Local-Global - a Regenerative System to revive traditional textile hubs
Updated: Mar 11
High-quality textile manufacturing hubs are getting hammered by cheap Chinese mass producers and the supply chains that feed these Chinese mega factories are destroying fragile ecosystems and rural communities around the world. But a lot of consumers hate this abomination and it can be halted.
More and more consumers are rejecting meaningless consumption. These mostly young consumers want alternatives to planet-destroying cheap forgettable (mostly Chinese) products. They seem to be looking for products that reconnect them with nature and craftsmanship and to know that by choosing to consume them they are doing good for the environment and people - we call this regenerative consumption to distinguish it from the extractive planet-destroying consumption. But it has become almost impossible to consume like this, especially for clothes.
Quality production of clothing is almost dead. Whatever quality product remains is scarce and unaffordable. And there is a lot that is crap pretending to be good and still is unaffordable because you have to pay Daniel Craig to wear it and it comes with a "Made in Italy" label on it - with just enough "Italy" inside it to meet regulatory requirements. And even if you are lucky, wealthy, and dogged enough to be able to acquire something from a quality manufacturer, I challenge you to try and find out where, for example, the fibre in your handmade "organic cotton" shirt came from. But there is hope.
The traditional textile hubs, many in Scotland, have a heritage of quality production built on the back of carefully developed techniques and skills. And many people know this and appreciate this and would be willing to pay for it if they could trust that what they were buying was really produced in this time-honored way. This Scottish heritage resonates strongly with these emerging consumers; the contrast with the Chinese mega-factories particularly appeals. And even though many Scottish manufacturers have debased themselves trying to chase the Chinese to the bottom of the market, they have not lost everything their ancestors built. Reviving quality production, making it especially good for people and planet and setting it apart from the faceless mass manufacturing at which the Chinese excel is a source a natural differentiation and competitive advantage for the traditional textile hubs. And there is a way they can make this heritage value proposition even stronger.
If the traditional textile hubs set themselves up as specialty producers of small-batch fibre that has a story of origin, they will be directly meeting the needs of the new regenerative consumers and at the same time they will inoculate themselves against cheap competition. This has the potential to multiple their heritage value many-fold. These new consumers are weary of their urban-industrial lifestyles. They want products that connect them to nature and which they can use as a proxy for doing their part for the good of the planet and people. If the traditional hubs can link their manufacturing to unique places, make sure that their raw materials are sustainably produced, and articulate this brand proposition clearly and credibly to these new consumers, they will not only have a much more valuable product proposition than one only based on quality but they can make their products effectively impossible to copy.
But to capitalise on this strategy you will need to put some key pieces together. You have to organise manufacturing in the hub as a cluster to serve the specific needs of small-batch processing of unique fibres and you have to do it in a way that you can maintain story of origin and you have to make sure that the production of the raw materials at the origin fits into the natural ecosystem and is restorative of it. Then you have to bind businesses, communities, and places in long-term symbiotic partnerships that are fair and democratic. And you have to wrap all of this up in a brand that unites everyone in this system from the source ecosystems through the manufacturing hubs to the consumer communities. And it is likely to work best if you get a set of small-brands to connect the products intimately with their consumer communities.
Agencies who are trying to revitalise textile hubs in decline or development organisations trying to stimulate sustainable development in source ecosystems or conservation organisations each could put all this together. They can realise much more value than through conventional local place-based investment plans that they typically try. And they can make a contribution to addressing global problems of community erosion, environment degradation, and climate change beyond just local impact. But they are likely to be limited by their mandates and institutional inertia. A completely new entity that is specifically set up as a connector is likely to find it much easier to bring together public resources, private investments, and philanthropic capital to bring about the systemic change that is needed.
But whoever does this will have to look beyond conventional place-based investment strategies to a local-global system of interconnected businesses, communities, and places that can all grow together to create regenerative systemic value. And such a connector has to proceed with the recognition that there is value in the connection between these different parts of the system. So just as much attention has to be paid to robust structuring and brand narrative as to tangible investments in processing, infrastructure, and ecosystem management. The value that can be created within such an interconnected system is much more that the sum of individual values that could be created at each of the nodes through isolated place-based investment strategies that try to achieve some pre-conceived local optimum.