From The Factory Floor: Founder & CEO Of Fashion - Enter Jenny Holloway Responds To The Environment Audit Committee Report.
The Environment Audit Committee (EAC) Fixing Fashion Report is an excellent start and anything that provides thought-provoking discussion, leading to positive impacts that ‘improve’ the fashion industry must to be applauded. Due to the fragmentation of the fashion industry this was not an easy audit to report upon.
There have been many documentaries and quality articles written by the press that review the dark side of fashion over the last few years, resulting in Commons Select Committees and round table discussions. It is clear during these reviews that there is a strong cross section of retailers and etailers that do genuinely have ethical policies. These policies are not only carefully researched and written, but more importantly they are excellently implemented with large (expensive) manpower resources behind them.
It is because of that one of the conclusions regarding a Fast Fashion levy concerns me. The proposed 1p on clothing purchases applies to all retailers - there is no differentiation or recognition for the leading ethical retailers that do exist today.
I find the term “Fast Fashion” and the negativity that has been created by this term totally at odds with how industry is working today and the resulting good work that has been achieved.
"Fast" is the USP for the UK manufacturing base - just because it’s fast it’s not always bad. Having speed to market allows retailers to actually buy less of a style so retailers are not over buying at all; rather they are selling out of styles at full price. There is a seismic shift in buying today - it's not the intake margin that counts but rather it's the exit margin and the ability of a line to sell through on low stock turns rather than be discounted. The UK is ideally placed for this new way of buying and this report can harm that fragile recovery by the wording used and the connotation that fast is synonymous with throw away fashion.
Having been an ex-senior buyer, when I launched Fashion-Enter, we started manufacturing knowing exactly what retailers wanted. This was reliability, honesty, integrity, ethical and transparent production. The factory was built on deep foundations with systems, processes and the aim that we would manufacture the ultimate garments that could be achieved in terms of quality and value. It has taken eight years to perfect the manufacturing process and four years to create an online cloud based system with Mark Randle, entitled Galaixus, that allows us and our clients to know exactly who made what stitch on a garment, how long they worked (to the second) and what they were paid for that work. This system is now available for everyone to use in the industry; that's why we are social enterprise - we want the industry to improve as a whole.
This synonymous categorisation that fast fashion equates to cheap fashion is flawed - it’s subjective and is therefore difficult to qualify and quantify. Cheap is relative to consumers’ incomes. Would someone on Job Centre Allowance of £73.50 a week buying a top for £7 top (which is 10% of their weekly income) regard this item as cheap? There have always been retailers offering low cost market penetration strategies that are price sensitive. This is a business decision of the company but that company has to justify that it's trading ethically at all times and in accordance with the Modern Slavery Act. This is where the EAC report is weak. It is using a broad brush approach that all retailers and etailers are operating the same unethical ways and therefore the 1p levy per item should be applied to all purchases.
Our factory works for asos, Tesco and M&Co. Each of these companies have rigorous ethical and technical audits to comply with. Similarly recently we have been approved by Primark too, with their ethical team visiting us on site. We have passed all audits with limited actions required on observations made. We know these people personally and their policies: they are genuinely working hard to apply these to ensure the best value garments are being made ethically and transparently. It is wrong to classify these organisations along side etailers that deliberately coerce factories into making garments for around the £1 mark. It is impossible to make this garments at this price having due regard for standard minutes and minimum pay - they are chasing the cheap needle around the UK let alone the world. This approach is not uniformly followed by all fast fashion retailers: those who we work with know we offer a transparent service, sadly this is not the case for all retailers or manufacturers. To penalise all manufacturers and retailers with this proposed added cost implies we are all working within these unsustainable and unsafe systems, when we are not.
We all know who these etailers are, with their bumper profits being declared each quarter; they are the current darlings of the Stock Exchange. It's wrong wrong wrong. We are creating a two tier playing field by applying a 1p levy that affects all retailers; we are basically ignoring the unethical way this etailers have been trading since their incorporation
The EAC report is also wrong on the point that "Short lead times means that wash tests and wearer trials are often not feasible, with implications for garment quality". This is nonsense. Every single fabric has to be tested and approved. We make up to 10,000 garments a week and we have had to test every single fabric and if it fails the tests then quite simply we can’t use them.
