Updated: Aug 1
Companies are reviving the French apparel industry – with a green twist.
‘Fast fashion is poison for our planet. It should be replaced by slow fashion that is circular.’
With this appeal, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen set the tone for the future of the fashion industry at Frankfurt’s 2021 Summer Fashion week. In recent years, the textile industry has drawn much criticism for its role in exacerbating climate change and environmental degradation. Policy responses put fashion at the centre of climate and circularity plans. Nowhere is this more apparent than in France, where policies like the Anti-Waste and Circular Economy law are setting the stage for a less wasteful garment industry. These regulations, along with the reopening of old French garment supply chains to manufacture masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, have pushed French brands, new and old, to bring back local textile production. Are they succeeding in reducing the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry?
A local manufacturing industry in decline
The textile industry used to represent a significant part of the French economy in the 20th century. However, with the outsourcing of production during the 80s and 90s, the country’s domestic industry lost two thirds of its workforce by the turn of the century. After years of inactivity, production expertise and technology have shifted to other regions, especially in China and Bangladesh. A striking example of this is the linen value chain. Although France is one of the world’s top linen producers, almost 80% of French-grown linen is spun in China before being returned to Europe.
Outsourcing fast fashion may be cost-efficient and has contributed to a flourishing textile manufacturing industry in countries such as Bangladesh or China, but it has also exacerbated labour and environmental problems along supply chains. Global outrage grew after the Rana Plaza manufacturing factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, where more than 1,000 workers perished. More recently, human rights organisations accused some of the world’s largest retailers of knowingly profiting from Uyghur forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region. Yet, it was only when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 that brands really turned towards French production. The lack of protective gear during the pandemic was the final alarm-bell that France needed to regrow its manufacturing industry. While the trend may have started as a necessity, it has since become a larger movement as more and more brands return to French territory in order to champion a more local, traceable, and slow fashion. Part of this move was spurred by larger brands like Agnès B who embody the classic French style. The largest push to relocalize, however, has largely come from smaller businesses like Anny Blatt, a French slow fashion knitwear brand.
French production, better production?
When I interviewed Marion Carette, the president of Anny Blatt, she admitted that ‘The process of making “made-in-France” clothing is far from being easy.’ When Marion decided to rebuild the famous centenarian brand, she stumbled upon the many problems afflicting the current fashion model. ‘Fibres are grown in one country, flown across the world to be spun in another, and then transported again to be assembled somewhere else,’ she explained. According to her, this multi-step process is a home run for environmental degradation, considering the carbon emissions caused by transportation. Eventually, Marion decided to not only preserve Anny Blatt’s artistic heritage, but to also reduce the impact of her yarns and sweaters by prioritising an artisanal, made-in-France supply chain.
Although Marion found yarn mills and French-based Angora rabbit farms, as well as French-based spinning and dyeing workshops, there were limits to what France could offer. This is why part of Anny Blatt’s yarn is sourced from certified farms in South Africa. Some textile production streams – like linen or merino – are still very active in France. But other materials like cotton either cannot be produced locally or are being produced at too small a scale to be used for additional clothing production – an obstacle for many larger brands.
Marion is no longer the only one looking to revive the industry, though. On the 29th and 30th of March, I attended the ‘Made in France’ fair in Paris, where I was surprised to learn how many brands are looking to relocate or have already relocated part of their production. There are the usual suspects known for their French-based production, like Le Slip Français and Petit Bateau. More strikingly, however, other companies like the sportswear store Décathlon also spoke about their collaborations with local actors, touting the benefits of relocation for brands as well as the French economy at large.
This growing willingness to breathe life back into the French textile industry is driven by a demand for traceable, ethical, and lower-impact fashion products. Localised French streams tend to create higher-quality and longer-lasting materials like mohair, linen, or hemp. These materials, especially newer hemp production, have much lower water and carbon footprints than other natural materials such as cotton, or synthetic materials like polyester (which is made from petrol, like plastic). Expert savoir-faire, combined with an emphasis on quality, leads to more durable pieces of clothing. What is more, natural yarns can be used both in summer and winter, they are washed less often, and they have longer lifespans as they are more robust and resilient. Higher quality yarns can also be more reliable for future turns towards circularity and closed-loop production, making them perfect for recycling in ways that polyester and other petroleum-based materials cannot.
Producing in France is also an opportunity for brands to guarantee better conditions and pay for garment workers. Le Slip Français, a brand that sources and makes all its clothes in France, guarantees that workers along their supply chain are paid ten times more than if they were to outsource their production elsewhere. Locating supply chains within Europe makes it easier for brands to ensure human rights and environmental regulations are respected along the supply chain, and guarantee transparency to their buyers. The president of the Union of Textile Industries (UIT) also emphasised that reviving abandoned factories could help ‘bring life back’ to France’s rural areas. Other speakers added to this, noting the impact that one single factory reopening could have on an entire town. The local socio-economic benefits afforded by relocation still leaves the question of human rights abuses along supply chains open, however. Making clothes in France might guarantee that workers are better paid – but it does not provide a solution for the lack of respect for human dignity and workers’ rights outside of France.
Local is not always better
The drive to develop the ‘Made in France’ movement partly stems from a concern for sustainability, but conference speakers were also keen to stress the importance of promoting French heritage and culture. It became overwhelmingly clear that textiles are not just a French industry like any other. To Marion and to the speakers I heard at the conference, reviving old textile and artisan know-how is more about preserving a part of French identity than about sustainability.
Some panelists struggled to answer how localism could contribute to a lower carbon footprint, given that transport emissions tend to make up only 3% of total emissions. The presence of some of France’s oldest French-based brands like Petit Bateau and Saint James (known for its iconic Britton yellow raincoats) seemed to spur a patriotic discourse verging on the nationalistic, a sort of ‘we can make it better here’ ideal. In this sense, a focus on ‘Made in France’ may avoid larger questions about exploitation in supply chains elsewhere, especially at a time when the industry still caters to a niche audience.
The lack of affordability of French-made clothing is also a real problem. Guaranteeing higher wages is necessary, but without appropriate government subsidies and protection against unfair competition from larger, international retailers, some panelists argued, French clothes might remain both unaffordable and uncompetitive.
Can relocation usher in a slower, more ethical fashion industry? There are certainly limits to its promise. The ateliers that Marion works with are made up of small teams, with sometimes less than 20 employees. In fact, most producers in the textile industry are small and medium enterprises. Larger brands would presumably struggle to satisfy their supply needs. And there is the question of who can afford to pay for these products.
Nonetheless, the growing return to local textile production may indicate a broader change in public consciousness. If you knew that your clothes are made close to home, would that influence how you cared for them? Maybe the ‘Made-in-France’ industry, more than providing a real alternative to the fashion industry, could help change, one small brand at a time, how people look at and consume clothes. As the creator of Circle Sportswear Romain Trebuil put it, ‘making clothes in France is not just about selling clothes, it’s about selling a story.’
Eve Fraser is finishing her MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford. She loves writing about the intersections of fashion, sustainability and inequality, and is currently researching her dissertation on circular fashion and textiles. You can find her research on transparency and fashion here.
Art by Karolina Uskakovych.