Opportunities and challenges for the UK textile and clothing industry continue to be debated, and an event that took place last week was no exception. 'A New Dawn - Rebuilding UK Textile Manufacturing' looked at how investment in skills and infrastructure is necessary to grow the sector, and set out the economic case for encouraging more retailers to source locally.

The UK apparel and textile sector is estimated to be worth GBP8.1bn (US$12.9bn)n sales during 2011, according to industry body the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT).

Exports account for some GBP7.3bn of this number - around 90.1%. Meanwhile, over GBP17bn worth of apparel was imported into the UK in 2011, with more than 75% of these imports coming from outside the EU. Imports of textiles stood at GBP3.6bn.

Vince Cable, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, emphasised the importance of the industry, which currently employs 100,000 people. He described the success of 'Made in Britain' and the "fight back" taking place.

But, he said, a new dawn for UK manufacturing "can always be a false dawn", adding that this opportunity "can't be allowed to slither away".

Designer Sir Paul Smith pointed out that while the UK has a heritage of making "good stuff", so too do other countries. He believes differentiation is key to helping the UK textile sector to grow - and that companies need to know "what you can offer that others can't".

He also suggested companies should think laterally to make their businesses more viable, for example, a Yorkshire textile mill taking on upholstery manufacturing. 

Can it be profitable?
Chris Carr, Professor of Textile Technology at the University of Manchester, outlined the cost benefits behind manufacturing in the UK, compared with Turkey or India.

While at first glance margins for spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing and finishing might appear better in either of these two countries, the UK either outperformed, or was close enough in terms of profitability to make it worth considering, once the addition of a sales price premium, capital grants and reduced shipping costs were taken into account.

He argued there is clear potential for profitably production in the UK, and that labour cost disadvantages can be offset by the increased responsiveness of UK manufacture.

Professor Emeritus Martin Christopher from Cranfield School of Management called for companies to take a more holistic view of sourcing decisions.

He said shorter product and technology life-cycles, along with competitive pressures, are leading to more frequent product changes. Yet continuing trends to offshore manufacturing have the potential to increase total supply chain costs and reduce agility.

As an example, he illustrated two sourcing scenarios for a company planning to sell 10 units of a single product each week.

An onshore pipeline would need to have 70 units in the pipeline - with 20 at the plant, 20 travelling to the distribution centre, 20 at the distribution centre and a further 10 in transit to the store.

However if the product is being made offshore, the company would need 30 at the plant, 20 in transit to the forwarder, 20 with the forwarder, a further 20 in ocean transit, 20 with the destination forwarder, 20 in transit to the distribution centre, 30 at the distribution centre and a further 10 in transit, leading to a total of 170 units in the pipeline.

Skills shortage
It's all well and good talking about how the industry needs to grow - but before this can happen it needs to combat the probelm of a small and ageing workforce by attracting and training the right workers.

Bill Macbeth, managing director of training and research body, The Textile Centre of Excellencesaid that 54% of employees in UK textile manufacturing and wholesaling are aged 45 years of age or over. And the industry is not attracting enough new talent, with 61% of workers having more than five years experience.

Describing the results of an employer survey conducted by government training body Creative Skillset, Macbeth said some 49% of companies believe they would encounter difficulties recruiting due to skills shortages.

He said the study also found there is inadequate knowledge about the textiles sector in UK schools and colleges, a lack of "basic employability skills" in many schools and college leavers, as well as inflexibility within apprenticeship schemes and a lack of relevant knowledge in key business areas.

In response to this issue, the GBP2m Employee Ownership of Skills Pilot launched in September aims to help employers shape training provision to their needs, increase collaboration between employers, and increase commitment from employers in investing in worker skills.

As Mike Flanagan also reports from the conference in his Flanarant column on just-style, the scheme offers encouraging evidence that public funds are being used to meet employers' needs.

But he also argues the real New Dawn for Britain's textile processors, garment makers and designers is about innovative businesses competing globally in unique market niches - not competing with Bangladesh and Indonesia.