Another EAC point focused on global emissions, with burning fossil fuels at an all time high in 2018. However the report does not correlate the impact of flying fabric from one country to another and then flying resulting garments from one country to another. How much does that adversely affect global warming when garments could be made in the UK with smaller quantities and minimal transportation? Shouldn’t the EAC review how investing in quality ethical manufacturing in the UK can positively impact the globe?
Credit to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) who understand how the industry works and told the EAC: "fast fashion resulted in less waste at the store and warehouse as it's characterised by smaller quantities of each fashion line sourced and quickly sold.” Yes, a voice of reason and they came to visit us too: they undertook real research to see how industry works today.
There really are some excellent observations made and this is a strong starting point for the next chapter. Perhaps a more objective approach would be to have Enforcement Agencies on the ground that visit factories throughout the UK. They can check for Right To Work (RTW) documentation, Value Added Tax (VAT) and National Insurance Contributions (NICS) payments and review garments being made. It is not difficult to determine the manufacturing time of a garment and then multiply this by the minimum pay threshold. This way you can validate exactly the cost of the garment and if it's unethical then fine those etailers accordingly that are using the factories. Each factory will have a Purchase Order (PO) that specified quantity and price paid.
New systems have to be quantifiable and fair. asos have operated their Fashion With Integrity corporate responsibility agenda for years, spending a huge amount of resources on research, staffr, audits, et al - I wonder how they feel spending all that money only to be tarred with the same brush as other less scrupulous etailers who have effectively created this drive to the lowest price possible?
Another area of the report that has to be highlighted is the emphasis on learning and education. This on the surface seems great news - we wrote new qualifications for level 1 and 2 in stitching in patterns with ABC Awards ( now SEG) so we totally endorse new skills. However each year our allocation from the Adult Education Budget (AEB) has dwindled since 2008. So will the AEB be increased to accommodate this new audit objective? Will the current curriculum at schools that recently moved away from arts, DT and Textiles now be reconsidered again - I really hope so.
I am a "‘babyboomer’ from the 60’s: an era of repair, mending and restoring garments and that’s why I took needle work classes at school. Those days are long gone - the instant gratification today (that youth want throughout Western economies) makes me wonder if I am realistic to push for a repair and reduce fashion economy. This digital age and absorbing of information is not just in fashion - look at the growth of food deliveries and ordering any item off the internet sometimes with same day delivery.
The world is fast but fast does not have to equate with bad.
An area that I thought would have been covered in greater detail was missing unfortunately- that of fashion design software 3D CADCAM and the predicted rise of sew-bots. This is the next generation of advancement in the fashion industry and has the potential again to knock valuable days off the garment life cycle. We are just investing in Optitex 3D systems for our Fashion - Enter Tailoring Academy. Are these actions at odds with the EAC because this will create shorter lead times? Fast will get faster: it’s industrial advancement and this is to be encouraged with research and development grants. You can’t stop progress and reverting backwards to a needle and thread to make repairs is just not going to work.
As with all best plans the devil in the detail. Whilst the EAC report really is to be applauded and is totally correct with its call for action in the industry, it’s now about implementation. The ‘5 W’s’(five key basic questions) of business planning, have never been so important as now for the report’s next chapter
Please do not brandish all the retailers and etailers with the same tarred brush - this audit does not credit those ethical retailers and etailers that do have a genuine social conscious. Perhaps the first next step should be a working committee that combines a voice from ALL sectors of the industry including fabric weavers and spinners, merchants, testing houses, auditors, manufacturers, cut make and trim and multiple threads units, designers (at multi levels not just luxury), educationalists.
The list goes on. Knowledge is power and EAC is fundamentally correct. Let’s galvanize effort and act now!