Fashion Week rolls around once more in September, Victoria Fitzgerald asks why UK consumers insist on buying throw-away fashion, when the nation has an abundance of talented British garment manufacturers available for all our shopping needs.
As I recall, each new university term would bring an exciting new quest for knowledge, and more notably, it generated the glorious tri-annual lottery win of the student loan, and by the culmination of said period my wardrobe would be plentiful, my knowledge minimal and my bank balance diabolical.
A regular “loan day” would entail hitting the shops like Zsa Zsa Gabor after the divorce was finalised. Except I wouldn’t totter home in shiny Louis Vuittons, instead I’d blunder back to the student digs, laden with high-street tat, not even fit to dress a pound-shop Christmas tree.
And to what expense? The monetary value was about fifteen quid, but just over a decade ago, I had no idea that the £1 earrings making my earlobes green were made by destitute machinists making 22p an hour, not enough to feed themselves, let alone their families.
Not only that, but my frivolous spending was perpetuating a cycle that was killing the UK garment industry.
We cannot resist a bargain, and it seems that no matter what we know about the supply chain of a garment company, if the shoes cost £10 and you want them, you’ll more than likely buy them.
However, when we delve deeper into the supply chain we begin to see the very real reason why we should pay more and buy less.
In June last year, the South Wales Evening Post reported the discovery of two handwritten labels found in two separate garments from a Primark store in Swansea, as well as another unearthing in Northern Ireland.
The labels read, “degrading sweatshop conditions” and “forced to work exhausting hours”. Primark provided a statement on June 27 saying, “Nobody should be in any doubt that Primark places the utmost importance on the well-being of workers in its supply chain.” [See footnote]
Primark investigators concluded that the story was a hoax, particularly because the garments were made on different continents but contained strikingly similar labels. Hoax or not, the reports struck a cord because they came just two months after the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed 1,138 lives, 140 of which were never found.
Supply chain issues have been thrust into the public domain and as a result, several initiatives emerged to raise awareness of the process.
Fashion Revolution, which began on April 24 2014, one year after the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, is a global coalition of designers; academics; writers; business leaders, and parliamentarians calling for systemic reform of the fashion supply chain.
Along with a host of awareness-raising events the initiative started #WhoMadeMyClothes, where consumers were encouraged to take a selfie with the labels in their clothes and post on social media, asking the brand to reveal exactly who made them.
The organisers of Fashion Revolution Day reported 71 countries officially participating this year, up from last year’s 60.
What does this mean for the UK garment industry?
Rana Plaza is an extreme case, and in instances where UK firms are producing overseas from ethical establishments, the fact remains that it is still cheaper to manufacture overseas. This creates huge problems for young designers and the industry as a whole.
Britain’s offshoring trend and rise of manufacturing in China, India and Eastern Europe has seriously damaged UK fashion manufacturing.
In 1977, more than 900,000 people were employed in fashion manufacturing in the UK, by the end of the last century this figure had fallen by 85%.
Reputable clothes manufacturers produce overseas for two significant reasons: the first is cost, because offshore production of large volumes is cheaper; and the second is because of a greater quantity of skilled labour and specialist workers.
Established UK brand, David Nieper faced a very tough decision a couple of years ago whether to take business offshore, explains managing director Christopher Nieper, “We chose to stay in Britain and have never looked back.
“Since then the company has grown every year and we’ve remained steadfast in our commitment to local British skills.”
The Derbyshire-based firm is setting up a sewing school that will be run by two of its most experienced employees, one of which is Carole Shaw, senior supervisor, she explains: “Our trainees will start by getting to know their machines and develop thread control.
“They will learn dressmaking essentials including cross-stitch; overlock; lockstitch, and bar tacking. We start with paper patterns to learn the basic principles then progress to a range of different fabrics including cottons; silks; elastics, and wools, and learn how to work with each.”
This re-appreciation of UK textiles goods and skills has been active for some time. According to EEF, there has been 10 successive years of export growth in the UK textiles industry and in the past five years sales across clothing and garment-making sector have surged 20% to £11.5bn.
Also, initiatives like Make it British are raising the profile of the industry, proving that it is still thriving in the UK and providing valuable contacts and advice for existing and start-up businesses.
Make it British has been a valuable tool in strengthening a ‘Made in Britain’ brand that equates to quality; craftsmanship; endurance, and ethical production and as Nieper tells The Manufacturer.
“The ‘Make it British’ symbol has become something of a badge of honour, and a symbol of brand integrity among the fashion and textiles industry.
“Customers like to know where their clothes are made and there is a tremendous appetite for well-made good quality British fashion.”
Buy cheap, pay twice
Regardless of this renaissance, clothing manufacturers producing in the UK have great difficulty competing with those manufacturing outside, as Sarah Watkinson-Yull, founder of UK shoe manufacturer Yull Shoes, told me, “I can’t compete with firms like Marks & Spencer that are selling leather shoes for £20, when it costs me more than double that to make mine.
