Does ‘Made in Britain’ Mean Your Clothes Are More Sustainable?

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
Whether or not you know the ins and outs of the labour rights movement within fashion, it’s unlikely you’ve managed to escape all news of criminally low wages, human rights abuses or deadly factory disasters, often reported from countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China and India, and detailed in documentaries such as 2015's shocking The True Cost. It may not be to the same extreme degree but Britain isn't immune to controversy. Over the last 40 years, British clothing manufacturing moved offshore as brands chased ever-cheaper labour in the name of ever-cheaper prices. Now, the chance of finding something that was made in the same country as it was bought has shrunk enormously.
It's easy to assume that a Union Jack motif on a label or a brand declaring pride in its British heritage means that a piece of clothing is more ethical or potentially more environmentally friendly, but is it actually true?

British manufacturing is not a guarantee of better wages or transparency. However, Britain has labour and employment laws and environmental standards that should ensure products are made in a way that is fair. 

Isabel Holland, HADES
To buy something which has been manufactured in Britain doesn’t only seem like a rarity, it also feels like a reassurance. We tend to imagine that problems like wage theft and dangerous working conditions only exist overseas, and that anything made in Britain is subject to much stricter rules and regulations. In some cases, the latter is true. Hard-fought, union-won UK laws stipulating maximum working hours of 48 hours per week on average, the right to overtime pay, the right to rest breaks and sick pay, and the right to request flexible working should make for a fair work environment. But as we know, this isn't always the case.
Fast fashion brands including Boohoo and Missguided came under fire in 2010 and again in 2017 when investigations conducted by Channel 4's Dispatches into garment factories in Leicester alleged that the brands were using factories that paid employees as little as £3 per hour, far below the legal minimum wage. (Boohoo and Missguided told Dispatches that the factories in question were being used by subcontractors without the brands' knowledge and subsequently pledged to conduct regular audits of all their suppliers and help them to improve conditions for workers.) More recent investigations found that Leicester factory workers were forced to work during COVID lockdowns, putting their lives at risk.
"British manufacturing is not a guarantee of better wages or transparency," says Isabel Holland, cofounder of British-made knitwear brand HADES. "However, Britain has labour and employment laws and environmental standards that should ensure products are made in a way that is fair." 
Such laws, when implemented, generally mean higher costs for the consumer because fair prices are paid across the board, for everything from fabric to labour. Some feel this makes products expensive and inaccessible but Tim Browne, director of Ministry of Denim Ltd (and member of the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange) says that better communication from brands could combat this. "Brands need to consider what is a fair price for the product they are manufacturing to ensure a truly sustainable business relationship can be established. If this means prices need to increase at consumer level, brands should be explaining the reasoning behind the price rises to their consumers," he says.
MAES London is a luxury womenswear manufacturer that counts Halpern and Christopher Kane among its clients. It invites clients to visit its factory in north London and see where their clothes are made and meet the people making them. All employees are paid above the national living wage and the vast majority over the London living wage of £11.95. Ethical fashion brand Birdsong also pays the London living wage and recently switched to manufacturing for other brands, employing the same London-based makers it worked with to produce its own lines. "If you're an independent maker, I do think it is the case that [manufacturing in Britain] can be more ethical. You're going to be making less product, you're going to know where your products come from and you're not going to be wasting anything because you can't afford to," says the brand’s cofounder Susanna Wen. 
"What we are committed to is making sure that the people who are working on the garments are paid well, they are taken care of, they have holidays, they have contracts, there's some kind of protection for them in order for them to continue working in this trade," says Diana Kakkar, founder of MAES.
As well as fairer pricing, there are other benefits to local manufacturing, including forging close connections with the people making the clothes, something that has got lost in the last few decades as fashion has begun to operate at lightning speed. "Fashion [designers] don't really have relationships with their makers necessarily. They may have visited the factory but they most likely have not. Having that connection with our makers in London – [where] I can go and see them whenever I want – it’s a completely different relationship. It's like they’re members of the team as much as the people in our HQ," says Wen. 
