How To Find Ethical Clothing Factories as a UK Fashion Startup

Image: Burberry photographed by Thurstan Redding

A step-by-step guide to building a fair, reliable and resilient supply chain as an emerging designer.

Published 25th September 2020 by Nicole Obidowski

You’ve designed your collection, developed your patterns, maybe you’ve even had your first prototypes made. Now, you need to turn those samples into stock, to fill your e-commerce shop or fulfill your orders.

To do this, you will need to find factory partners: clothing manufacturers that you will be able to rely on season after season. Your supplier network will be one of the biggest assets to your business, and can make or break you. Due diligence will be required, and it is important that you are well prepared for the challenge.

And it will be a challenge. Reaching out to factories as a fashion startup, it can feel like the chips are stacked against you. If you are new to the industry, you might have little to no reputation to rely on, and as a new company, factories will not be able to cover your orders on their insurance. New brands typically start with small order volumes, and many have unrealistic expectations or unprofessional habits, leading to inefficient workflow. In short, you are a big, difficult risk for little reward.

When a factory chooses to work with you, they are placing a bet on your project, in the hopes that your company will become successful and reward them with big orders in the years ahead. Until then, you will have a lot to prove. Daunting as it may seem, by taking an organized and methodical approach, you can increase your chance of success and make the process much more manageable.

Garment Workers Coronavirus
Image Credit: Global Fashion Agenda

Step 1: Identify What You Need

Before you begin to reach out to factories, you will need to consider what you will require from a manufacturing partner. You should work out the answer to all of the following questions before you get going:

  • What kinds of products am I going to make? (If you have finished designs ready all the better)
  • How many of each piece do I expect to order?
  • When will I need my goods finished and delivered?
  • What price can I afford to pay the factory for the goods?

Answering these questions will help you with a couple of other very important initial decisions:

Where Should I Manufacture?

While most of the worlds clothing is now made in China or Bangladesh, the UK is still a viable country to run your production through, with highly skilled suppliers based in London, Manchester, Birmingham, and beyond.

UK manufacturing comes with several benefits over offshoring:

  • No customs duties to import the finished goods back to your warehouse.
  • Transporting goods from the factory will be cheaper, quicker, and have a much reduced carbon footprint.
  • You will be able to visit your factories much more regularly to personally audit staff working conditions and build a strong rapport with your manufacturing partners.
  • UK factories are often more willing to work with startups and will also have much lower minimum order quantities.

The biggest drawback to manufacturing in the UK is that it should be noticeably more expensive than manufacturing in most other countries, due to the higher cost of living.

I say “should” for a reason… it is important to remember that sweatshops exist in the UK too, and it is equally important to properly vet your factories whether you are manufacturing in Leicester or in Dhaka.

In the end, most companies set up their supplier network across a mix of countries. Diversity in your supply chain will make your production much more flexible and you can maximise the value of your garments by utilising various local specialties.

Setting out a Code of Conduct

In order to make sure your factories meet your ethical standards, you must first define those standards. A Code of Conduct is an important document that signals to your suppliers (as well as your customers) where your red lines are.

Begin by comparing the CoC’s of other brands, especially responsible brands you look up to. You can also find a good starter framework in the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Base Code.

Make sure it is clear that your CoC is a list of requirements, not just guidelines or suggestions, and that if the factory is found to be in breach of the code it could lead to the termination of your business relationship.

You should also take time to do a bit of research into the country or countries where you plan to manufacture, to learn about the particular working culture and specific types of exploitation that you should be looking out for, to explicitly build them into your code. For example, if you are manufacturing in LA you may wish to specify that you will not accept garment workers being paid by piecework rather than hourly wage.

You may also wish to make it clear that sub-contracting is not acceptable without your knowledge, and that any sub-contractor should be held to the same standards as your main suppliers.

Premiere vision Fashion Trade Fair
Image: Première Vision

Step Two: Outreach

Once you know what you want, it’s time to go out and find it. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is notoriously slow to embrace digital technology and simply Googling for factories is not going to cut it. Many of the best manufacturers are still putting little to no effort into their online presence.

By far the best way to find a good clothing factory is by recommendation. If you have friends who work for other fashion brands (preferably one with high ethical standards), ask them for suggestions. Do keep in mind that depending on the culture at the company they work for, your friend might get in trouble or even be found in breach of contract for sharing business contacts with a competitor.

If you are not so well connected, you can take on the services of a consultant (Hello!) who can take a look at your business and connect you with trusted factories that would be well suited to your company. A good consultant can also help you to make sure that your production expectations are reasonable and achievable, and protect you from being hoodwinked or greenwashed.

It will help you to find as many options as possible, as the vast majority of factories won’t end up being the right fit for you. That means that even when you have exhausted the Rolodex, it will be time for some further cold-calling.

First, take a look for upcoming trade fairs and see if there are any that you can attend. Make it British run a biannual trade fair in London where you can browse UK factories, and Première Vision hosts international manufacturers from all around the world, twice a year, including showcases for sustainability pioneers.

Attending shows to speak to factory owners face to face, while reviewing samples of their work, is a great way to efficiently find factory partners. If you are unable to attend trade fairs in person, there are many directories you can find online that are worth a look. You can consult Make it British and Let’s Make it Here for local manufacturing, and Common Objective have a helpful list of international ethically run factories.

Step 3 : Trial Run

Once you have identified some possible options, you will need to open a dialogue and give it a test run.

The first thing will be to have an open and honest conversation with your potential suppliers about your expectations.

They will want to know what your estimated order volumes will be, what kind of timeline you are working on, and what prices you are looking to pay based on example styles.

Make sure you ask them about their typical lead times (the length of time between when you place the order, and when they finish the goods) and what their MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) is. (Pro Tip: If their MOQ is higher than you wanted, ask them if they can manufacture smaller quantities with a surcharge applied… the answer is often yes.)

If your timings, prices and volumes are compatible, you can then move on to the next steps.

At this point very early on in the relationship, it is important to communicate to them clearly your own values as a company. Find out if they hold any certifications such as Fairtrade, GOTS, Sedex or SA8000. Provide them with your Supplier Code of Conduct and ask them to review it carefully, to let you know if they would have any problem fulfilling any of your requirements.

If they are on board with your standards, it’s time to get a test sample made, before committing to a production order. This sample will allow you to see their level of craftsmanship – even if they have shown you examples of their past work, quality level can vary especially if they are not used to handling the type of fabric or garment you are making.

Step 4 : Maintenance

Your manufacturing network will take constant management and you won’t be able to rest on your laurels just because you have found the right partners. It will take hard work to maintain strong relationships with your existing factories. On top of this, you will need to find new partners to help with any new product categories, and should establish secondary manufacturers for backup and overflow orders.

You will need to set up on-going structures to ensure compliance from your factories, through regular auditing, preferably by an impartial third party. Consider participating in a scheme such as Accountable to maximise transparency in your auditing process.

Prepare yourself for many disappointments along the way: some factories will promise you the earth and deliver you much, much less. Even factories that pass your initial vetting period or turn in good work initially may change overtime and no longer be viable partners.

The good news is all that hard work will be worth it. Building close relationships with good manufacturing partners is essential to delivering high integrity product. It can also be one of the most rewarding elements of working in the fashion industry, as others share their years of expertise and skill with you.

You will rely on them more than anyone else in your business, and if you show them the respect they deserve, they will in turn do everything they can to help your company thrive.

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