Week 2 of Social Enterprise Futures will be all about the impact social enterprises are having on communities both in the UK and around the world. There was no better place to start then than today’s session – an interview with the founder of Community Clothing and star of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, Patrick Grant who was joined in conversation with Paula Gamester from Skelmersdale based social enterprise, The Sewing Rooms.

Community Clothing is a social enterprise on a mission to re-vitalising the manufacturing industry in the UK. The business works with partner factories across the country creating sustainable, well-paid jobs in areas which were once the centres of the textile trade.

What inspired Patrick to set up Community Clothing?

“The loss of a strong manufacturing sector has had so many negative effects which have not been counted for…In the time that I’ve been working thousands of people have lost their jobs. I wanted to do something to stop that decline and reverse it.”

Having grown up in areas where textile manufacturing used to be a significant part of the economy and with relatives being a part of it, Patrick wanted to do something about the impact the loss of manufacturing jobs has had on areas which were once home to thriving textile industries such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders.

Patrick described the loss of textile jobs in waves of de-industrialisation as having “ripped communities apart” with people being forced onto the dole and places having to deal with the consequences of poor health and increased crime.

When talking about manufacturing. Patrick spoke with a real sense of pride in its ability to bring people together – that on the factory flow people of different races, genders and religions can mix and also on the joy that comes with working together to make something. He is passionate about the need to shift the narrative around manufacturing both by government but also in the education system so it is something valued and a sector young people want to work in.

Local vs global?

“We have to go back to a system where the benefit of the enterprise goes back to the community in which it sits.”

One of the main points of discussion, prompted by a question from an audience member was what impact bringing back garment manufacturing to the UK will have on workers in the Global South. Patrick was quick to say that the fashion industry is keen to push the argument that they are creating jobs when the reality is that these jobs are not fighting poverty and with the vast majority paying sub poverty wages.

Fashion brands have no loyalty to the countries they operate in and as soon as there’s an indication of rising wages they tend to move to new places where labour costs are cheaper. Patrick described how there has been a shift in the nature of the textile business from one centred on a system where the profits from a business would circulate through a community to one in which business owners consolidated their position through buying up smaller factories, eventually re-locating production to countries where labour was cheaper. We can see this in manufacturing moving from countries like the UK to Hong Kong to China and then on to Bangladesh. What motivates this? Higher returns to a wealthy few and cheaper operating costs.

This focus on a shift in the nature of business from a multi-stakeholder model to one dominated by shareholder value has been a regular theme at Futures touched on by Professor Ha-Joon Chang in the opening session and also by founder of Riverford, Guy Singh Watson.

The damage of the fashion industry is not just resulting in low pay and exploitation but also huge environmental degradation. Around 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from fashion, the consequences of a model built on churning out cheap goods regardless of the cost. Last year a remarkable 100 billion garments were made around the world!

Buy less, pay more

So how to we transform an entire industry built on cheap wages and mass production? The answer is complicated but Patrick was keen to stress that we as consumers do have considerable power. What’s required is a change in attitudes so we buy less and pay more for our clothes.

This isn’t easy when “the fashion industry spends loads of money to make you think you need new stuff” but we can counter this narrative through shifting to buying quality products that, whilst more expensive, are built to last. Patrick stated that most people only wear 25% of clothes in their wardrobe and that unbelievably there is already enough clothing on the planet for the next six generations of humanity!

Where does social enterprise fit in?

“Social enterprise is the most interesting form of business”

Patrick sees social enterprise as on the cutting edge of the business landscape. As with previous speakers from both inside and outside the sector, it felt like to him the social enterprise model is one which is key to reducing inequalities and regenerating communities. Social enterprises being the opposite of the growth obsessed, shareholder value driven businesses which dominate the fashion world.

Community Clothing now work in 31 factories in the UK, giving people a sense of pride in their work. They are using an old industry to create new jobs, helping stitch communities back together.