Supporting existing, often dwindling, heritage manufacturing industries is another major plus. In prioritising bargain prices, brands that offshore production often fail to invest in local craftsmanship, leaving artisans jobless and specialist techniques without vital custodians who can pass them down to the next generation, either through family or in the factory. "The knitwear industry in Hawick, Scotland, dates back to the 18th century. With this comes phenomenal knowledge regarding how to work with wool," says Holland, who works with artisan makers from Hawick on HADES’ jumpers and scarves, using wool from a local, family-run mill. "Manufacturing supports local and historic craftsmanship. There are only a small number of British manufacturers left; if we don’t protect these skills, these jobs will die out and the communities that surround them will disappear." Likewise, Hiut Denim is reviving the denim industry in the Welsh town of Cardigan by making 200 pairs of jeans a week, while Community Clothing manufactures all its garments in factories in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Scotland and south Wales to sustain jobs and reinvigorate historical British manufacturing communities.
There are also environmental benefits to producing locally. According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s "Fixing Fashion" report, the fashion and textiles industry produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Manufacturing in Britain has been found to create 47% less emissions compared to a similar operation overseas. It cuts down on so-called ‘fashion mileage’ too. "Manufacturing abroad means higher travel mileage, with products having to be flown or shipped," says Holland. If you’re making the clothes where you’re selling them, you’re cutting the carbon emissions associated with sending them from place to place as they’re sampled and manufactured. 
That said, 'made in Britain' doesn’t always mean that what you’re wearing has only ever existed within our borders. The likes of Community Clothing and HADES prioritise British fibres like wool wherever possible but if you’re wearing fabrics like cotton, silk or synthetics, they’ve likely been grown or produced thousands of miles away because we don’t have the climate or the facilities here. Even the non-wool fibres we can produce, like hemp, woad and flax, are grown rarely or in small quantities because there’s so little demand.
"I think there's a perception that it is better to be localised but nearly none of the fibres are from here so more often than not you're still dealing with supply chains from other places," explains Rachel Kan, circular fashion consultant at Circular Earth. "When I'm talking to clients who want to create in the traditional way, I am at the level where I'm saying, 'You can probably just about get that woven here or knitted here depending on what it is, but your yarn will still have to come from Turkey or India or at [closest] Portugal'. It’s managing those expectations that you can't actually grow cotton in the UK."
Despite the limitations of what 'made in Britain' means, for many designers it’s worth it for a shorter supply chain, a personal relationship and – when a brand is run ethically and responsibly – the peace of mind of knowing exactly where your garment makers are working, how they’re being treated and what they’re paid. But the positives of local manufacturing should not automatically cast a shadow over manufacturing in countries like Bangladesh. There is a common perception that overseas manufacturing hubs are all sweatshops and child labour but this is a damaging stereotype, often rooted in racist perceptions. "People want to reshore generally because we think producing in China, India, Bangladesh or Pakistan is bad and wrong. [But] there's a lot of amazing skills that have been created over these last three decades. We shouldn’t just stop doing it," says Kan, who imagines a future of thriving local hubs each serving their own markets. This, she explains, will come from "decentralised, localised economies". It's a very future-facing idea but one which could form a healthier fashion industry without pitting manufacturing hubs against each other.
Kakkar, who grew up in India and spent her fashion education working in embroidery houses and factories, says there are "so many healthy options". "You have really good factory owners out there who are driven with value, and they have integrity. When there are low margins and when there’s a lack of promised orders perhaps, that’s when factory owners are put into desperate situations," she continues. But that is not unique to countries in the Global South; it is a fact of business worldwide. "Unfortunately I don’t think nearly enough has been done by either policy makers or consumers to ensure responsible, ethical manufacturing, not only in Bangladesh but all around the globe. Policy makers have not established any real legislation that would guarantee the ethical, environmental provenance of any garment being manufactured, and consumers, largely, are driven by price of products – with no real consideration of the true value in terms of human and environmental costs of the product they are buying," says Browne.
'Made in Britain' can carry many benefits but it’s not a guarantee. Just like any other garment, you need to look beyond the label to find the real story. Read brand websites to see if they talk about their garment makers in specific terms; better yet, seek out reviews and research written by people unrelated to the brand. Accountability and transparency reports by the likes of Remake and Fashion Revolution are a great place to start. Make use of websites such as Good on You and Greenwash to check brand credentials and never forget you’re entitled to reach out to brands directly, too. If they’re proud of how and where they make their clothes, they’ll want to show off about it.

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