4 Common Myths About UK Garment Manufacturing
What are some of the most common misconceptions about making clothing in the UK?
In this blog post, which is part of a talk I gave at Source Fashion in February 2023, I bust some myths around UK garment manufacturing and making fashion in the UK.
Myth No 1 - There Aren’t Many Garment Manufacturers in the UK.
How many UK garment manufacturers do you think there are? One hundred? Five hundred? One Thousand?
There are in fact 4,000 garment manufacturers in the UK!
According to the UK Fashion & Textile Association there are over 4,000 garment manufacturers across Britain. A figure that has increased by 13% since the UK left the EU. The factory pictured above is in North London, and owned and run by an ex M&S fashion buyer, Jenny Holloway. It makes over 15,000 garments a week, for anyone from small brands to big multiple retailers like ASOS, Tesco F&F and N Brown.
90% of UK fashion and textile manufacturers employ less than 10 people.
But the size of the Fashion Enter factory is a rarity in the UK.
90% of UK fashion and textile manufacturers employ less than 10 people.
They are micro factories. Equipped to make low volume, high quality garments. Many of these factories are owned and operated by the brands themselves, giving them the ultimate control over their production. Owning your own factory also gives you the flexibility to make to order, and avoid over-producing. It is a very effective and sustainable way to make fashion as it produces a lot less waste.
Small but Mighty
Despite the fact that the majority of textile firms are small, and that the UK’s fashion and textile supply chain is fragmented after years of decline, there IS money being invested and there are interesting things opening up.
Here are a few examples...
Shahtex - Seamless Knitting
Shahtex is a family textile firm, based in Leicester. For the last few years they were making fabric for the online, fast fashion retailers.
A couple of years ago, the owners of Shahtex had the foresight to see that if they continued to go down this route, where price was valued over quality, they would put themselves out of business in the race to be the cheapest and compete with overseas mills.
So Shahtex invested in several state-of-the-art seamless knitting machines. The first of their kind in the UK. They now make seamless garments and athleisure wear that are knitted on these machines in their factory in Leicester.
Courtney & Co - Button-Making
Courtney & Co have brought natural shell button making back to the UK.
A few years ago the last remaining shell buttonmaker in the UK closed down. David Courtney, who previously worked in the city and not in textiles, saw a plea in Country Life magazine to save the business, and brought shell button making back to the UK. Using the last remaining button making machines and some of the button patterns from the original button business, he founded Courtney & Co. Their buttons are much in demand all over the world, from fashion firms that want to use totally British components in their products.
English Fine Cottons - Cotton Spinner
English Fine Cottons in Greater Manchester the first cotton-spinning mill in the UK for several decades. In a region of the UK where the Industrial Revolution began, it is great to see this part of the textile supply chain come back again.
John Smedley - World’s Oldest Textile Factory
And let’s not forget that we have the oldest-operating textile factory in the world in the UK - the knitwear factory John Smedley. We may not have a wealth of state-of-the-art factories in the textile industry in the UK, but what we do have is heritage and craftsmanship that money cannot buy.
Myth No 2 - No One Cares Where Their Clothes are Made.
You might think that know one cares where their clothes are , but research shows otherwise.
Here are a few reasons why...
The Fashion Revolution #whomademyclothes campaign calls upon brands to be more transparent about their supply chains and ask consumers to question where products are made. There were 4.2 million uses of the #whomademyclothes hashtag in 2021 and 1 million uses on Instagram alone. That’s a lot of people that DO care where their clothes are made.
Searches for Made in UK
In the last 5 years Google searches for the key phrase ‘made in UK’ have increased by 50%. If you search for other terms such as 'UK clothing manufacturer' they are also increasing. At Make it British we’ve seen a marked increase in the amount of visitors to our website look to make locally and buy products that are made in the UK.
Surveys show that UK-made goods are in high-demand
36% increase in demand for UK-made goods over last 5 years*
Research commissioned by Barclays and undertaken by Opinium in 2018 is pretty positive.
They surveyed 8,060 consumers across eight international markets to find out the average price differential they are willing to pay for UK-made products. The research found that demand for uk-made goods had grown by 36%
The Barclays Made in Britain report found that consumers consider provenance an important influence on their decision to purchase products. UK goods in particular are perceived as high-quality, reliable, internationally respected, and good value for money.
Not only are UK-made goods in high-demand, the customer is also willing to pay more for them
93% are Willing to Pay More for a Made in Britain Product - Make it British
When Make it British carried out a survey a few years ago 93% of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay more for a product made in Britain compared to buying a similar product made outside the UK.
