The debate over how to eradicate poor employment practices in some UK factories flared up again this week, prompting retailers and manufacturers to call for more support from the government.
Fashion Enter in north London
It comes after New Look chief executive Anders Kristiansen last week told Drapers he wanted to bring volume production back to these shores, but complained that many UK factories fail to meet ethical regulations.
His comments prompted a mixed reaction from industry stakeholders, some of which pointed out that most UK manufacturers operate ethically.
However, there was also acknowledgement that more needs to be done to stamp out illegal practices – particularly in Leicester, where low pay in some clothing factories was the focus of a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in January.
Asos chief executive Nick Beighton told Drapers he agreed that UK manufacturing, particularly in Leicester, needs more support from industry bodies and the government: “Someone has to change their thinking for others to follow. We’ll put volume behind it but we’d like help to do it.”
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Asos produces 3% of its clothing in the UK – it currently works with two factories in north London – and wants to increase that to 10% over next five years. It gave one of its factories, Fashion Enter in Haringey, a £230,000 loan 10 years ago to help it set up production.
“We’ve got a lot of very competent UK manufacturers,” said Beighton. “I’d love to do more, as nothing can be quicker than producing in the UK.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said it is in ongoing dialogue with the government to tackle labour exploitation and suggest “practical interventions”.
Peter Andrews, BRC policy adviser for sustainability, said: “There are shortfalls in ethical labour standards in the UK fashion manufacturing industry that are deterring retailers from investing.
“We believe these problems can be overcome but that will require co-operation and resources from both government and industry including targeted, effective enforcement, to shut down illegal practices where they occur.”
In July, the government vowed to impose tougher measures on large employers who allow exploitation to take place in their supply chains.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The government is committed to building an economy that works for everyone and we are absolutely clear that employers must take their legal responsibilities seriously.
“We are engaging with the business community and workers across the country to understand their views on the review’s recommendations, and will publish our response in due course.”
However, Fashion Enter founder and chief executive Jenny Holloway argued that is not just about government intervention: other retailers need to step up to help factories.
“In Leicester there are 1,500 factories employing 9,500 people. Retailers need to work with them to raise their game and capitalise on that opportunity.”
Kate Hills, founder of Make It British and trade show Meet the Manufacturer, agreed: “We need local government support in Leicester. However, the biggest issue is the relationship between the retailers and suppliers.
“Buyers are tasked with achieving a certain margin and, if they are sourcing locally, that can put them in a difficult position, as the two don’t always align.
”The message that they won’t work with unethical manufacturers and they are willing to pay more needs to come from the top, and make sure it is filtered through all parts of the business.”
One Leicester factory caught up in the controversy over the Dispatches investigation in January was TS Knitwear. The supplier to New Look outsourced production to another factory, where an undercover investigator was allegedly paid £3.50/hour and a total of £110 for the week.
The factory has since stopped outsourcing, diversified into jersey to keep production more stable and improved transparency.
It has undergone a new Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) and remains compliant to the Fast Forward initiative, which promotes legal and ethical labour standards compliance in the supply chain.
Aman Biring, director at TS Knitwear, added to the calls for more collaboration between retailers and factories: “There is no consistency for our employees, no job security.
“We need support from retailers, we need orders to be staggered and we need collaboration to make it work. We are an ethical factory and there are more like us in Leicester, but we need support from the industry and the government.”