Posted on May 12, 2021
Whenever you start a new relationship with a supplier, whether it’s for fabrics or finished pieces, you’ll usually have to choose whether to pick someone locally or import from overseas.
GB Labels has been a part of the UK clothing sector for decades now, and we’ve worked with some fantastic suppliers on both sides of our borders. In this guide, we’ll help you to decide on an offshore or home-grown solution for your clothing business. We’ll reveal the 7 factors you need to consider before making your final decision, and share tips on how to make the best long-term choice for your business.
For years, we have taken it for granted that factories in the UK are ‘more expensive’ and that we have to look overseas for the cheapest materials. That’s all starting to change. International shipping costs are on the rise, and — now that the UK has left the EU — customs duty and VAT is payable on certain foreign imports. Foreign exchange costs aren’t a new problem, but they can still eat into your margins when you least expect it.
You should get multiple quotes from businesses in and out of the UK, but don’t pick a supplier on price alone. Cost should be a contributing factor, not a be-all and end-all. We’re all in the business of making great products, so quality should trump costs … as long as you can still make a profit, of course!
Whenever you import from overseas, your chances of delayed delivery are higher. Even in 2021, bad weather can still delay cargo ships. What’s more, when shipments finally do make it to port, goods can get held up at customs for a very long time for even the slightest admin error. This all has a knock-on effect on your ability to deliver your products to your buyers on time.
UK suppliers aren’t immune to delays, especially if they’re heavily dependent on imported goods themselves. Our preference, when it comes to avoiding delays, is to keep it local, but you might be able to manage this risk by factoring the cost of the occasional air freight shipment.
Customs is no joke. An incorrect customs declaration can cost you anywhere from £250 to £2,500 in fines, up to three times the value of your goods, or — in the worst case scenario — a prison sentence. HMRC expect you to classify all imports with an HS code (also known as a ‘commodity’ or ‘tariff’ code). HS codes are highly complex sequences of numbers that categorise every single product in the world. There’s almost no room for error, and its’ not easy to figure out which code your goods should be listed under.
HMRC needs to know the exact weight, quantity and even the packing materials of everything you import. Every little step of your shipment’s journey, from the moment it is lifted off a warehouse shelf to the moment you unpack it, has to be clearly documented. To make matters even more complicated, the customs rules change depending on the trade deals that the UK has with the country you’re trying to import from.
Many UK clothing businesses have had to hire customs intermediaries (experts who can help you navigate the complexities of import and export law), and that’s certainly an option, but it’s not cheap and it doesn’t completely absolve you of responsibility. Even with the best customs advisors in the world, you are still ultimately responsible for your own customs declarations, so you have to be super-careful. For some fashion businesses, the peace-of-mind that comes with buying from a local supplier — and skipping the customs step altogether — is worth any added costs involved.
In 2018, 4% of Planet Earth’s greenhouse gases — 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions — came from the apparel and footwear industry. That’s a massive amount of carbon that the clothing business is pumping into earth’s atmosphere every single year. This shocking article from Vogue magazine explains the situation in a lot more detail and is worth a read if you have the time.
The further your clothes need to travel (by sea, air, road or rail), the greater your carbon footprint. Clothes generate carbon emissions when the raw materials are being harvested and processed, when textiles are shipped to the manufacturer, when the textiles are manufactured into garments, and when the goods are shipped to retailers. It’s a massive environmental issue.
The more we can do to reduce the movement of goods across oceans, the better, but sustainable transport on its own isn’t a cure-all solution. The vast bulk of fashion’s carbon footprint comes from how raw materials like cotton are processed,and now just from how far goods have to travel. It’s important to recognise this. If you buy your textiles from an eco-friendly supplier who is based overseas, you might well produce fewer tonnes of CO2 than if you bought the same textiles locally, even if you do have to ship it half-way around the world.
A small factory may be able to look after your business today, but what about tomorrow? If your business were to triple in size this year, could your current suppliers meet your needs?
It pays to pick a manufacturing partner with strong capacity up-front, because your supplier’s capacity has a direct impact on your own ability to keep your promises. When your first big order comes in from a nationwide retailer, for instance, you will need to be able to act fast and fulfil on your promises. You need enough materials on hand to do this — if your suppliers don’t have the capacity to serve you quickly enough, you can fall behind by weeks or months and potentially lose the contract.
Whether you go UK or international, make sure you pick a supplier that can support you well into the future. Don’t assume you can ‘cross that bridge’ when you get your first big order — at that stage, it will be too late to find a new supplier.
As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’! You might get a great price from a factory that always delivers on time, but if the materials they send you aren’t of a high enough quality, don’t hire them. The damage to your own product line, and the damage to your reputation, could spell the end of your business. Pick a supplier with high manufacturing standards and quality controls.
The best way to verify that a factory is as good as they say they are is to simply ask for a sample. Samples are standard practice in the fashion industry (we send samples out ourselves – just click here if you want some!), so don’t be shy!
When you cross international boundaries, you run the risk that contracts may not be honoured and you’re left with no legal recourse in the event of a problem. This puts a lot of people off working with a foreign factory, but if you do your homework, you should never have to resort to legal action in the first place. Trust should always come before geography.
The best business partnerships are win-win relationships. You and your supplier should be able to count on one another and grow together, regardless of distance or currency. Do your due diligence, and help your new supplier to conduct due diligence on you, if they need to. Get a testimonial from another client of theirs if you can. Make sure that — when things get tough — this supplier is going to do all they can to support you with first-rate products, delivered on time and on budget.
We hope this guide has shown you that — if you’re still asking whether to choose a UK or international supplier — you’re probably asking the wrong question. Brexit and Covid rewrote the rulebook last year, for sure, but we are all still part of a global economy. What matters most is that you can produce world-class work and make a fair profit. Our advice is to stay flexible, keep your eyes open and do your homework before you make your final decision. Time spent on research now will pay dividends down the line.
Thanks for reading!