The Conundrum of Shopping Local: Australian-Made or Australian-Owned?
by Mike-Dave Ayeni
Sustainable Fashion Writer
According to statistics from the United Nations trade data, only 4% of clothing sold in Australia was made domestically until this year. It is no secret that most Australian sustainable fashion brands do not manufacture their products locally - or more accurately, can not. The cost of local production is way more expensive than these small brands can afford while keeping their prices affordable and their production processes ethical. They do their best to maintain a traceable supply chain and ensure that the businesses we support are fuelled by wholesome, sustainable, and ethical practices. And while we acknowledge these notable efforts, in becoming a more conscious consumer community in Australia, we cannot ignore the effect that manufacturing overseas and shipping in our products may have on our environment and carbon footprint.
This is why we must look into the question of why local manufacturing is neither favourable nor profitable to Australian brands and how it can be better.
Why it is Difficult to Manufacture Local
- The manufacturing industry is under-equipped
Mass-producing fashion items require specialised equipment, machines, and factories. This technology is not readily available in the Australian manufacturing industry and this scarcity drives up the cost of production considerably. This means that brands looking to manufacture their products in very large quantities within Australia will most likely have to purchase their equipment themselves, set it up and hire skilled labour to operate it... the task becomes increasingly difficult and more expensive at every step.
The lack of adequate machinery puts a great limit on the number of products that can be manufactured, making it even more difficult to meet the rising demand for Australian-made products. The effect that this has is that local brands outsource their production to established offshore factories which can take on the mass-production of orders generated by fashion retail.
- There is a staffing shortage in the Australian TCF (Textile, Clothing, and Footwear) industry
Skilled labour is one of the most scarce resources in the industry. There are very few trained professionals available for hire and there is even less new interest in taking manufacturing jobs. Largely, the fashion production labour force in Australia is made up of female immigrants who are understandably not very confident in the security of their jobs in the industry.
The manufacturing industry suffered a huge setback early during the pandemic due to the series of lockdown rules that made it difficult for people to work onsite. What made the risk even greater was the lack of assurance that their jobs would still be available post-pandemic, seeing as the fashion industry suffered during the lockdown.
If the fashion manufacturing industry is to see sustainable growth in Australia, then there is a need to both inspire interest in it as a lucrative career choice, and create stability within the industry that can reassure potential employees.
- The lower cost of manufacturing overseas
Most of Australia's textile and manufacturing is currently done in Asia, with manufacturing giants like China being the biggest suppliers of our fashion merchandise.
The reason is simple- advanced technology. The countries we outsource production to have created and made readily available facilities that can easily take on mass production in very large amounts at considerably lower costs.
However, according to Julia Van Der Sommen, director at Sample Room, in her interview with Ethical Clothing Australia on her research into the cost of manufacturing onshore vs offshore, '...with all things considered such as development, manufacturing, freight, and fault rates, you were better off manufacturing in Australia... For those making less than 20 styles and less than 1000 pieces per style, it really is worth looking into manufacturing onshore.'
She also mentioned that taking the Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ)offered by the local industry is a great way to reduce the total production expense. In simpler terms, offshore production is mostly only beneficial for very large orders (over twenty thousand pieces), and brands stand to benefit more from manufacturing onshore with lower production quantities.
Considering how much patronising local production stands to impact Australia's economy, both in revenue generation and job creation, manufacturing locally is a worthy option. Not to mention the potential reduction of our overall carbon footprint by cutting out shipping from our production process. Also, increased patronage in local manufacturing will drive demand for the industry. The long-term effect of this is increased investment and venturing into production to meet higher quantity demands.
The Benefits of Manufacturing Locally
- Brands get to oversee their production process
Unlike manufacturing offshore, local manufacturing gives brands the advantage of creating a relationship with their manufacturer. This means they get to be onsite to oversee the process through which their products are created, which reduces the risk of errors, allows for quick correction, and better fitting overall.
Communicating with your manufacturers is easier and more efficient when they are in the same country as you. Instructions can be passed on quicker, changes are more easily made and there's a more hands-on production process overall.
- Increased transparency
Conscious consumers are highly interested in the production process of the brands they patronise. The ability to account for following through with sustainable and ethical standards at every stage in your production is a highly prized quality that manufacturing locally will afford you. This means that brands are enabled to share their production journey with customers who can view it all by themselves and be reassured of their choice in patronage.
Having control over the production process and being able to share this with customers is a highly valuable way to build a positive brand image. Being able to see documented evidence of sustainable and ethical practices assures customers that they are supporting a brand that cares about a cause they are passionate about, which is far greater than just saying so.
- Creating job opportunities locally
As the switch to manufacturing locally increases in the industry, so will the demand for local production, and with it, job creation. According to statista.com, the Australian Fashion industry currently employs nearly half a million Australians- and that is with most of our production being outsourced offshore. To just consider how much of an effect switching to local manufacturing would have on those statistics is a staggering projection. The best part is, employing more people in local manufacturing will solve the staffing problem in the industry, resulting in more trained/skilled hands and increased efficiency and work rate.
- Increased national revenue
Currently, the Australian fashion industry spends most of its production capital offshore- capital that can be invested in the economy. The Fashion and Textile industry in Australia is reported to have contributed a staggering 27.2 billion dollars to the national revenue this year, according to statista.com, and cloth manufacturing contributed 1.2 billion dollars- that is with ninety percent of our production done offshore.
The prospects that local manufacturing has in revenue generation for the country is indisputably worth exploring, and who is best to lead the way than the very mainframes of the fashion industry itself?
- Reduced pollution and carbon footprint
Outsourcing the manufacturing of fashion products means shipping. A lot of it. The practice of shipping our own products from around the world is counterproductive to our sustainability measures, not to mention the amount of packaging shipping involves. Manufacturing locally effectively cuts out the carbon emissions that are generated from shipping and reduces our carbon footprint. Also, the need for individual packaging is made redundant and brands can focus on creating alternatives to individual packaging, further increasing the sustainability benefits of manufacturing locally.
Another way that pollution can be reduced is that the brands now have access to the leftover fabric from the production process, which can be upcycled and used creatively to create new products that can either be put up for sale or as free add-ons for loyal customers. This is a great practice sustainability-wise and if properly managed, can go a long way to reduce how much waste fashion contributes to the world.
Access to the manufacturing process allows designers the opportunity to be creative with their production process. Fashion is as ingenious for design as it is for the style of creation, in the way we can recognise Italian suits by their fitting and Parisian dresses by their cut. Australian designers get a chance to innovate their creation process by having their products made locally and within reach.
We have come from understanding why local brands are unable to have their products made in Australia to explore ways to overcome this handicap, and finally looked at what we stand to gain by bringing the production business home, and here at Local Threads, what we can say is that we hope to see changes for the better moving forward. You can trust us to contribute in our way by providing valuable information to help us all move towards a more sustainable future in fashion and the world.