What's going on in Leicester?

Leicester has been in the news quite a lot recently and, sadly, for all the wrong reasons. They have had a rise in cases of COVID-19 and need to stay locked down for a longer period.

Questions are being asked about why Leicester and the textile industry has, rightly, come under scrutiny. Leicester has a higher than average rate of poverty and quite a large Asian population, both of which we now know are factors affecting COVID-19 outcomes. The city also has a proud heritage of textile manufacturing and is where we manufacture all of our clothing range.  

Recently, a report was released by Labour behind the Label which looked into unethical and illegal working practices in Leicester’s clothing factories linked to the production of fast fashion, and specifically mentioning retailer Boohoo. The report asserts that the requirement of brands to mass produce clothing with a fast turnaround and at very cheap prices is driving illegal behaviour such as paying workers far below the minimum wage, and having them work very close together, without maintaining social distancing and without providing suitable protections such as PPE and hand sanitiser. 

Now, many ethical brands, myself included, work with manufacturers to agree a cost to make an item of clothing. The cost is based on how long the item takes to make, which is often linked to how simple or complex the product is. Time is money, as the old saying goes.

Consider the process, which starts with laying out the fabric, finding the right pattern, cutting the fabric (this can be done by hand or machined), then transferred to another work station to be put together including setting up the machine with the correct thread and stitch, making sure the pieces of fabric align, adding in care labels and brand labels and finishing the product with binding or fastenings such as poppers, zips, buttons etc… Some manufacturers also offer the option to have your items individually bagged and tagged, which obviously takes more time. So, how quickly do you think you could make a t-shirt?

The current national minimum wage is £8.20 per hour, but it costs an employer more than that to employ someone, about 50 to 100% more as a rule. There’s National Insurance contributions to cover, auto-enrolment pension contributions, employer liability insurance, money to cover holiday pay, sick pay or parental leave, plus overheads such as building rent or mortgage, business rates to pay and services such as heating, lighting and water. And that’s just the legal minimum.

Some brands have a different process to procuring manufacturing services. Rather than working with manufacturers to agree a price, they issue a request for a specific item of clothing to be manufactured at a specific price and factories can then bid for the work. The example given in the report was a pair of cycling shorts to be made for £1.80 per pair, including packaging, labelling and delivery.

I’m sure there are some business rules around not revealing costs but I can tell you it costs me more than that to get a simple t-shirt manufactured, and I buy the fabric and any fastenings and labels separately. I also pay my own delivery costs and there’s no packaging or labelling involved.

So is it even possible to manufacture a pair of cycling shorts at that price? Now, I’m sure there are economies of scale to be gained that as a smaller business I cannot yet achieve, but still…

‘The government must recognise that the situation is not only the result of some unscrupulous suppliers but also an inevitable outcome of the current fast fashion business model and the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices.’

In a very real way, this is the true cost of fast fashion. I recommend you read the report in full to understand the situation. Please know that consumer demand drives the industry. By changing the way you shop and the companies you choose to spend your money with, the industry will evolve to meet consumer demand. If you want some recommendations on ethical clothing companies, check out my previous posts about Ditching Fast Fashion.

In case you are wondering, I have spoken to my manufacturer and they are all fine. They are a small company, 10 people, and have plenty of space to be able to spread out. They also provide sanitiser and allow time for hand washing. They employee people properly and pay a fair wage.

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