Textiles and Brexit: No Silver Lining

I recently visited the Textile Centre of Excellence in Huddersfield. It is a wonderful example of the sort of innovative, cutting-edge research and manufacturing that goes on across Yorkshire and the Humber. From pioneering projects that look to transform the ecological footprint of the textiles sector, to world-beating three-piece suits that are embedded with their own fraud-proof genetic code, the Centre is at the forefront of the industry.

The textiles industry is the second most polluting sector in the world. But at the Centre, textile experts are working on new technology that would reduce water usage by more than 75%, chemical usage by 95% and reduce energy consumption by 90%. Co-funded by the European Union, the project is called the Multiplate Laser Surface Enhancement (MSLE) process. It uses plasma and a high-power ultraviolet laser to change the composition of a fabrics to make them waterproof, fire-retardant or even antimicrobial. This research is going on in the heart of Huddersfield and has the potential to revolutionise the textiles industry worldwide.

Speaking with Managing Director of the Textile Centre Bill Macbeth gave a fascinating insight into the history of textiles in the region. But it also came with some worrying warnings about Brexit.

Fashion is a global industry, and textiles in the UK is no exception. As a result, the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU is of great importance for weavers, fabric-makers and fashion designers alike. The EU accounted for 74% of the UK’s exports of textiles and apparel in 2016, a total of £9.1 billion in trade. The UK relies on the EU for the material for its clothes as well, with 44% of textiles in the UK are imported  from the EU.

Much has been said about the intricate supply chains across Europe for cars, much less about cardigans. But a garment warehoused in the UK could have fabric from one EU country, anti-counterfeiting hardware from another, and be manufactured in a third before finally being shipped out from the UK to be sold abroad. Any barriers to trade resulting from leaving the customs union or diverging from single market regulations would risk textiles manufacturers moving production outside the UK. And the textiles and apparel industry as a whole accounts for 800,000 jobs in Britain, contributing £26 billion to the UK economy.

The industry also relies heavily on the ability of EU citizens to bring their skills to the UK. Many leading designer names at London Fashion Week are from other EU Member States. In London, 70% of the textile manufacturing workforce are EU citizens, while there are approximately 120,000 EU workers in the UK retail industry. Although the specialist skills of textile manufacturers are much in demand, they often don’t meet the £35,000 Home Office threshold required for non-EEA visas. The industry thrives on creative collaboration that would only be damaged by restricting migration of EEA workers.

Huddersfield’s Textile Centre for Excellence is also a remarkable example of the benefits of European funding and cooperation. To give just a few examples: the Centre takes part in Clustem, a European project that connects knowledge-intensive textile sectors across the EU; it has an Eco-Innovation Project co-funded by the EU that focuses on making textile manufacturing more clean, green and sustainable; the Centre also runs a very successful apprenticeship scheme called Edu4Tex, funded by Erasmus+, that looks to inspire young people to get involved in the textiles sector. Across all sectors, European funding supports innovation, sustainability, learning and collaboration. The textiles centre in Huddersfield is an example of the benefits that European funding can bring.

Brexit puts these benefits under threat. No wonder, then, that people are starting to question whether this mess is really worth it.

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