Sustainable manufacturing - The blunt side of the Cheap Needle.
I came to Finisterre after working as a fashion designer for 5 years in large high street brands. I left the world of fast fashion behind, because I was frustrated at what I saw was an abuse of power, screwing suppliers over for margin gain and throw-away trends. I felt sure things could be done differently. I came to Finisterre with my own ideas about how apparel could move towards a sustainable future and my ideas were matched by passionate individuals, who shared the same desire to change things. Together we set out on a journey to improve and to learn. We are still learning.
Our journey has taken us far away and back again, but we've learnt that manufacturing is never black and white; sometimes made in the UK is the best option, but other times Europe offers expertise superior from an ethical and quality point of view. Often we've strived to bring things closer to home, only to find that to make it local may mean moving the making to the far east, closer to the best raw materials available. We have found that each factory cannot be taken at face value or for often meaningless accreditations, but that it is the relationships and the shared commitment from individuals that moves things forwards. Through exploring our own supply chain in our Ispy traceability programme, we constantly investigate new ways to shrink our supply chain, to localise and identify areas to improve.
Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to be invited on behalf of Finisterre to the Sri Lanka Design Festival. Hosted by the Academy of Design in Sri Lanka, which is supported by Falmouth University, Cornwall, whom we work closely with on the fashion and performance sportswear course. The festival was set in the tropical Mount Lavinia Beach Hotel. Sunshine and warm hosts aside, the theme of the festival focussed on homegrown creativity in design and craft, as well as promoting a sustainable supply chain, through factory visits. I jumped at the chance to take in the talents of this beautiful region and investigate new manufacturing opportunities. But I hadn't bargained on the experience I would get on day three of the four day trip - The South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum, an event that brought together giants from western retail brands, alongside Sri Lankan manufacturing heavyweights.
The debate centred largely around the issue of what Sri Lanka's niche could be, in the race to snatch production opportunities from the surge of retailers leaving China in search of "the cheap needle." That is finding alternative cheaper regions to make stuff in, as a reaction to China's 15% wage increases, plus the need to satisfy their own rising middle class market. On the western retail side of the debate the struggling global economy came up time and again, and there was a general consensus from the manufacturers side that they had done their bit by investing in 'green' factories, enduring crazy audits and doing their best to accommodate low prices from retailers. Back on the other side of the coin, there was disagreement from value retailers about whether Sri Lanka should be about cheapness or about quick lead-times. A well-known UK brand admitted that they'd moved from China to Sri Lanka to make higher spec gear, enjoying a three week delivery-time, but that they'd moved a further 20% of production away from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh because of high costs. Another had got the low prices by increasing their volumes instead of paying a higher unit price. Yet there was concern from all that raw material sourcing is limited and in a country with 95% employment, labour is in short supply. Then there was the 'green' word again, that this was Sri Lanka's manufacturing niche, they had in-built 'green' policies through "Garments without Guilt" - a national initiative to avoid conflicting accreditations, but there was discontent amongst manufacturers that retailers were not supporting the scheme or marketing it.
Up to this point I was more of a spectator, soaking up the sparring, and you may well ask what little Finisterre were doing there; we don't manufacture out of Sri Lanka and a retail giant we are not. But the reason I was sat 5,000 miles away from the workshop was to make sure the voice of the little guy was heard and to stir things up a little. I listened for hours from the western retail side about cheap prices and the gloomy state of the global economy and from the factory perspective about green investment and rising costs, but nobody appeared to be listening to one another. Surely these guys were missing the point? We are not in the grip of a global economic crisis, but a Western one, with China and India making the EU combined economy look like tight pocket money; isn't it time we re-looked at the manufacturing game, stopped focussing on cheapness and mere green ticking and realised the "cheap needle" has run out of land. Here's an idea….
"Why not stop making more and more cheap stuff, and instead make less but better, and charge a fair price for it?"
...The mic was on and in my hand at this stage… The panel looked blankly back at me and asked me to re-phrase my question...
"It's not a question, more of an idea"
... more blank looks...Then after an awkward pause I was told that that would be "commercial suicide", "against fast-fashion and idealistic" and "not what the customer is asking for". It seemed the big players in the room were not ready or did not want to talk about this subject and I was urged to move the mic over to the next topic. But in the break I was approached by individuals from small brands who wanted to express the same frustrations and share their ideas. In the mini debate that followed, there was agreement that fast fashion obsolescence was not a sustainable reality and that we need to work together with customers and suppliers alike, with quality and durability as the focus. It became clear to me then that we are embarking on a new era beyond manufacturing, one of exciting opportunities, and that it is the brands willing to accept this sea-change who will be the ones to step up and set the agenda for the future. With a bundle of business cards in hand, new contacts made and head buzzing, I flew back to Finisterre, to a place where ideas and dreams are still encouraged, ready for the next stage of the journey.
The journey continues, watch this space….