How startups can save traditional industries

There's a lot of talk about tech startups that are taking us into the future - but at Virgin StartUp we're just as excited about the startups moving back towards traditional industries and techniques, innovating and ensuring that these skills aren't lost. One such business is Plum of London, the first UK business since the 1830s to focus on high-quality alpaca yarn products. Here founder Hugo Dougass talks about why we should do our best to preserve traditional industries - and how.

The British knitwear industry is declining for a reason: a surge in competition from cheaper overseas manufacturers. We could allow it to fall to its demise peacefully and avoid the drain on both time and resources it will require to reverse; or  we can be optimistic, take note of the demand from both national and international consumers, and do our best to pass on the skills and techniques that have been honed over the centuries and support those in typically more rural areas with opportunities to succeed. I believe it’s a case of channeling our efforts and investing in people and machinery which will allow the British knitwear industry to once again be an international leader.

Often, the Made In Britain label is seen merely as a reference to something traditional or heritage, but it would be a mistake to undervalue its importance. There are numerous British brands who have become global powerhouses in the last hundred years thanks to their British manufacturing stance. Even though there is a significant amount of increased worldwide competition, there are opportunities for many more brands to do the same - it’s partly a matter of creating a niche product and benefiting from the specialist and highly skilled workforce this island can boast.

The versatility and adaptability Britain has shown throughout the centuries - from the invention of the first knitting machine in 1589, to the industrial revolution and more recently to Scotland, famed for its cashmere production - the decline of the industry would be devastating to the communities which were not only built upon it, but once thrived because of it. Britain has always succeeded in adapting to the times and forging a new path, and it is now of paramount importance that we do so once again to ensure the industry’s longevity.

There are many varied reasons for the decline of the industry. Significantly, since the mid-20th Century - aside from debatable government policies and general complacency - there has been a surge in the development of overseas manufacturers who have invested more in technology and advanced means of production than we ever considered.   We’re currently witnessing it in steel, we’ve seen it before in the shipbuilding, motor and aircraft industries, and if we don’t correct the trend, we’ll soon see it the knitwear industry.

One might say that although the manufacturing industries are in decline, the economy has been balanced thanks to the resurgence of other industries, finance being most notable. This might be a relatively constructive counter-argument, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that these statistics are based upon lone individuals whose opportunities, needs and desires require attention. I think it’s unlikely that someone who grew up in the Borders and has always wanted to work in textiles may want to relocate to London to work in finance just because that’s where they’re told the opportunities lie. Of course they’d prefer to work in their chosen industry in Britain, but may soon may find that their chances of success are moving to Japan or China.

Without the continuous flow of new workers the knitwear industry desperately needs, we’ll find ourselves in another vicious cycle: fewer skilled workers in well-paid positions creating less disposable income to spend on goods made by other skilled workers in another industry. This trend is cyclical and would have a detrimental impact if we allow it to continue.

British manufacturing is struggling and has been for quite some time, but this is doesn’t have to be terminal – there is a possibility that we can prevent this impending decline and there are many reasons for us to be optimistic. There is an increasing desire for British products internationally, especially in emerging markets where economies are growing and the Made in Britain label is aspirational. I see a constant stream of start-ups launching ecommerce platforms supporting British goods and ethical products – to say that this is encouraging is an understatement.  There are many established organisations from UKFT and UKTI who we’re in talks with, to independent organisations such as MakeitBritish.com and StillmadeinBritain.com whose sole aim is to promote British brands and products. Upon approaching many mills, they’ve all been receptive to our ideas and ambition even though they conflict with everything they’ve previously done and experienced. It is this will and versatility that needs to be adopted and nurtured. From our perspective, no doubt it will.

Our desire to continue the historic achievements of the British knitwear industry is not simply nostalgia; it’s borne out of a belief that we can create a better product using our highly skilled workers, a product which will be cherished the world over. After all, our aim is to create truly innovative sustainable fashion which will be worn and loved for many future years,  shunning the fast-fashion mentality that is all too prevalent on today’s high street.

 

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