Should We Trust Fashion Made in the UK?

Guest Blog Post 
Ever since I started out as a teenager doing a summer job in a designer lingerie factory in my home town, I have wanted to manufacture in the UK. Local production boosts home industry and creates a much lower carbon footprint. However, as I have looked at manufacturers to produce my launch collection this year, I have become aware that not all UK garment factories adhere to the ethical standards that I would want, this promoted me to write this blog because I think we assume that fashion manufacturing in the UK is more ethical than factories overseas. Which isn’t always the case…

British sweatshops in the press

In January the Channel 4 Dispatches programme ‘Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes’[i] exposed extremely low pay and unsafe conditions in factories in Leicester.  In August these problems were highlighted again in an interview with the CEO of New Look which unhelpfully the Times turned into sweeping statements:

‘Many of Britain’s clothing factories have worse ethical standards than manufacturers in China, Bangladesh and Burma, the boss of one the UK’s biggest fashion retailers has claimed.’[ii]

As I have worked at a fashion company in Leicester which is just down the road from me this feels very personal. It is unfortunately true that Leicester does have it problems:

‘Typically, the workers being exploited are women from different countries who speak little English. Some come to UK on a six-month visa and work every hour they can before returning home…women who were being paid as little as £1 per hour.’[iii]

A widescale problem?

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) investigated the area and found that 26 businesses were issued with a Notice of Potential Liability or a Referral notice between February 2008 and August 2014[iv]. This can be put into perspective with regional industry figures:

‘Leicester has the largest amount of garment workers in the UK – there are 1500 garment manufacturing businesses in Leicester employing over 10,000 people.’[v]

It seems to me that this is a small minority who have aroused press interest, which tars others in the industry. Kate Hills, founder of Make It British feels passionately that such generalizations about ethical standards in the UK are damaging. “I’ve been to hundreds of garment manufacturers in the UK and contrary to what The Times has reported, the MAJORITY are ethical and above board.”[vi]

The claims were also rebutted by Nigel Lugg, Chairman of UKFT, the sector skills body for the fashion & textiles industry. “Whilst it is true and deeply regrettable that there are companies in the UK that break the law, there are hundreds and hundreds of factories who offer a safe working environment, pay their staff well and value their staff as their most valuable asset.’ [vii]

Who is involved?

Many UK retailers now use on-shore manufacturing units to support their global production operations and that number is growing rapidly. M&S employ 317 workers in 4 clothing factories in the UK, including 2 in Leicester. Arcadia Group has 54 factories in the UK[viii], Debenhams has 26 factories employing over 7000 UK workers and ASOS source their products from 28 factories employing 1015 people.

Jenni Holloway is Director of Fashion-Enter, a social enterprise making garments for high street retailers including ASOS, M&S and John Lewis and who are SEDEX Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) approved which means its factory is fully compliant. She says: ‘Producing ethically and transparently in the UK is possible and cost effective now. Our factory based in Haringey, North London is proof[ix]

What is being done?

Ethical issues are being addressed by retailers, the home office and other bodies including the ETI who called for a collaborative approach[x] and coordination of all those involved. A tough new audit for domestic garment manufacturing called Fast Forward was created in 2015 by a group of retailers including ASOS, House of Frazer, River Island and Debenhams.

‘The Fast Forward Programme is an industry initiative to look at social risks in UK manufacturing. The in-depth audit assessments through this programme cover key areas such as right to work, national minimum wage, contracts of employment, tax, mistreatment and health & safety in line with the UK labour law requirements.’ [xi]

In March 2015 the UK government legislated the Modern Slavery Act that requires large companies to produce statements identifying risks and showing what steps they are taking to prevent slavery and exploitation within their supply chains.

Furthermore, the British Fashion Council launched the High-End and Designer Manufacturers Database in March 2017 ‘which aims to make it easier for designers to gain ethical supply chain certificates and facilitate successful relationships between designers and production units.’[xii]

Is enough being done?

In my opinion much more needs to be done by all those involved. Some of the legislation and initiatives don’t go far enough as there are clearly still serious ethical issues throughout the industry. But rather than apportioning blame, maybe we all need to take some responsibility?

As a designer I will be using Fashion Enter for my manufacturing as I trust them to be an ethical factory and will continue to scrutinize ethics throughout my supply chain. And as consumers we all have a big role to play. Don’t assume something is ethical just because it is made in Britain. Check whether your favourite retailer is part of ethical initiatives like ETI and Fast Forward. Ask them if their factories are audited to SMETA standards. And most importantly, question why a garment is cheap, because there is no doubt that somebody, somewhere is paying the price for it.

Read more about why ethics is important in fashion and how to ask the brands who made my clothes on Roberta Style Lee’s blog. You can also check out some of ethical British made brands like Antiform, BRM and Laura Zabo at the Ethical Brand Directory.

Ismay Mummery
Ethical Brand Directory Guest Blogger 
Founder & Creative Director of Boy Wonder – Premium Sustainable Boy’s Fashion.

Ismay is a fashion designer and blogger with a passion for the environment. She is currently setting up a sustainable ethical boyswear brand all made in Britain. Being a mum of a seven year old boy she became aware the lack of fashion choice for boys, let alone anything eco or ethical. Making the launch collection in Britain is an important part of creating a quality product with a lower carbon footprint.

Find out more:

[i] Sweatshop Britain: Factory workers on £3 an hour ‘making clothes for River Island and New Look’ by Laura Lambert 23/01/2017

[ii] British factory standards ‘worse than Asia’ by Philip Aldrick 09/08/2017

[iii] Did You Know Sweatshops Exist In The UK? By Tamsin Blanchard 23/08/2017

[iv] A New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing by University of Leicester 2014

[v] Can Leicester get back to it’s garment manufacturing heyday? October 2017


[vii] Fashion and Textile Manufacturing in the UK 07/09/2017

[viii] Returning fashion manufacturing to the UK – opportunities and challenges by Hannah Gould 10/06/2104

[ix] The Times Business Clinic with Jenni Holloway 01/08/2017

[x] A New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing by University of Leicester December 2014


[xii] Positive Fashion



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