Made in the UK - thoughts on textile manufacture

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designtap's onsite green guide for Latitude festival goers. A brief and far from conclusive reflection on UK Vs Global textile manufacture for high street fashion.

MADE IN THE UK

A current hot topic, I keep encountering a renewed desire for British design and that all-important ‘Made in the UK’ garment label. After reading countless defra reports and having worked with one of the UKs leading textile upcycling companies, I am still undecided whether a shift back to UK production IS the best option for the fashion industry.

When talking about global Vs local textiles and particularly fashion production, there is no definitive right answer. My question really is whether the benefits of small-scale British production really outweigh the benefits of manufacturing with a global workforce. As a society we are constantly pushing for a globalised planet, we enjoy working and travelling around the world, we read, watch and eat, ‘foreign’ books, films and food. It therefore seems odd that we place so much emphasis on a garment being ‘Made in the UK’. For a long time I too loved the idea of reviving the old English textile industry and I still think there is room for a partial revert.

For me it is about considering each factor of sustainability, the effects on people, on the economy and the environment. Firstly, you can look at a country like India, one of the largest exporters of textiles to The West. The industry directly employs 35 million people in India and has established the necessary infrastructure to provide for a global market. What will happen to these 35 million people if their jobs become obsolete? It would be preposterous for me to think that there will be an over night shift from foreign to UK production.

However, if their exports become less desirable, there will be a reduction of its scale and a loss of jobs. It is a question of global wealth distribution, I feel that deciding we like things made in Britain would be pulling the rug from under their feet – Your next thought is probably, poor working conditions and bad pay? This is an area we can all make a big difference to and I think this is where the fashion industry should look to expand its influence over the manufacturing process. As the customer, fashion brands have the power to demand that factories are run under certain conditions (many big brands have started to do this). It is also their responsibility to give a fair price to the factories so that they don’t need to cut corners to produce a garment on budget (low staff wages and child labour). If you were after a ‘sustainable’ fashion product, pushing for legislation that improves manufacturing conditions would be far more beneficial than boycotting foreign imports.

Many people will point out that aside from the people involved, shifting manufacture to Britain is about reducing a garments carbon footprint. That is the amount of carbon emitted when it is shipped or flown across the globe (in some cases several times) before it reaches the shop shelf. Without a doubt there are some absurd systems currently in place e.g. cotton grown in India is shipped to China to be made into fabric, the fabric is then transported back to India for dying, then over to Portugal to be made into a garment and sent back to India for finishing (zips, buttons). This is the sort of journey a lot of the clothes we wear makes before it is finally shipped to the UK and into our stores. Bizarrely enough in most cases all these processes could occur in neighbouring factories but it works out financially cheaper to zig zag a garment across the globe – but with a high environmental cost.

My view is that we need to refine the manufacturing process to ‘single country’ production. I figure that it makes little difference if this is the UK or India as the materials we use in clothes production nearly all originate out side the UK so, there will always need to be one journey made (unless there is a sudden UK cotton boom!)

If you fancy exploring where your things are made further, author Fred Pearce provides an intriguing read, as he traces the life journey of everyday products found at his London home in Concessions Of An Eco Sinner (2009).

Posted on July 24, 2011 and filed under Design, Green Living, Third World, Uncategorized.