We at Worn Again have set out the ambitious vision of encouraging a shift in manufacturing back to the UK by moving our production of upcycled products close to home after our beginnings in China and later to Portugal.
After an enlightening journey visiting what used to be a thriving hub of manufacturing in the UK, in Coventry and Manchester, I'm left musing the following and pondering solutions...
Fact number one. 'Upcycling' or making products out of disused materials costs more than using conventional textiles. Normally the fabric required for a product would arrive at the factory on neat and orderly rolls. These rolls would simply get unravelled and stacked into tidy layers and then uniformly chopped into the necessary shapes to be mass produced/ sewn into lots of lovely homogeneous products.
To upcycle a new bag out of what used to be a train uniform jacket or a hot air balloon, the companies who donate their disused materials to us have to organise the the collection of the materials and get them to us. Worn Again then has to clean and transport them to our factory. Factory workers then need to de-construct materials created for one purpose into uniform pieces to be cut into something completely different. This could include cutting a whole hot air balloon into manageable/ washable strips before even thinking about cutting them into patterns for bags.
The entire upcycling process takes time which = increased labour costs to make a product which would be much cheaper using brand new textiles. One manufacturer jokingly questioned why we even bothered. It kinda made me wonder :-)
On top of this... Fact number two. Manufacturing in the UK costs more than producing in Far East and Eastern European factories where labour costs are much cheaper and skills have been developed to make our stuff. Higher minimum wages in the UK (£5.73/ hour) puts a premium cost on a product which has taken 30 minutes to put together (let alone the 30 minutes or more to prepare the misshapen original materials). Compare this to around 50 cents or 33 pence an hour, minimum wage in China, and it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that the RE:Made in the UK product will be much higher on the high street, taking into account the usual factors like the factory's margin, operational costs and margin for Worn Again, sales agent percentage, logistics, retailer margin, etc.
What the 'making products from new textiles' process doesn't calculate is the savings in CO2 emissions from not producing new textiles - involving energy and raw resources, shipping them around the planet to cheap labour sources and then shipping them again to us. Nor does it include the environmental costs of sending waste materials to landfill. Consider these externalities in the end product and the economically more expensive product actually works out cheaper.
So the challenges are, how do we communicate this to consumers but more importantly why should consumers have to pay more for responsibly produced products? We need to get government and businesses to reassess real costs of producing goods and we need to create a sustainable pricing model that addresses these issues.
More than just a couple of nice guys with a couple of nice bags, we aim to come up with a few answers. Get involved, join the debate,
it's going to be a long road.