Bill Macbeth, Managing Director, Textile Centre of Excellence, Huddersfield
John Miln, Chief Executive, UK Fashion and Textile Association
The UK fashion and textiles sector comprises over 79,000 businesses, employing over 340,000 people. Gross value added (GVA) for the sector in the UK is estimated at over £11.5 billion, with GVA per head measured at an average of £34,220. Textile manufacture (£3bn), clothing manufacture, the wholesaling of clothing and footwear and laundry and dry-cleaning services are individually worth over £1bn.
With the lowering of economic barriers to trade, low transport costs and the enabling effect of communications technology, manufacturing activity has gravitated to the countries of lowest overall cost. This move to offshore manufacturing has been witnessed in the textile sector alongside other UK manufacturing sectors. The attraction of lower-wage economies has led to the relocation of low and medium value production to a variety of EU and Asian countries, although much of the sector’s design and sales capacity has remained in the UK. UK based textiles manufacturing has increasingly focussed on high-value, design-led and knowledge-intensive products, offering increasing levels of customisation and specialisation, in short, higher quality products.
Along with the rest of UK industry, the textile sector is witnessing an accelerating rate of change. Developing countries including China and India, with their perceived endless supplies of cheap labour, are now witnessing change associated with growing/emerging economies. The growth of middle class groups has brought new expectations as workers start to demand better working conditions and better pay, with Chinese mills reportedly having to pay annual increases of up to 25% a year simply to keep their workers in the textile industry.
Increased living standards also lead to increased consumer demand with numbers of Chinese mills deciding that supplying their domestic market is preferable to dealing with Western customer brands. This has rapidly led to increased lead times, making it more difficult for UK companies to respond to the changing demands of the market. When coupled with the rise in transport and logistics costs, offshore production cost advantages are being eroded leading to increasing numbers of UK companies seeking the more flexible option of production closer to home which would allow for higher raw material stocks to be maintained and significantly reduce lead times, enabling a more responsive production capacity.
The emergence of the ‘BRIC’ economies has also triggered an expected increase in demand for luxury goods produced by UK manufacturers. This welcome growth in demand has however raised major issues about the UK’s capacity to respond, particularly regarding the availability of skilled labour as a high proportion of the sector’s skilled workforce is nearing retirement age.
The Growth of Technical Textiles
The term “technical textiles” was coined in the 1980s to describe the growing variety of products and manufacturing techniques being developed primarily for their technical properties and performance rather than their appearance or other aesthetic characteristics. It largely superseded an earlier term “industrial textiles” (still widely used in the USA) which had become too restrictive in its meaning to describe the full complexity and richness of this fast growing area. A major international exhibition, Techtextil, was launched in 1985 to reflect the growth of technical textiles and soon developed a simple taxonomy that has been used ever since to describe the scope of this new industry and market sector.
Within each of these headings are literally hundreds of products and applications for textiles, some traditional, some replacing other well-established materials and techniques, and some that have been newly created by the unique properties and capabilities of textile materials and structures. The automotive industry is not only one of the largest single markets for technical textiles but also one of the most diverse. Applications range from tyre cord, hose and drive belt reinforcements to thermal and sound insulation, safety belts and airbags, filters, cable harnesses and textile reinforced composites for body and suspension parts. Even the internal furnishings of a car headliners, seating, carpets, parcel shelf and trunk liners are all regarded as technical textiles because of the extremely demanding specifications to which they are made and tested. As just one other example, the medical and hygiene textiles market ranges from high volume disposable products for babies’ nappies, hygiene and incontinence through to extremely specialised and high value textile products for use in blood filtration, surgical sutures, prostheses and, most recently, scaffolds for new tissue growth.
The new promise of technical and performance textiles is an emerging generation of products combining the latest developments in advanced flexible materials with advances in computing and communications technology, biomaterials, nanotechnology and novel process technologies such as plasma treatment.
These will eventually have a direct impact upon all sorts of consumer textile markets, including both clothing and furnishings. The field of ‘wearable electronics’ has already captured the imagination of many researchers and large corporations and, although most products on the market today are relatively unsophisticated ‘implants’ of conventional electronics and wiring, the prospect of truly interactive textiles embodying sensors, actuators and logic circuits built into the structure of the fibres, yarns and fabrics themselves is not impossibly far-fetched.
