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Saving our Textiles industry is everyone’s concern

31 October 2022

The rebirth of Leicester’s garment supply chain needs a concerted effort from us all says Sajjad Khan of the Apparel & Textiles Manufacturers Federation (ATMF). 


PART ONE (part two below)

Before we look to the future, let’s remind ourselves what has happened in the recent past and how it has impacted an industry that is synonymous with the city of Leicester itself.  The garment supply sector has been hit by a triple whammy of events which has led to the closure of hundreds of factories resulting in a loss of thousands of jobs.

The impact of Brexit has caused a change in the markets that we can trade in.  Increased costs, Tariffs and other barriers have caused a reduction in EU exports. The textile sector has had to adapt to new guidelines, respond to new initiatives and find different trading partners throughout the world.

Covid-19 has changed our social habits and the way in which we shop. Online shopping with its ease and flexibility has become very popular and is likely to continue even though restrictions have been lifted. As such, demand from traditional high street retailers has reduced.

The recent negative press on the local factories has probably been the most damaging of all.  It has sent shock waves throughout the textile manufacturing world.

How the local businesses recover from this and adapt to a new way of working will have a huge impact in ensuring their survival.

Of approximately 500 textile businesses that were trading in Leicester two years ago, we estimate that 180 are currently still trading and we expect to see this number reduce further around Christmas to 150 with a knock-on effect of job losses all the way down the supply chain. The impact of this has been devastating on those that have lost their livelihood. This can be quite clearly seen in the rise in the numbers attending foodbanks in and around the Highfields area.

Fighting Back

The unfortunate outcome of the negative publicity was that it impacted almost every business in the textile sector. The downturn in demand for Leicester-made garments led to many ethical suppliers taking a stand and collectively forming the Apparel & Textile Federation (ATMF) to address the suppliers’ concerns.

A culling of the industry, especially some of the unscrupulous businesses, was necessary and those that have survived want to bring about a more dynamic and vibrant garment manufacturing sector.

Time to put the brakes on Cheap Fashion

We also want to move away from the idea of fast cheap fashion.  Not only does it have a hugely negative impact on our environment globally, and on the conditions of working people in certain countries, it also embeds the idea that cheap, low-quality garments are the norm.  This forces producers to cut their costs which will ultimately make the business unsustainable, particularly in the UK.  That means more unemployment and the possible loss of one of our flagship industries.

To pull back from this, we need to focus more on quality rather than quantity and re-align the term fast to ‘speed to market’ rather than ‘cheap fashion’. This involves innovation, looking at our working practices, upskilling and finding a new type of retailer to work with.  For customers, it means getting them to understand that it’s actually better to invest in higher quality items for their wardrobe as these will last.  We seem to have lost this concept over the last few years.

Costs will rise

One of the main impacts of the political changes and the energy crisis is that there is likely to be an increase in the minimum wage requirements – around 10% rather than just a standard increase. It’s difficult to absorb rising costs in a fast fashion economy where you’re very price conscious.  So, we want to get ourselves in a position where we can get high quality brands like Ted Baker, Burberry, and M&S to source from Leicester so that we can produce a value-added quality garment.

Leicester with its central location is the hub for garment manufacture in the UK especially due to the fact that we have a full vertical set up – everything from dyeing, printing, knitting and manufacture to dispatch. We are closer to the market and as such can replenish demand quicker, and we are also geared to handle test and repeat models better. Our ideal location at the centre of the country gives us the advantage of being able to deliver to almost any part of mainland UK within hours.  This is the message we need to get across to high-quality brands looking to reduce their carbon footprint by manufacturing in the UK.

A changing workforce and changing processes

We have a limited number of skilled workers in Leicester, hence we’re looking to see if we can upskill some of the current work force.  We also believe that by adopting new technologies that require less manual labour input, we can improve efficiency and focus instead on creative labour.

