When we buy our clothes, we give little thought to where they are from and how they got here. However, the UK’s departure from the European Union’s Single Market and Customs Union may make us take a closer look at how the fashion industry works.
We’ve hardly begun to see the effect Brexit is having on our fashion exports and imports, but one thing’s for certain; there are serious challenges ahead.
Fashion is a £35bn industry that needs free movement for goods and services if it is to operate globally, but at the moment customs arrangements still have to be hammered out.
If that doesn’t happen, the future of the UK fashion industry hangs in the balance.
That has serious consequences, not only for those who design and manufacture clothing but for the millions who earn a living from the retail sector.
Uniquely, fashion is an industry that thrives on global cooperation.
For example the shirt you’ve just bought could have been designed in one country, produced in another and sold in a third.
This chain of production will be seriously affected if say, the person sourcing requires a visa to enter the EU or if the company is reliant on services from outside the UK.
Factor in that the UK imports almost £10 billion worth of clothes and shoes from Europe each year, and that more than 10,000 European staff work in the British fashion industry, and it’s easy to see why calls for a simplification of the system are becoming increasingly more urgent.
Already, we’re seeing the negative impact Brexit is having on consumers and businesses.
Customers ordering online from the EU have been hit with hefty charges before their goods have reached them, and those companies importing and exporting from Europe are encountering a mountain of red tape.
The consequences of this, coupled with the devastation wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic, means it is inevitable that some businesses will not be able to survive.
At best, we’ll almost certainly be paying more for our clothing.
Customers unaware of the complex nature of how fashion is produced may be wondering why the cost of clothing is increasing.
It’s simple; there are no longer the tariff agreements in place to make moving goods through Europe simpler and cost effective.
However, it’s not all gloom and doom.
British brands carry a lot of kudos, and many labels that carry a ‘made in Britain’ and heritage label have fans all over the world.
There are also indications that British brands are thriving in a post-Brexit world, which is in part the result of the drop in the value of the sterling, making goods cheaper to sell abroad.
What fashion businesses need now is long-term investment to allow them to ride the tidal wave of uncertainty which they are feeling at present.
There also needs to be more awareness about how the fashion world operates, so consumers make more informed choices about what they buy.
Maybe Brexit will be a massive opportunity for British design, leading the way in the production of sustainable fashion and in fostering diversity.
Only time will tell.