This feature was written for Vintage Life Magazine. April 2017
Manufacturing in the UK in a fair and ethical environment is something that I am passionate about and have been for some time. My business Silly Old Sea Dog is structured around the idea of all our items being made in the UK by skilled staff, making quality garments for a fair wage. But in this era, so many people are striving to be fashionable as cheaply as possible and buying their garments for next to nothing.
In past Britain, different areas of the country specialised in individual manufacturing trades. For example, Nottingham lace mills would have provided the main employment for people in that area. The same is true for the potteries in Stoke on Trent and the cotton mills in the Derbyshire Peak District. The benefit of having sectored areas of the country was that the employees were highly skilled; they learnt their trade from their parents and grandparents and, as they only specialised in one trade rather than switching between trades as many do in today’s society the quality of goods was very high.
However, in this day and age, many skill sets have been lost. Traditional manufacturing jobs have shifted to Asia. Many of our manufacturing bases have closed and we have little factory choices available to manufacture goods, not only in the UK but in many countries of the Western World. Because of this for companies wishing to manufacture locally, there have been problems associated, due to the lack of skills and the age profile of the remaining skilled workers needed to produce the goods.
I personally have found for my own business there has been limited choices for factories to use. But after lots of searching have finally found a factory in Scotland who are able to produce my dresses to the highest of standards. Having visited the factory, I am also aware that the staff are in a happy working environment, with many of them having worked there for over 20 years, and all being paid above the National Living Wage. I feel as a brand, we each have a responsibility to ensure that our garments are manufactured fairly and free of any slave labour, whilst trying to have as little impact on the environments resources as possible.
The fashion industry is fast paced and evolving and is constantly looking to move forward. There are always new ideas to explore and as the competition is usually high between manufacturers and brands, the industry has to evolve to survive.
Pre-1980’s the British manufacturing sector was strong with many areas being famous for producing certain items. “In 1970, manufacturing accounted for 20.57% of UK gd” (guardian, 2012) as times have progressed, the general consensus is that skills have been lost, not only in textile manufacturing but across the board, with the percentages down to 9.86% in 2010.
The loss of British manufacturing (and that of other western manufacturing capacity) was part of that evolution starting in the 1980’s and leading through to the early 2000’s: where customers demanded better value for money and were diversifying into a fast fashion environment. “Today less than 15% of the UK workforce makes a living from the sector (manufacturing)” BBC 2002. Many British manufacturers could not keep up with the market as wages were too high and pushing up their costs. They had no choice but to turn to the Asian market for cheaper made goods.
However, in more recent times, another change has emerged. The pride of owning British made goods is becoming more apparent, indeed many brands are now advertising themselves as a ‘Made in Britain’ brand. Especially in the vintage fashion sector, where customers like the appeal of nostalgic goods. Customers based in the UK and overseas are willing to pay a premium to own a genuine British product and recognise the need to retain and expand the skill base necessary to do so.
In contrast, many continue to manufacture with Asian companies, to keep their costs low. “in 2008 about two thirds of manufacturing workers in china were paid just $0.80 an hour, with the other third in urban locations getting an average of $2.40 an hour” (Financial Times, 2011). In comparison, the UK minimum wage in 2008 was £5.78 per hour (a conversion of around $8.66). Although into 2017 the wages of the Chinese factory workers have increased, so to have those of British workers as the National Living Wage has increased. In addition to this most skilled British workers expect pay to be in excess of the minimum wage, so the overall manufacturing costs are clearly divided. Many Asian manufacturers feel that this is why they have been able to sustain high quantities of manufacture within their businesses.
As import duties rise, fuel and transportation costs fluctuate and Chinese and other Far East workers demand higher wages and standards of living, I see it becoming a problem for many companies to sustain a high output of fast fashion at low cost. Many consumers are reverting back to the personal service once taken for granted. I feel that soon overseas manufacturing will only be viable for high volume/low cost retailers of fast fashion such as well know large cheap high street chains apparent in every town and the supermarkets. From high end designer labels, people are starting to expect more.
As the fashion industry is such an evolving business, reactions to trends need to be instant. We are becoming a more visual world, with the internet and celebrity style. Everything is instantaneous: you see a celebrity wearing something on Instagram and you want it, you want it immediately, not in six months’ time when a manufacturer has had the garment made and sampled with an overseas company. By producing locally, a style can be seen and on sale within a very short time.