The UK is well placed, with the right investment, to become a world-leader in this high value and growing field, where the best of academia, R&D and industry can be brought together.
Priorities for Industrial Strategy:
1. Increased Support for Skills Development
UK textile companies are facing significant challenges that result from the global growth in demand at a time when the sector will be losing key technical capability as a result of the ageing workforce. The sector faces significant disadvantages of recruiting able young people into the industry. This results from a widespread lack of understanding of opportunities within the sector and a continued belief that the majority of young people are best served by entering further and higher education, with the consequent decline in industry-led Apprenticeship and technical programme entrants.
The industry is preparing plans to undertake a proactive and widespread campaign to raise the level of awareness of opportunities within the sector in schools.
There is an urgent need for increased levels of technical skills if the sector is to take advantage of opportunities presented by growing markets, new technologies and renewed interest in manufacturing in the UK. While some activity is underway, including Creative Skillset’s Higher Apprenticeship programme, more support is required to develop content which is relevant to the industry and the markets served.
2. The Importance of Innovation
All commentators recognise the importance of constant product and process innovation if UK manufacturers are to remain competitive.
The Technology Strategy Board has recognised the importance of investment in technologies that are relevant to the competitiveness of the UK manufacturing sector. The traditional challenge of linking the expertise of the UK’s (academically based) R&D sector to commercial manufacturing must be met if UK companies are to maximise growth in Technical textile markets. Key development areas include:
- 3D weaving, producing preforms from lightweight textile structures for infusion with composites to produce stronger, lighter components for the aerospace, automotive and medical industries;
- Surface enhancement treatments particularly employing plasma, Nano, and laser technologies for the ’dry production’ of fabrics with enhanced hydrophobic, fire retardant and anti-microbial properties.
Ground-breaking work in these and other industry-relevant fields is happening in Yorkshire where the Textile Centre of Excellence is working closely with the University Of Leeds School Of Technical Textiles. It is vital that investment into these areas is maintained if full commercial benefit is to be realised.
3. Creating a Climate for Growth
A deliberate policy mix is required to invigorate economic growth. The recovery from the economic crisis remains as slow and difficult in the textile sector as it is in the rest of UK manufacturing. Solutions concerning monetary and budgetary policies must be coordinated at EU Member State levels as around 90% of high quality UK textile production is targeted at export markets. Monetary policies must be matched with a sensible tax policy that does not introduce disincentives for growth. The sector will also benefit from the creation of a business-friendly environment, encouraging foreign investment into the sector and presenting the UK as an attractive manufacturing location, supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Further initiatives to promote energy resource and efficiency will reinforce current sector developments which have the potential to position the UK as a world leader in the field of sustainable low carbon, resource efficient manufacturing.
4. Export Support
Many companies in the UK textile manufacturing and fashion sector have received public support through grant schemes sponsored by UKTI. While these initiatives are valuable, entering export markets is still seen as a relatively high risk activity for many businesses and longer term support is needed.
In 2012/13 the UK Fashion & Textile Association will be organising British groups at the following textile and technical textile fairs: Première Vision and Indigo (Paris), Heimtextil (Frankfurt), Techtextil (Frankfurt) and Intertextile (Shanghai). These events benefit from limited funding under the UKTI TAP scheme, which is directed primarily at small and medium-sized companies. Larger companies will be included in the promotions of the groups at these shows but under current rules the companies will not receive direct support. In addition, UKFT is working on a Performance Textiles handbook listing UK companies with support from UKTI. These efforts are much needed, but much more needs to be done to ensure that textile companies are encouraged to travel to new export markets. Sector missions and receptions at the British Embassies in key markets could be reinstated to the programme to support this.
Furthermore, support to extend the export guarantee initiative, (which is in place for the UK film industry) to other sectors would provide valuable support for export payment insurance which would serve to reduce perceived risk. Companies in the sector would also benefit from increased levels of bank lending to SME’s and new start-ups.
In April 2012, UKFT launched its new manifesto which calls on Government to engage in a closer dialogue on behalf of the fashion and textile industry.
Creative Skillset Skills Group’s Report to the Creative Industries Council
Skillset Sector Skills Assessments
The Alliance for a Competitive European Industry Manifesto
Euratex: Future EU Industrial Competitiveness (June 2010)