We as a country are quite a way behind in our manufacturing processes for garments.  It’s high time we looked at things in a more advanced way in terms of manufacturing, to catch up with the rest of the world.  That fits well with two other priorities for Leicestershire at the moment: the reduction of its carbon footprint and the drive for innovation. Upskilling the workforce and investing in new technology would be a major step forward for the city.

We can become more sustainable by introducing efficient production methods and ensuring that our supply chain is UK-based rather than having products flown in from other parts of the globe.

A declining industry has a massive knock-on effect

With many of our factories recently closed, we’ve already lost thousands of jobs and if those people cannot find other work, they become a financial burden for the city in terms of benefits and associated needs. By securing a viable future for the textiles industry, we retain thousands of jobs.  That’s something we would really like to work more closely with the City Council, the LLEP and the Chamber to achieve.

Many of us are running the ATMF in our spare time and could really do with additional financial resources and manpower to make a lasting impact and help drive the change we require.  Although it had its problems, Leicester’s garment sector kept lots of people in employment and many people in the city. While those people were working and those businesses were trading, they were paying tax and they weren’t costing the council or the government anything in benefits. But now they will be, so there has to be a collective effort to provide the solution.


An opportunity for the city

We need to rebrand our industry image – with independent verification of our new garment sector – and this is a real opportunity for the city of Leicester to establish itself on the national and international stage if it has the will.  Creating a centre of excellence for innovative, sustainable and UK-based garment design and production would be an excellent way to put Leicester on the map.  And it would support the message that Leicester is one of the most innovative cities in the UK which is something else our local government and LLEP colleagues aspire to.

The future is about sharing specialist facilities  

The reality is that having your own specialist equipment in-house before, only made sense if you were doing big volumes.  The sector isn’t going to be producing big volumes anymore, so it makes more commercial sense to share specialist equipment. We’re going to be focussing on smaller quantities, faster turnaround and value-added production. In order to sustain all of this, we need to flip the model of low margins and high volumes to one of low volumes and higher margins.

Most of my colleagues in the sector have come to this shared understanding that this is the only way to survive now.  Some of them have already started to collaborate which is great.

One of the things we’ve been looking at is the idea of an Eco-Park which will have state of the art facilities including a full manufacturing set-up.  We would have a central space for buyers and spaces for smaller, more efficient manufacturing processes – it would be a similar concept to the food park at Thurmaston and would be a new feature for Leicestershire.  It’s a long-term vision that will require a lot of financial input as well as time.

Two aspects to education are needed

Like I said earlier, we need to turn the tide on fast disposable fashion. First, the industry in partnership with the Government need to educate the consumer and focus on quality over quantity. Customers need to be made aware that although their garment is cheap and briefly fashionable, it has a big impact in terms of landfill sites, the environmental costs, and resources that of course are not infinite.  For example, it takes almost 700 gallons of water to make one t-shirt, including growing the cotton.

The second piece of education we need is to persuade the Government to reduce the influx of cheap garments. One of the biggest dangers we have these days is what companies like Shein are doing.  With their micro-influencer marketing, low priced largely well-made garments they are really taking over the UK market and, if we’re not careful, they will destroy many of the UK brands.

Although some of the Shein working practices have recently been questioned they have a more adaptable working model, something that is available in Leicester, that has been another reason for their success.

Critical factors for success  

The biggest factor in all of this is buy-in from the various stakeholders.  The manufacturers are already on board.  The universities are engaging to an extent.  We have the LLEP and the Council and we’d like to see them take the role of co-ordinating our collective response so that central Government supports us.

Financial resources are required and the PR aspect of this needs a lot more professional expertise behind it.  At the moment, we feel that we are doing the PR for the city as far as textiles are concerned.  Imagine what we could achieve for our city if all of the organisations I’ve mentioned worked together more formally as a project team, including the support of our local MPs and advocated on behalf of the local textile sector.  We need to push this out nationally, get out there and start promoting the good that’s coming out of it.

My message to everyone who will benefit from the regeneration of Leicester’s garment industry is this: show us your tangible commitment to making this happen, otherwise it simply will not happen.