Over ten years behind the scenes of fashion and retail, hundreds of factories visited and hundreds more stories heard, yet the most shocking turned out to be something happening on my very own doorstep.
Reshoring Garment Manufacturing
As we all know, with industrialisation came mass production and with mass production came a surge in competition on price.
To get the lowest cost possible, global brands and retailers started outsourcing production overseas. They headed East to countries like China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia where the cost of labour was reduced significantly and the workforce was in abundance.
But before long, under a spell of marketing wizardry, consumers’ insatiable appetites grew so hungry that they could no longer wait for goods to travel over from Shanghai on a six week vessel. No. They wanted it now.
In response to these demands for instantaneous satisfaction, fast fashion became ultra-fast and many retailers such as ASOS, Boohoo and Missguided began ‘reshoring’ production back to the UK.
Apparel manufacturing here in the UK has seen an immense revival, growing by almost 11% between 2008-2012 – mainly in major sourcing hubs such as the East Midlands, Manchester, and London.
On paper, it’s an industry shift that could be applauded for providing employment, boosting the local economy and bringing craftmanship back to Britain, but in reality that’s not quite the case.
Modern Slavery In The UK
A few years ago, I was having a chat with the CSR Manager at work and picking her brains about what was going on in the world of ethics and sustainability. She told me that she was heading off to a conference in London with other major retailers to discuss the situation in Leicester.
“What situation in Leicester?”, I asked with the most puzzled look on my face. Her updates usually involved some sort of twenty day world tour of factories in far away lands with talks of safety goggles, fire extinguishers and withheld passports.
But it turns out that modern slavery is not something thousands of miles away from home in factories out amongst the rice fields of Malaysia or down deserted dirt tracks in the middle of Vietnam.
In fact, one of the biggest cases of modern slavery in the fashion world today is taking place in Leicester, the UK’s second largest garment hub.
There are 700 factories employing 10,000 textile workers, producing around one million items of clothing every week for online retailers. And while the majority are reportedly compliant, there are a small number of factories which break the law to maximise profits.
A study by the University of Leicester in 2015, commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative, concluded that the majority of the city’s garment workers were paid below the National Minimum Wage, do not have employment contracts, and are subject to intense and unreasonable work practices.
In fact, the report states that the majority of workers in Leicester’s garment sector earn around £3 per hour (compared to a then National Minimum Wage rate of £6.50) and often receive wages cash in hand. And the total sum of underpaid wages for the East Midlands alone was estimated at £1 million per week.
Change Starts With Us
I couldn’t believe it.
For a decade I’d been looking out on the world of global sourcing and thinking that all of these problems only existed in developing countries, but here it all was happening just a couple of hours away from home.
Since the report was published, the spotlight has been very much on the garment industry in Leicester and actions have been taken.
There was plenty of subtle finger pointing between the retailers and the suppliers; retailers blamed unethical manufacturers and the factories blamed retailers for unethical prices. But I couldn’t stop thinking that there was so much more to it than that.
Maybe fingers should be pointing at us, the consumers.
We rarely think about the true cost of our actions. We are demanding and careless. We’re frivolous and flamboyant. We want so much more than we actually need and we’re caught up in a whirlwind of mindless consumption we find it difficult to get out of.
And so as awful as the situation in Leicester was, or maybe still is, it has done something good for this country.
When problems are thousands of miles away from home in a country you’ve never been to, it’s a lot easier to ignore what’s going on, but when the problem lands on your own doorstep, you start to wake up.