UK manufacturing: From a new brand’s perspective

In light of recent revelations within the fashion industry regarding the flaws in some areas of UK manufacturing, I thought it would be insightful to share my personal experience from a new ethical brand’s perspective, which details an account of my journey with UK manufacturing.

I have always said that as a brand owner, I want to be as transparent with you as possible, and so I thought that this insight may be helpful to share.

As you probably already know, having the items made in the UK was always the aim for me and the ideal solution, but it was not without its challenges.

From the outset, I knew that I wanted the clothes to be ethically made with sustainable materials, and the accessibility to do that here in the UK was slimmer than I initially expected.

I’m sure you are all wondering why I produced the first collection in an ethical factory in Greece, when my goal was the UK. But for me, ethics were paramount in the search for a factory and at that time, I couldn’t find one which could produce the style I had designed, with small minimums and ethically.

After months of research, I eventually found another independent female business owner who had started ethically making clothes for small brands here in the UK and that is where my current journey began. This has also enabled me to produce the high-quality clothes that are handmade to order here in the UK in order to eliminate as much waste as we can in the process.

DISCLAIMER * Please note that there are several manufacturers that I haven’t approached, as I am not aware of them. There are also UK factories that I did approach, which are ethical and make clothes to a high standard, however due to their higher minimums, availability or specialism in what I design, I was unable to work with them. This is purely an account of the struggles a new brand can face with some UK manufacturing. This is also a retrospective account from 2018.

THE RECENT EXPOSURES IN UK MANUFACTURING IN LEICESTER

The misdemeanours regarding human rights abuses in garment factories in Leicester have been circulating for many years. Before I had even started approaching factories, I was aware that even in the UK, it is important to ask about the ethical standards of a factory due to illegal wages that were being paid to workers and poor working conditions.  

Earlier this month, there were several articles that shone the light on the injustices that garment workers were facing in factories in Leicester, notably subcontracted out to produce for big retailers such as the Boohoo group, amongst others.

@Labourbehindthelabel uncovered that even during the coronavirus lockdown period, garment workers in Leicester were made to work in the factories in order to meet the demand of orders from the online retailer. Notwithstanding the accusations of “furlough fraud, wage theft, and practices which indicate modern slavery [which were] reported”[1] 

However, a BBC article dating back to 2015, exposes the findings that workers in a Leicester factory were being paid as little as £3 an hour. At the time, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), who reported on the issue, described it as “deeply disturbing”.[2]

A further article from the Financial Times in 2018, detailed the ‘dark factories’ that encompassed Leicester, and exposed the unethical wages that garment workers were being paid to make clothes for big retailers [3]

Therefore, the recent revelations raised earlier this month, regarding the mistreatment and unfair wages of garment workers in Leicester, are not new.

The question remains, why is this still happening now, especially when these legitimate concerns have been raised for years?

MY EXPERIENCE WITH FACTORIES IN LEICESTER

When I started looking for manufacturers, as previously stated, I started looking in the UK before I even considered looking at factories in Europe. This was because I wanted to keep it local and go from there.

My first collection was dresses and therefore I needed to ensure that I could find a manufacturer to make the style that I had designed, with the eco-friendly fabric that I had chosen.

I approached a few factories in Leicester that I had found, and had responded to my enquiries, as it is pretty local to where I am based.

One factory in particular that I visited, created clothes for a large well-known fashion Retailer in the UK, and prided themselves on being part of the UK manufacturing sphere.

However, after asking further questions I discovered that the majority of their manufacturing was outsourced abroad, with the minority being made in-house in the UK.

When I asked whether I would be allowed to have a look around the UK side of the manufacturing, I was told that this wouldn’t be possible at that present time.

As the conversation evolved, it transpired that they weren’t forthcoming with the ethical standards that I wanted for this brand, and they were not transparent with me on what they actually produced and who produced them.

There were other factories that I approached in Leicester, that also were not entirely forthcoming when asked regarding their ethical standards, which is why I moved focus.

Regardless of my personal experience, I want to share with you about what we need to be conscious of as brands, and what we need to be conscious of as consumers.

FOR BRANDS:

It is important as brands, that we do not turn a blind eye to what occurs in the garment industry. It is wide knowledge that in other countries there has been a gross abuse of garment workers where their rights have not been upheld. I am sure we can all remember the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, 2013, where several garment workers were killed due to the structural collapse of the garment factory that they worked in.

However, it is important to be vigilant to not only the abuses internationally, but also, here in the UK. It is certainly easier to only presume that the abuse of industry workers only occurs in third world countries due to the overall socioeconomics of the country that they live in, however it’s actually much closer to home than we’d like to think, and as brands, we have a responsibility to overthrow the unethical practises that occur.  

FOR CONSUMERS:

Like you, whilst I own a fashion brand, I am also a consumer and therefore ethics and sustainability are my main priority on a personal level also.

As consumers, we have much more power than we realise to help combat this issue and the recent focus on injustices within the garment industry have shown this.

The recent outcry and focus on how Boohoo are linked to poorly paid factories in Leicester, has forced Boohoo to launch an investigation, and no doubt has encouraged other brands to shortly follow. Therefore the mounted pressure has caused the company to stand up and take notice to what is occurring in their supply chains, in order to gain back consumer trust.

As well as Boohoo, the retailer Quiz, has also dropped their ties with a Leicester factory due to recent revelations [4]. Therefore demonstrating, that finally big retailers may be taking notice to consumer concerns around this issue.

We also do have to be mindful that when clothes are being sold for extremely cheap amounts, regardless as to whether they have been bought in bulk and huge quantities (which there’s a concern of potential waste there), it is extremely unlikely that somewhere in the supply chain, there isn't a person losing out.

Modern slavery was actually something that I intensely studied as part of my degree, so it was a topic I am well aware of, and passionate about, which in turn, fuelled my desire to work with a factory who was not a part of this system.  

It’s unfortunate that sustainability and ethics costs more in the current climate. But if you are looking to buy a genuinely ethically made garment, with genuine sustainable materials, at this present moment in time, this does come at a cost.

As a brand, I want to make VIRIDY as affordable as possible, but I refuse to compromise the ethics or sustainability on route.

 

Grace x

 

[1] https://www.instagram.com/LabourBehindTheLabel/ 

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-31531924

[3] https://www.ft.com/content/e427327e-5892-11e8-b8b2-d6ceb45fa9d0

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/dfc6157f-3524-482c-8187-ed2eadb92a20