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17 May 2021

Politics and Society

A swift walk through the corridors of Westminster will highlight that for many working in politics, the fashion and textiles industry is not a top priority for them.

The blue M&S suit, worn with a luridly bright tie denoting political affiliation, is the sartorial norm men in Parliament.

Women, meanwhile, seem to be locked in a noughties nightmare of uncomfortable bodycon dresses, high heels and a brightly coloured box jacket, to again denote their political tribe.

Not since Theresa May’s £995 leather trousers and John Lewis sofa shoot at Downing Street in 2018 has it been so obvious that politics needs a fashion makeover.

This is not to promote the services of stylists and designers (though arguably this would not be a bad thing). Nor does this mean all politicians need a Carole Caplin or Lulu Litle refresh.

But a greater understanding of the UK’s largest creative industry could lead many more politicians to make more individualised choices, perhaps addressing sustainability, taste and personality with how they dress.

But this aside, the reason I feel this is important that a greater understanding of an industry worth £35 billion and employing nearly a million workers, could support the UK’s build back better agenda.

All too often the political establishment’s idea of the jobs market better resembles a Play School clip of jobs for kids from the 1970s, and not in any way realistically addressing where working life for our workforce is going: hurtling towards a digital, multi-hyphenate creative tech jobs market.

The reality of fashion’s (and many other industries’) global, just-in-time business model is being ignored. Politicians have also seemed equally enthralled to big business, when three out of five of us work in SMEs.

To address this, Fashion Roundtable have published our latest report surveying stakeholders and highlighting key concerns.

These range from their products stuck in German customs for over a month, to loss of access to our lucrative largest market just over the Channel since New Year’s Day, as well as confusion over intellectual property (IP), rules of origin and a lack of clear support.

There are just a handful of button and zip factories in the UK, and so you cannot make clothes in the UK without importing raw materials.

Meanwhile, the Government’s decision to not add garment workers to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), while the necessary T-Levels to train UK workers in the necessary skills are not being rolled out until September 2023, means that while Make It British has seen a 63% increase in brands wanting to manufacture in the UK in the last 12 months, there are not enough trained workforce to meet the demand.

Last summer, following the Leicester scandal when Labour Behind the Label highlighted exploitative factory practices (with workers earning less than £3.50 an hour) the Fashion Roundtable asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) whether they had done an impact assessment on modern slavery in the fashion supply chain. They had not.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s decision to scrap the VAT Retail Export Scheme (VAT RES) when the UK left the EU, is forecast to cause around 41,000 thousand job losses, reduce non-EU visitors to the UK by 7.3 %, and result in an estimated total decrease in spending by tourists by up to £1.8 billion.

To put this into context: fishing, which the Government has been so enthusiastically supporting, only contributes £1.2 billion to the UK economy.

The result of a decision to end VAT-free shopping for tourists could be ruinous for those sectors already reeling from the impact of Covid-19, and we believe that once the borders reopen for travel, it will also negatively impact on the overlapping sectors of hospitality.

A key concern highlighted by the UK fashion industry is that these changes threaten the UK’s status as a global hub for fashion creatives. Without urgent action we are facing the possibility of reducing the global presence of our design talent. The UK leads in fashion tech and the sector’s green innovation revolution.

The biannual London Fashion Week with its Positive Fashion remit, to Fashion Revolution Week each April, or events such as The Sustainable Angle’s Future Fashion Expo, all promote a future within the industry which is ahead of the curve in innovation and sustainability.

Meanwhile the UK’s world leading fashion tech economy, with companies such as ASOS, YNAP, FarFetch and Matchesfashion.com, all currently headquartered in the UK.

We call on the Government to support the sector with measures equal to other industries and affect the changes that will allow our industry to thrive, grow and facilitate the UK continuing to be a global hub for the creative industries.

I am all for building back better, but not on the funeral pyre of what already worked. The UK fashion and textiles industry punches well above its weight in terms of innovation, sustainable solutions and creative talent.

But it needs to be valued, address the worker exploitation and poor business practice issues and nurture an on-shoring, greener, cleaner and more long term vision: one which builds business from design to delivery across the UK – as Fashion District has piloted in East London.

We could roadmap a post-Brexit future for the UK, as we lead on the G7 summit and look toward COP 26.

I sincerely hope that the blue-suited policy advisers and politicians on all sides of the Chamber, take heed and see the beauty in our industry beyond the smirking headlines. It might do them, and the country, the world of good.

By Tamara Cincik, founder and CEO, Fashion Roundtable FRSA.

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