Student Dissertation Support: Fashion Manufacturing in the UK
Due to demand on Tuesday 16th March 2021, Fashion-Enter held an online seminar to support fashion students compiling their dissertations on the UK fashion industry. With a focus on supply chain, production and ethical practices Fashion-Enter’s Production Director Caroline Ash gave insightful and frank insight into the industry today. Paul Markevicius reviewed the session and the subsequent questions from the students that followed…
Caroline Ash, Production Director at Fashion-Enter (FE) provided a compelling overview of the company, as a social enterprise and ethical factory “what good should look like,” to fashion students as a free webinar to assist them with their dissertations and hopefully future career path. Fashion-Enter is heavily committed to developing students within its ethos, evidenced by its Academy, and on going in–depth fashion course structure within its premises in North London and soon to be complemented by an Academy in Leicester, and online webinars.
The indefatigable Caroline with her charming, professional, earnest style is an inspiration to any that come in contact with her and a real credit to Fashion-Enter and the industry as a whole for her hard work and the high standards she sets for all factories. You will not pull the wool (or any fabric, for that matter) over her eyes.
Covid questions loomed large as one might expect, but had been something of “a double-edged sword” said Caroline. Trading generally speaking has been uncertain, and it won’t be until July before sales pick up, with the future landscape generally difficult to predict. However, owing to FE’s Jenny Holloway’s entrepreneurial instinct as CEO to go out and get PPE contracts, (NHS scrubs/ gowns) ensuring machinists were kept gainfully employed, at a time when there was no safety-net for freelance workers, and even now. They are still supplying a sustainable, 70-times washable, re-usable, cheaper gown to the NHS.
The bigger picture impact of Covid Caroline said hit all UK factories and the fashion industry globally, and big fashion retailers with garments stuck in Asia for months, when they arrived they were out of season and massively out of pocket. This taught retailers to ‘buy shallow’ not ‘heavy’ and then quickly ‘repeat into them’ as they saw an interest uptake. The re-rationalised ratio of store supply to replenishment stock has been a lesson hard learned by the necessity of survival and the need to be on top of a well organised supply chain – much closer to home now one feels. This Caroline explained can be a good thing for UK manufacturing as many brands are now considering UK sourced producers to avoid exposure to long, distant supply lines.
Time to market is everything now, and can make price far less the overriding decision-making variable. Brexit has added its own flavour to this dynamic, with greater awareness and sensitivity to delays and increased costs in supply, “the cost of a container has gone from £4k-£15k – the highest I’ve ever known.” Overall she said, the signs are good because there are new client requests and the customer flow has improved.
The conditions surrounding the Boohoo factory in Leicester came up – Did it initiate a new realisation of workers conditions? Not really said Caroline – the conditions have been known for a while, but it has helped draw attention to the need to do something. Fashion-Enter, she said, is actively delivering (online) a ‘Workers Rights & Exploitation’ course designed to address some of the appalling conditions of slave labour perpetuated in factories and will be presenting in their Leicester Academy in due course, lockdown permitting.
An interesting question came up regarding ‘the differences in auditing for a fast fashion factory?’ “In many respects the title Fast Fashion is misleading – not all fast fashion is bad and not all slow fashion is good. We (FE) can be considered a fast fashion manufacturer, it’s all a question of ethics and governance.” Caroline identified the key areas of concern. A need to check how the patterns are made, is it ethical, sustainable, not using slave, forced or child labour. The need to follow the supply chain all the way through from source – how much water is being used for example. “There is no ‘kite mark’ for sustainability, and everyone is jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. If a claim is made to be sustainable, it needs to be backed up.” I can’t help thinking that Caroline’s due diligence would most certainly find out if it was bogus, every time.
In general she said the audits for ‘fast forward fashion’ don’t really differ. The Sedex (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange membership organisation) Smeta (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) is the most common. There’s no pass / fail standard rather, non-conformist items are listed on the audit sheet, with a mark-up of what the factory will do to correct them, and represent for the subsequent audit. High risk deemed factories would be audited every 3 months, low risk once a year on average.
“The ‘Fast Forward audit’ is the more desirable because it roots out a bad supplier. And it’s stricter. You have to prove you are doing something right. Audits are crucial to our business, no-one would work with us without them.” In the open door policy that is Fashion-Enter, Caroline welcomes the opportunity to demonstrate the high standards and ethics deployed by the factory.
A qualifying question came up asking, ‘How do retailers know if the factory is operating ethically?’ She said that where she worked in the past, she had “country reports from each factory detailing what they were doing. You still have to know what you are looking for, because there are those that will hide the truth. This is where actual factory visits trains the eye to spot malpractices and poor working conditions.”
‘Why are there unethical practices in factories?’ This yielded an unequivocal response: “Greedy owners don’t care about misery. Retailers pushing the factory to make the garments so cheaply can compound this. Ultimately, everyone needs to be accountable all along the chain. The buck stops with us.” Caroline revealed that the challenges to ethical production stem from not having the proper procedures in place, particularly when it comes to being sure that the factory is not employing illegal immigrants, only those entitled to work, whose documents and photos all match. Although they nobly tend not to highlight this aspect, ASOS one of the key clients of FE, has extremely high standards with a growing ethics department and are extremely strict. They want to know the source of all fabrics – and this is good for everyone that they are so focused.
‘Is there a difference in the UK and overseas?’ Caroline’s diplomatic answer was to say, “There is good and bad everywhere. We visit factories and give a good factory talk. It’s always important to report bad practices.”
‘Who will drive the change to increased ethical standards? Again, unequivocal: “Everyone!” The collective responsibility ethos is the only way to ensure everyone looks after the standards they all have a joint responsibility to maintain. Caroline stressed this through the entire presentation. Where it falls down is with slave labour practices, with workers duped, smuggled in as illegal immigrants, no rights to work and you can be sure almost negligible health and safety standards in the factories they work in. The ‘wages’ are not paid to the workers, but to the slave trafficker, usually in cash from the factory selling ‘cabbage’ (over-makes) of a garment, sold for cash to traders. Fully ethical factories may sub-contract to bad factories.
‘Does a fast-fashion audit take into account sub-contractors?’ The answer is no usually, and a practice that is often disguised in the audit process by less scrupulous factories. One way to ensure an audit trail is open to scrutiny is via the Galaxius software used to document both the fabric ordering and the payment of workers, allowing a fast forward auditor to examine the software to the level of the individual machinist if necessary.
Caroline freely admitted that FE could not compete with a factory in Bangladesh whose minimum rate is much lower, but she said, “FE is certainly quicker. And these days it’s all about the speed to market. FE provides this.” A magnanimous shout out was given to Zara as a “lean manufacturer, everyone can learn from. They buy shallow and repeat into it, never buying big.”
Caroline concluded the webinar by stressing that FE is there to help students in their career, for people just starting out in fashion to approach them, attend the webinars if possible and use the FE resource as a useful learning tool. Judging by the range and quality of well-observed intelligent questions, the supportive educational ethos seems to be working nicely.
By Paul Markevicius
Feedback from the session included:
“It was great to get an insight from a factory supplying fast fashion. I have learnt a lot about ethics within garment manufacturing. I really enjoyed the session, thank-you so much for organising it, it was really insightful!” – Jess
“It was very informative and interactive which I found useful. Thank-you.” – Andrea
For further information on factory tours, bespoke training, fashion courses and apprenticeships visit: https://fcfta.com/