90% of Brits Believe it is Important to Buy Locally Made Products - One Poll
And a survey conducted by Onepoll found that 90% believed it was important to buy locally made products, and 44% prefer to buy British regardless of cost.
A Made in the UK label is One of the Most Respected in the World
There have been several reports published over the last few years that have looked into the value of a made in UK label to domestic and international customers. One such study was a global survey carried out by Statista in 2017. The survey asked buyers worldwide to rank countries according to the perceived strength of their country of origin. The UK was the 3rd highest ranked individual country for its ‘made in UK’ label.
Myth No 3 - Making in the UK is More Expensive.
The next myth is that making in the UK makes products too expensive. Whilst the cost of labour in Britain can be more than a lot of other countries, a UK-made product can often be more profitable.
If you are comparing UK manufacturing with manufacturing overseas you need to make sure you account for markdowns. Because if you have bought a big volume of product, chances are you probably won’t be selling everything at full price.
Markdowns and discounting can have a massive impact on a product’s exit margin. Yes the initial costs of making a garment overseas may be lower, but if your sell-through is also lower that bright blue chunk at the top in this diagram gets a lot bigger.
And for the businesses that make orders, that blue block representing markdown on unsold-stock is non-existent.
Read more about the cost of making in the UK on our blog here.
Not the Cheapest, But the Best
UK manufacturing is never going to be the place for high volume, low value garment manufacturing.
We don’t have big enough factories to cope with high volume, and that shouldn’t be what we should be aiming for. Reshoring production back from places like China is not realistic for many businesses and for some product types, and we need to be realistic about that.
Whilst there is a high demand for making in the UK, there is no reshoring rush.
The opportunity lies in the micro factories. The factories that are making high quality.
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers - Craft Jeans Maker
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is London’s only craft jean maker. Founded by Han, whose family have been manufacturing clothing in the UK since the ‘good old days’, Blackhorse Lane jeans sell for up to £280 a pair. They have a dedicated community of fans who are prepared to pay that much for their jeans because they know that they will last.
Johnstons of Elgin - Textile Mill
We make some of the finest knitwear in the world in the UK. One of our largest textile manufacturers is Johnstons of Elgin in Scotland. They have survived because they have not tried to be the cheapest, just the best. They make under their own brand but also for brands such as Burberry.
Joseph Cheaney & Sons - Shoemakers
Joseph Cheaney and other shoemakers in Northampton take back all of their shoes for repair, You can’t do that with something bought overseas.
Something Wicked - Lingerie
Something Wicked is a luxury lingerie manufacturer in Leeds. Making their own brand and also manufacturing for others, in their micro factory in Leeds, which was once full of fashion manufacturers in the UK garment industry’s heyday.
When it comes to making in the UK, we are not about disposable fashion. We are about made to last. Which is much more sustainable.
Myth No 4 - Making in the UK is Unethical.
We’ve all seen the headlines in the news about sweatshops in Leicester paying workers less than £3.50 an hour. And yes, there are some brands that are prepared to cut corners if it means they can make more profit.
Brands must ensure purchasing practices allow suppliers to pay workers fairly
It’s a complicated situation, driven by consumers who want disposable fashion at rock bottom prices, and brands willing to turn a blind eye in order to get fashion made in the UK at Far Eastern prices.
Disposable fashion at rock-bottom prices is NOT what manufacturing in the UK is all about.
Take Jenny Holloway’s Fashion Enter factory in North London as an example. Using the Galaxius software system they are able to track the work done by every single machinist to the minute. They pay performance related pay, which sees no worker in the factory earning below the London Living Wage, and many earn over 50% more than that.
Done Right, Making in the UK Can be One of the Most Sustainable Ways to Produce Clothing.
A report commissioned by the David Nieper foundation and carried out by the University of Nottingham found that 47% less emissions are created by manufacturing clothes in the UK, in comparison to a similar operation in an overseas textiles production base.
The biggest contributing factor to cleaner and more efficient manufacturing in the UK, is due to the lower carbon intensity of the electricity supply network. The UK has significantly lower carbon emissions per unit of electricity compared to overseas production hubs such as China, Bangladesh and Turkey; therefore production in the UK has lower direct carbon emissions – making it a more sustainable manufacturing base.
Apparently a manufacturer in China would typically release around 90% more greenhouse gas emissions than making the same product in the UK. Turkey was 70% more and Bangladesh 24% more.
And let’s not forget about air freight, as often stock is sent by air not sea in order to get it into stores quicker.
The David Nieper foundation are currently calling on the government to create a carbon checker on clothing, similar to the information you get on electrical goods, so that consumers can easily identify the carbon footprint of the clothing they buy.
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This content is part of a talk presented at Source Fashion by Kate Hills in February 2023.
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