There is a solid rationale behind locally-made textile manufacturing.
In a classic fast-fashion manufacturing cycle, it’s estimated that a pair of jeans goes around the world one and a half times before it gets in your shopping bag, or at your doorstep if you’re an online shopper. Say the cotton is cultivated in Afghanistan, it’s shipped to India to be woven into textile, then to China, Tunisia, Nigeria or Bangladesh to be dyed and sewed into the final product before being sent to warehouses and retailers around the world. Throughout that process, scarce resources like water, oil and sand have been wastefully exploited or polluted affecting the life expectancy and quality of life of millions and destroying natural ecosystems. That’s not to mention labor exploitation and exposure to chemicals.
What are locally made brands?
So when a brand makes the decision to manufacture its collections locally, it’s a conscious effort to reduce their environmental impact, to avoid human exploitation and to ensure transparency throughout the production process. For the consumer it can seem like a guarantee that it is an ethical brand, and even though some alarming reports have highlighted cases of labor exploitation in the UK or eastern Europe, most of the time, its a safe ethical bet.
For the purpose of this article, locally-made refers to western brands resorting to local manufacturing to keep their production circuit as short as possible. Most brands that operate in this way remain rather niche, which aligns with their objective of serving a local customer as well.
But can locally-made be the future of fashion? To what extent can locally-made manufacturing scale up? And does it make sense anyway?
Ideally, any sustainable, viable economic model in the fashion industry should revolve around deconsumption: buy less, own less, want less. However, any sustainable, viable economic model would still have to account for mass consumption because even as we urge consumers globally, and especially in affluent, predominantly western economies, to consume less, humanity does count 7 billion people, and growing each day.
Now, if we consider that ethical fashion should be the norm, and not the exception, we need to think about how it can scale up to accommodate the needs and wants of all, not just the lucky few who can access ethical fashion at a luxury price point. As long as it remains in the luxury segment, the ethical fashion industry cannot be considered a success.
Why we need to produce at scale
There is a reason why fast fashion exists, and while its excesses are draining the world’s natural and human resources, it remains important to recognize that for most of us, whether we live in developed or developing countries, making ends meet does not leave much room for high-priced clothing. This is something fashion recognized decades ago, and so mastodontes like Inditex and H&M have endeavored to lower their price tags all the while maintaining high margins. This is capitalism after all.
When it comes to reducing the cost of a final product, the two main options are to either reduce the cost of the raw material or reduce the cost of labor. In fashion, the first often leads to using cheaper, more polluting, more damaging textiles. The second leads to labor exploitation and automation. Textile and labor are both equally important.
The first thing to recognize is that when a brand is made locally, say made in France, it doesn’t necessarily make them an ethical option. They also need to be transparent on the provenance and the making of their raw material. Which is what has the highest environmental impact. Side note, in France, a product is considered made in France even if you only place one button, or sow a single stitch on the French territory. The whole garment may be made in China, but if the designer tag is stitched in France, it’s enough to label it as made in France. In fact, it is very rare that a brand is able to ensure that a product is made locally from start to finish. Not all countries could produce the cotton, linen, silk or oil required, and then have the infrastructure necessary to weave or process it into a textile. Nor should they.
But even considering that the raw material came from abroad, ethically and responsibly so, local manufacturing would quickly reach its limits. More than that, it would severely affect economies that depend on the textile industry to grow. Clothes manufacturing most often does not require a high-skilled workforce. And that is why it has been a key element in the development of the global economy. From England to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and now China, India and Nigeria, textile production has been the stepping stone allowing countries to upmarket their production capacity to more advanced industries that gradually become more service-based and/or capital intensive. In other words, textile production has the power to support the long-term growth of developing and least developing countries. This is what is known as the Flying Geese Paradigm.
Why globalization can be sustainable
This is a process that needs to be supported and regulated so as to avoid abusive practices that the industry relies on today. The idea is not that we keep taking advantage of an underrepresented, undervalued workforce, but that we take advantage of the fact that even when they receive a fair wage, benefits and decent working conditions, they maintain a comparative advantage over developed countries in terms of production costs.
This is what would allow fashion to be both ethical and accessible to lower/middle class households in developed countries, but also in developing countries. Because this model doesn’t thrive on exploitation but on fair compensation, it supports an emerging working class that can gradually access better basic services (housing, food, healthcare, education) and products.
According to this model, relocating and developing low-skill industries to developed countries does not make sense: they are supposed to already have graduated either to high-skill production industries (like high-tech) or capital/service based industries. They are supposed to have a strong middle class driving the economy and to have made major investments in public infrastructures and education, so that there shouldn’t be enough of a lower-skilled workforce to support a large-scale textile manufacturing industry.
This model is shaping up differently in different places. In Nigeria, fashion companies like Fashpa are developing brands that are made locally and sold nationally, regionally and internationally, but with a strong strategy to put African fashion on the map and with a predominant target audience in East Africa. Bangladesh has become the world’s top exporter of ready-to-wear, and has been striving to reduce the environmental impact of textile manufacturing, notably through the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT) in order to improve competitiveness and attract foreign investments.
At the same time, in Europe, factories in Portugal, Spain, Romania or Poland are offering ethical and sustainable production facilities at a lower cost than France, the UK or the US could, and with the added advantage of transparency, compliance and – to some extent – proximity.
It is impossible for developed countries to reclaim the space they used to have in the production cycle. Therefore, the way forward for Ethical fashion is to embrace emerging economies who depend on this industry to grow, and come to terms with the fact that when they have, production will have to move on to another, more cost-effective country – without losing track of the human and environmental cost. Simultaneously, regional hubs are developing, reducing the gap between manufacturer and retailer and giving both the power to compete with international power houses like Inditex, H&M or ASOS on local markets. Finally, while locally-made apparel can continue to thrive on the luxury segment, it is unlikely the engine that can democratize ethical fashion.