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Fashion Forward: Can The Industry Get Greener?

7 min read

The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of the planet’s carbon emissions. Yet there’s a glimmer of hope the industry is about to get a lot greener. If not by chance, then by design.

“Textiles is one of the most polluting sectors there is,” womenswear manufacturer and environmentalist, Christopher Nieper, explains. “It’s worse than aviation and maritime shipping combined – to my horror.” From his factory office in Derbyshire, Nieper sounds deeply alarmed about the state of the industry. 

Talking about the sector generally, and not his own firm – which has won national awards for sustainability – he says: “You buy a T-shirt but you don’t see the pollution, because we’ve offshored it. We’ve polluted a river in Bangladesh, not a river in Wales, so we don’t see it. We have no idea what’s happening, but it’s on the other side of the globe and it’s affecting us all.”

He’s right. Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of the planet’s carbon emissions. The majority of textiles go to landfill and it’s estimated a single pair of jeans uses up to 20,000 litres of water in the creation process. One garment can cross UK-EU borders several times and cover thousands of air miles in its manufacturing process before it hits the shelves. The environmental cost of fashion is beginning to filter down to the high street too, with an influx of “conscious” and ethnical ranges.

However with Christopher’s brand, David Nieper, which was founded by his father 60 years ago, you’d be hard pushed to find a more sustainable business in the industry. And as UK fashion firms start to look for ways to save money post-Brexit, his business could be a blueprint for how to do home-grown manufacturing, all while helping the environment.

First, every single process is UK-based, and always has been. With a micro-distance supply chain, and workers living locally, the firm has never “offshored” work, Nieper says proudly. Every factory and site it owns is powered by solar or other green energy sources, and the firm has a rule that zero waste goes to landfill. Excess fabric is shredded and turned into bricks, which are then burnt to generate electricity. 

The firm also sponsors a school in its local town of Alfreton, the David Nieper Academy, which is part of its ethos of trying to boost the local area above anywhere else, which Nieper sees as part of the all-round package of sustainability.

He says his firm is “living proof” that it’s possible to be green and in the fashion business, and have all your supply chains within the UK. The firm was recently given the Queen’s Award for sustainable development, and he expects more businesses will start to look towards the UK as the current system isn’t working. The fact the UK couldn’t produce its own PPE was one flashpoint, as was the revelation a few years ago that the UK had very little capacity to make its own buttons and zips. 

Nieper says if there was just a five per cent swing back to UK manufacturing of clothes it would not only be more sustainable but create 26,000 jobs in the country. 

“We don’t need much of a swing to make a tremendous difference,” he adds. 

Avoiding the cost of shipments of materials back and forth between the EU and UK may be one driving factor, however Nieper believes the government’s net zero by 2050 target is a “massive thing” in the minds of consumers, as is the global UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, held in Scotland later this year. 

Kate Hills, founder of Make it British, which helps UK manufacturers and British-made brands find more customers, says Brexit was probably not what the fashion industry wanted but she believes there’s now a chance to adapt, and leave a smaller carbon footprint.

“There are lots of issues around the transition out of the EU but, from my perspective, long term it is potentially a good thing for UK manufacturing. We’ve got a whole load of hurdles to overcome in terms of staffing, skills, labelling, country of origin [rules], and a lot of investment is needed, without a doubt,” she adds. 

Making clothes here in the UK leaves a considerably smaller carbon footprint than global supply chains, she says, and it makes more sense to have production taking place locally, not “ping-ponging” around the world.

New post-Brexit duty has been a big adjustment for UK businesses, for example if fabric is being sent from Scotland to Portugal – a hub for the garment industry – then duty could be added on the fabric moving back and forth depending on how many manufacturing processes have been carried out. Hills knows of one business that, from fabric to a final blazer, faces paying duty three times under its current trans-European manufacturing process. 

“If they move the factory back to the UK from Portugal, they can avoid duty three times,” she says.
One very high-end fashion brand is already setting up a UK-based factory to avoid EU costs, Hills adds. 

A big hurdle is then making sure there are enough skilled machinists, the majority of whom come from the EU, and there’s a campaign within the industry to get this kind of work added to the skilled worker shortage occupation list.

And where might this renaissance in UK clothes manufacturing post-Brexit take place? In what is likely to be music to staunch Brexiteers’ ears, the geographical centres of yore could be revitalised, Hills suggests, placing them exactly where they were during the industrial revolution. 

The Midlands is already a base for outerwear; knitted and jersey materials are around Leicester; high-end knitwear is in Scotland, particularly the Borders; weaving has its base in Lancashire; and Yorkshire is known for its wool. 

Labour MP Catherine West, who is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, and was no fan of Brexit, says the split with the EU could create a more sustainable fashion industry, if enough investment is made by government.

She says “there are real opportunities”, but believes the government’s decision to axe its 2017 Industrial Strategy this March was a real mistake, adding that only through such initiatives can the case be made for machinists to be added to the shortage occupation list for visas. 

Instead the government has merged the strategy which had a focus on construction, life sciences and artificial intelligence, into the Treasury’s Plan for Growth, which focuses on how to rebuild the economy after coronavirus. 

“For Brexit to work … we have to maintain the expertise, which does mean looking at the shortage occupation list so we don’t lose 85 per cent of the workforce which is from the EU. 

“Technical skills like industrial pattern making, quality control – that needs to be nurtured,” she says. 

“I don’t know that we’d get to … everything in M&S being British-made, but we need the industry to be nurtured and for the government to invest.”

Comparing the government’s treatment of the fashion industry to other sectors, West points out that fishing has had huge support already, but it’s a £1bn industry, compared to the £35bn fashion industry.

Over the next few years, much of the innovation on how fashion can become even more sustainable will come from within the sector itself. Nieper is due to start work on a labelling system for clothing to help shoppers understand the environmental impact of garments. Working with other UK-based manufacturers and university academics, he wants to develop a graded system to be used in clothes tags. 

The British government could also add “sustainability” to its procurement process for garments like scrubs for hospital workers and textiles, not just best value for money. He says it might be cheaper to buy from the far east in the short term but from an emissions perspective, is it the best choice? 
“We need to take into account sustainability. Are we reducing our greenhouse gas emissions [by] making things on the other side of the world, when we could be making them in the UK? And are we helping the levelling-up agenda by making things on the other side of the world? 

“If we could bring those factors into procurement policy – resilience, levelling up, sustainability – alongside value for money, they could provide the seed corn to grow British manufacturing on the back of that.”

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