The UK textiles industry has taken a bit of a beating over the past few decades. Low production costs in South East Asia led to much of garment and fabric manufacturing migrating away from home soil to lands with lower costs.
Read our blog that covers the basics of the UK textiles industry
But the wind of change is beginning to pick up.
According to the Inter-Departmental Business Register there has been year on year growth in the number of textile and apparel manufacturing companies in the UK since 2013, and many of the big brands and high street retailers have moved towards using some domestic production. On top of that, there’s been roughly a 25% rise in the export of British-made clothing since 2011.
So what could be behind these positive signs?
1. Made in Britain
Made in Britain is still a popular fashion trend, and a positive symbol. British manufacturers have pushed their image of well made, stylish, high quality products, and made a success of it. However, basing long-term investments on the continuation of a fad is the same strategy that left several people crying into their empty wallets with a house full of beanie babies. There is precedent for manufacturing reputations being sticky (German engineering, Chinese knock-offs) but fashion is a different ball game.
"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to alter it every six months" - Oscar Wilde
Higher quality also means higher costs. High-street retailers will be quick to react if consumers start to lean towards cheaper products, and the recent wage squeeze and rising inflation may push consumers away from premium products.
2. Fast fashion and Rapid retailing
One consumer driven trend that is not likely to change soon is reactive retailing.
Thanks to the internet, same day delivery, and advances in manufacturing (4IR) consumers can now get what they want, when they want it. This reluctance to wait became most evident at fashion shows over the past 12 months, with models wearing outfits that, rather than showcasing next seasons look, were immediately ready to buy. The attitude has moved towards ‘see it, like it, buy it’.
This means retailers need to capitalise on fashions by reacting quickly.
Need for speed
To meet these demands UK retailers need to have much shorter lead times and the easiest way to do this is to source things locally in the UK.
Why wait 2-3 months for an order to come from overseas, when you can source it domestically and have it in stores in 2-3 weeks?
This change in consumer behaviour has helped drive ‘Fast fashion’ online retailers. These companies will often test the mood towards a product with an online preview. If a design doesn’t generate interest, then they won’t get it manufactured. If a design is popular then they place an order that will match the demand and quickly have it ready to dispatch to customers.
Having shorter lead times means retailers can capitalise on seasonal variances, and high end retailers can make use of British producers to create small, high quality, bespoke runs for a premium customer base.
“Sure,” I hear you say “it might be faster, but it’s still more expensive”. Well that’s beginning to change too.
3. Don’t rage against the machine
One of the homes of modern mass production of textiles is undoubtedly Asia, where companies have been able to obtain cheaper labour than in Europe. But there are several developments that may entice manufacturers away from these factories.
Firstly, as these countries become wealthier their citizens demand higher wages and move away from manual labour, something that could be causing the reduction in Chinese imports.
Unions in South East Asia have pushed affiliates to counter any government movement that would undermine labour rights or lower wages. The historically poor factory safety record in countries like Bangladesh (a recent boiler explosion in a garment factory that sadly led to several fatalities demonstrates this is still an issue) may further deter UK manufacturers from sourcing from here, although imports were continuing their rise in the first quarter.
On top of these pressures, automation is becoming ever better and ever more affordable. Back in September two companies, independently from each other, produced machines that created entirely autonomously-sewn garments. Though still in its early stages, if machines are able to mass produce clothing then cheap labour will lose its appeal almost entirely.
Things aren’t sew bad
The changes in wages and automation will not be instant, but the reputation of British clothing should help in the short term, until the aforementioned shifts begin to trigger more repatriation. It will still be a difficult process though. You only have to look at Kangol hats (who moved their factory back to the US from China) to see that repatriation can eat into profit margins.
However, there’s some pressure for retailers to make their sourcing more transparent, something that’s more easily done when your supplier is based in Blackburn rather than Bangladesh.
Innovation and careful investment in new technology could help stop the decline in the UK textiles industry but, with a deathly shortage of skills already present, it will still be a rough ride for textiles manufacturers.