“It’s just annoying, all my friends have these nice, nude pumps and I ask them where they got them from and they say ‘M&S; £20’ and I think to myself, ‘Why do I even bother?’”
But to eliminate this bargain hunting culture, she says, is to promote the idea that consumers should invest in quality, “If you are going to buy something cheap, it’s not going to last as long, so you’re better off saving the money and buying something that’s going to last. If you buy cheap you have to buy twice.”
Not only this but the situation is exacerbated by government charging VAT on products that are purely manufactured in the UK; she explains, “If government want to function as ‘heroes of the economy’, small businesses need to see immediate action and decreasing VAT should be at the top of the checklist.
“It’s much harder for small firms to absorb 20% VAT, instead we have to pass the cost on to our customer, reduce stock levels and dig deep to find other ways to save cost.”
The entrepreneur says that a decrease would significantly help her to invest in skills within the business.
“It is a massive struggle finding skilled employees. All the people that make my shoes come from Cyprus and Greece. They came over and that’s the only reason we were able to do it in the UK. They worked in a shoe factory in Greece, which went bankrupt and that’s the only reason we have been able to have the skills and to start making shoes in England again,” she explains.
As always the problem comes down to education. If skills like these aren’t publicised in education, industry and by parents themselves, we will never attract young talent into the industry.
Watkinson-Yull emphasises the importance of education, advising those thinking about starting a similar venture, “Put in the time to start training people. I also think it’s known as a blue-collared job to be a manufacturer and not so glamorous. That has to change, it is a really skilled art and people don’t seem to understand that, they think it’s a labourer thing.”
At the beginning of her journey, industry experts told her that to manufacturer stilettos in the UK was impossible, “They said it was too expensive, that it wouldn’t be a business and that we didn’t have the skills here anymore to do it.
“With a small grant from MAS, I’m about to expand my range even further. I’m proud to be supporting British manufacturing and predict my sales and turnover will increase by 30% next year as a direct result of their support.
“International customers love British-made products. When I began, everyone told me that it was hopeless to try and make shoes here and that I should give up. I was determined to prove them wrong.”
Watkinson-Yull started Yull Shoes in 2011 while she was still at university. The 25-year-old entrepreneur self-financed the venture at first and then in 2012 was given funding from the Prince’s Trust to manufacture in the UK.
Now almost five years on, the brand is stocked in boutiques around the globe and has opened up a studio in Battersea. Half of the full range are 100% sourced and manufactured in the UK.
The other 50% are made in China. However, Watkinson-Yull makes it very clear on the packaging which ones are which and it can be easily told by the price. The Chinese shoes are more fun, while the British shoes are much more classic.
Watkinson-Yull is dedicated to providing a boutique luxury, affordable brand that strives to be truly British through and through: designed, inspired and manufactured in Britain.
Watkinson-Yull is one of the only independent shoe brands manufacturing high heels in Britain and in July this year her business partnered with Staffa Shoes in East London to produce her range of high heeled women’s shoes which sell in Europe; the US; Asia, and the Far East.
Sustaining the momentum
Continuing the upward trajectory of the sector will be maintained by industry connecting with education to attract talented, young people, so manufacturers won’t need to look to other economies to find the skills they need.
British manufacturers need to see the benefits in producing here, as Nieper puts it “The winning combination Britain can offer is quality and short lead times and ethical production.”
So the next time you find yourself queuing at 5am for the Next sale, ask yourself why? For a bargain? Or for a classic garment that will last and look good for a decade? As Watkinson-Yull so eloquently put it “if you buy cheap; you buy twice”, or even more.
A statement released by Primark: June 27 2014
Primark’s investigation concludes that Swansea garment labels are a hoax
Nobody should be in any doubt that Primark places the utmost importance on the well-being of workers in its supply chain. Primark would not sell clothes unless we are satisfied that they were made in accordance with our Code of Conduct. It is for this reason that we take all allegations of breaches of our Code extremely seriously from any sources.
Indeed, we make it easy and accessible for workers in our supply chain to make contact with us confidentially, through a variety of sources, if they have any concerns.
Our investigation into the labels sewn onto two garments bought separately from our Swansea store in 2013, has led us to the conclusion that it is more likely than not, to have been a hoax carried out in the UK. The labels are clearly from the same source.
It is almost impossible to imagine circumstances in which such similar labels could have been sewn onto the garments at the factory where they were made, given that they were made by different suppliers, in different factories, on different continents, one in Romania and the other in India, thousands of miles apart.
However, both garments carrying the hoax labels, were bought from our Swansea store in 2013. It may be no more than a coincidence that an exhibition of labels of a similar kind was held in Swansea, also in 2013. Visitors were encouraged to sew labels, using similar wording and appearance to the hoax labels, onto clothing.
Primark is continuing to investigate the discovery of a note in a pair of cropped trousers in Northern Ireland, with investigations being carried out in the UK and China. We are also investigating whether there may be any link to the hoax Swansea labels.