Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

UK increases textile fund subsidy after report makes optimistic job creation estimates

The UK government announced a 50% increase in its funding of a textiles industry development fund on February 12 after a two-year survey estimated a 23% increase in jobs by 2020.

It announced a £19.5 mn grant to the Textiles Growth Programme (TGF), a fund led by retailer N Brown. Earlier in the week,  the “Repatriation of UK Textile Manufacture” report, claimed an earlier £12.8 mn government grant to the TGF, leveraged by a further £29.6 mn in private investment, had created 94 textile and clothing projects with 1,625 new jobs.

The report was conducted by The Alliance Project, a foundation largely funded by David Alliance, founder of former apparel manufacturer Coats Viyella and currently chairman of  N Brown. It concludes that there is considerable scope for reshoring garment manufacture, and estimates that, if its recommendations are followed,  20,000 new jobs (23% more than in December 2012) are likely by 2020. It claims – inaccurately – that the latest official data shows 5,000 new jobs have been created in the industry since the Alliance survey started at the end of  2012

At £23,900 (£36,500) per job, the 1,625 created by TGF projects appear to represent spectacular value by comparison with most rich-world fully private-sector textile developments we have featured here over the past two years, and the Alliance report recommends its continuance at roughly the same level.

The report reviews the (considerable) barriers to textile and garment making in the UK and concludes further government intervention is necessary to deal with them. Its specific recommendations are:

  • To develop a “national sourcing asset register” to enable buyers to find suppliers
  • To support national and international trade fairs
  • “To address immediate skill shortages alongside image and branding of the sector.” This recommendation refers to the image working in textiles has among potential employees. It calls for “Working with schools and colleges to promote good career pathways” and “further work…to identify latent skills in the labour market that can be more readily deployed”
  • More investment

    in the micro-size UK supply chain

  • Support for product and process innovation
  • Action to address the issue of payment terms.

Though the report has listened to many manufacturers’ complaints, and a few retailers’ frustrations about difficulty in finding suppliers, many of its detailed analysis and conclusions are disappointing:

  • It accepts uncritically the fallacies that rising Asian wages mean higher garment prices, and that international freight rates are doomed to rise. Both are simply untrue – though that never stops academics and consultants repeating them
  • It accepts lobbyists’ just as uncritically arguments that frustrations with Asian suppliers will translate into more UK manufacturing. The report failed to interview retailers headquartered outside the British Isles (like Asda, H&M or Inditex), and mentions the near-shored, low-wage garment making centres far better placed to provide competitive fast response just once. This comes in a bizarre claim that the  “UK …will likely benefit from competitive advantages in terms of consumers…trusting its products versus near-shore competitors such as Turkey.” Not once in the past 20 years’ rise of Turkish (and Romanian, and Moroccan) apparel imports destroying UK production has there been a shred of evidence for this.
  • Its jobs data is out of date. It claims that “According to the latest national statistics, there has been a net increase of 5,000 employees between 2012 and 2013” According to the latest data from the UK’s Labour Force Survey (issued January 21), it is true that the combined total of UK jobs in textiles, garment making and leatherwork increased by 5,000 between December 2012 and December 2013. But 4,000 of those 5,000 disappeared again by September 2014.
  • There is an extraordinary disconnect between the emphasis the report gives to the potential for reshoring fashion-oriented garment and household production and the lengthy lists it provides of potential job opportunities within technical textiles, materials and composites for use in areas such as automotive; composite materials; industrial filtration; biotechnology; nanotechnology; geo-textiles; performance work-wear and technical/smart garments. Britain’s apparel-making workforce – much the same size as the upstream textile workforce in 1978 – has been about 40% smaller than in textiles since 2005.

We see the use of out-of-date data as an example of poor analysis, rather than a lethal destruction of a key claim. Taken together, jobs in Britain’s garment, textile and leather industries have been more or less stable since 2011: the 2013 spurt is no more or less significant than the 2014 decline.

The industry has stopped collapsing, and the Alliance report makes a convincing case that small amounts of government money seem to leverage private investments that create a small jobs renaissance (especially in textiles) for surprisingly little money. One crucial element in keeping this renaissance going is a general climate of goodwill to the industry – and the Alliance report, for all its flaws, can play a central role in rekindling that goodwill.

Whether or not government money should, or will, be spent subsidising exhibitors at trade fairs is less important than whether the Alliance report helps encourage teenagers to see a future in the industry and banks and private investors to fund viable business plans.

The future employment level the report regards as a success (that 20,000 growth to 107,000) is about the level last seen in 2008, and just one-eighth the level of 1978. For all its talk of repatriating garment manufacture, Alliance expects fewer new jobs than one big Chinese garment plant. The very realism of its employment ambitions make them more likely to be achieved – making the value of this report far more important than its unfortunate flaws.