There are a few examples of large brands that have made a successful business out of locally made products. One of the most well know of these is American Apparel (although this is a US example, with US manufacture, the principles are the same, as most outfits in the USA manufacture overseas). American Apparel have proved that a fully functioning manufacturing plant can be successful on home soil with their large manufacturing base in downtown Los Angeles, with a large workforce all paid above the minimum wage. So why can American Apparel make a 100% investment where others cannot? I believe that much of this is because of the radical way they have marketed the brand – proud to be American and marketed as a high fashion desirable brand which is ethical. They also have chosen a great base for the business, LA where there is a large population and therefore workforce. The business has never changed location and then returned; they have been able to retain staff and skills and have experienced staff that is able to teach and train new ones. Although it is not advertised on their website, they also have many large commercial contracts, such as one with the US military which allows them to predict their sales more precisely and enables them to employ more staff and better foresee profits.
Not only do ethical and employment issues come to mind in relation to this issue, but also those of the environment. As the attitude of society demands that we look after our planet by reducing, recycling and not being so frivolous with natural resources. Will taxes rise for fast fashion? Will we see more people looking for a well-made lasting garment within their wardrobe? I feel that we will. There will always be a need for cheap clothing, but as attitudes change and consumers question for how long the planet’s resources can last: people may expect better quality garments that do not need to be replaced so often.
Opinions differ on this subject, it is a current debate within British politics and many celebrities are also becoming involved in the issues: not only economically but also environmentally. Many feel that companies would not survive in our current economic climate without producing their lines overseas using cheap labour; others feel that the introduction of UK factories would have a positive effect the global environment and the economy by providing much need jobs to a UK workforce and. It is a controversial subject. People want something for nothing, but this has a negative effect on the economy. In order to provide jobs, maybe we need to be willing to pay more for our purchases?
So how as a consumer, can I be more aware and make a difference?
Original vintage finds would have often been handmade or made in the UK at a time when we had a wide skill base, and many people were employed in the manufacturing sector? If you are buying original vintage, chances are you are buying the products from a small independent business whom possibly only employ themselves or employ a very small team. So, the chances are these staff are looked after and the companies’ standards are quite ethical. The standard of many vintage cloths are high, so the ethical impact of the garment is low, with it being made well from quality materials, and being brought second hand rather than new. Also, you may after wearing the garment easily sell it or pass it on to another enthusiast. Unlike with modern day fast fashion, where the garment will wear out and need to be thrown away or be difficult to sell on as there are hundreds of thousands of it.
It’s when buying reproduction that I feel as a shopper you need to be more mindful. Bear in mind the work that goes into making a garment – how much fabric is needed, how much time would it take to make it, what extras are there to pay for – packaging, labels etc.? If you add all of this up, it is clear to see that if you are paying a very small amount for a garment, someone is missing out somewhere.
There is no way a company can afford to produce a dress for example at £30 to you at full RRP and the person who made it be paid above the National Living Wage. Especially if you have brought this from a store which isn’t the brands own store, as the manufacturing brand will have had to wholesale it to a store at a very large discount in order for the store to be able to make a profit on it as well (this figure is usually around 50-75% off the RRP). So, this example would have cost the store around £15 to but the garment they are selling to you at £30. The manufacturing brand will then take another at least 50% off the manufacture off this (normally around more 75% for large brands) leaving the finished production price at around £5-£7.50 on a £30 piece, (remember, this price includes the make cost, the fabric cost, zip/button cost, trimming costs, packaging costs, shipping cost to get it the UK and label costs). Therefore, you can easily see that the cost paid to the seamstress would be very low.
Another give away is that the product is produced overseas in Asia, Bangladesh or a similar country. The garment is being made overseas for a reason – and that reason is profit.
Smaller brands tend to make a much smaller profit on each item compared to companies turning over £ Millions. So, if you are buying a product form a large online or high street retailer – expect a large proportion of the purchase price (at full RRP) to be profit. Whereas with a small business it will more than likely be significantly smaller. Especially for those that sell handmade products on Etsy and suchlike. Many people don’t take their time into account when pricing their items.
I think for each of us just to think a little more when purchasing would have a huge difference on how our garments are produced. It is not always possible to buy UK made products (due to the expense and availability). However, rather than buy 3 fast fashion produced pieces, buy one, well made, British or handmade quality product. Support local businesses (not only in the fashion sector, but in all sectors), learn how to make items yourself and buy more vintage!