The UK market for workwear and protective clothing is forecast to increase in value as the UK economy recovers and unemployment rate in the country falls.
According to Global market review of workwear – forecasts to 2018 produced by the just-style research team, the global workwear market will continue to grow over this period but it will be some time before it reaches the levels of growth seen before the economic crisis for some time.
However, several UK industries are less affected by periods of economic hardship and require protective clothing and equipment in relatively consistent quantities regardless of the economic climate, a point that is emphasised by Lee Wright, marketing director at workplace equipment supplier Slingsby. The company sells more than 35,000 products through its catalogue and website including an extensive range of workwear and PPE.
Because high visibility clothing and PPE is a legal requirement there will always be plenty of demand and so to a certain degree, it’s immune from what’s happening in the wider economy, says Wright. Increased awareness of the health and safety benefits of PPE means that this demand is often driven by individual employees asking for new and replacement workwear as well as by routine purchases by management.
Workwear manufacturer Mascot is seeing a definite upturn in demand from the industrial sector, according to Michael Tottman, sales director for the UK and Ireland.
"Mascot is experiencing its best year since 2010 in terms of growth," he says. "We are currently 44% ahead of 2012 which was, in itself, a year of good growth." He attributes this almost entirely to larger businesses becoming more discerning when looking at the lifetime cost benefits of better quality workwear. He adds that these companies are not just looking at cost savings on the product. "Larger companies are becoming more and more conscious of the benefit of excellence in service delivery and the value that receiving an order on time can bring."
Mascot keeps 3million pieces of workwear on the shelf and can deliver anywhere in Europe within three days. This has proved an invaluable service for Mascot’s laundry customers as well as for their end-user clients, says Tottman.
Johnsons Apparelmaster is one of the largest suppliers of workwear, PPE, high visibility and specialist protective clothing in the UK, with over 38,000 UK-based customers. Brand manager John Oates says that the company continues to do well and agrees that the number of people in work is increasing, which is good news for workwear rental businesses.
The company says its online shopping service provides customers with a comprehensive range of workwear including the designer workwear range from Gryzko. This includes the latest styles in polo shirts, work jackets, softshell jackets, coveralls and work trousers.
At Denny’s Uniforms, a leading UK hospitality uniform specialist, managing director Nick Jubert also reports a definite upturn in demand. "After a slow start we feel the market is back to buying what it needs," he says but adds that "just in time" service is an important requirement.
Forward planning and buying seems to be a thing of the past, he says. "The trend today is to source catering clothing very much at the last minute, as and when it is needed." He adds: "We have an established customer base in the laundry sector and we are fortunate that we have many laundry customers that use Denny’s Uniforms week after week." The company carries extensive ranges of products in stock for same-day UK despatch. These include chef’s wear, workwear, aprons, hats and shoes.
"Having stock on the shelf is the only way to give customers the confidence that they will receive their order when they need it," adds Jubert.
Rick Shonfeld is commercial director at Tibard, which is both a manufacturer/supplier and also a provider of laundry services. Shonfeld says that, as a UK manufacturer serving the home market, its reaction time is much faster than companies with a manufacturing base overseas.
"We are also far more able to be flexible in terms of order quantities and any specific client requirements.
"Secondly, although there has been some organic growth amongst restaurant groups based in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number coming here from the Middle East and America and we have successfully engaged with a number these companies. "It’s very encouraging for the industry as a whole and particularly for us because ultimately they will all need uniforms and a laundry service."
He adds that there is a fairly constant requirement from existing customers looking to update their uniforms. Demand is also coming from hotels that have been bought out of administration and require a new identity as this often includes uniforms and workwear.
David Stevens, director of the Brilliant Laundry Group and joint managing director of Paragon says that Brilliant has experienced growth, although this is due principally to increasing its share of the market as opposed to growth in the overall market. The group co-ordinates the workwear and linen rental services provided by its laundry members to provide a national service.
"Ultimately it’s always going to be the customer’s decision as to whether they choose quality over quantity, which is reflected by the cost of garments," says Stevens. "As demand for our workwear services expands, we have worked relentlessly on improving our customers’ experience, which, alongside managing costs, is key in a competitive market."
White Knight Laundry Services, the UK-based workplace laundry provider, says catering accounts for over 50% of its uniforms and workwear business. Vehicle maintenance and private healthcare (scrub suits and clinic wear) are also important customer sectors.
Managing director Robert Adams says the UK workwear market is performing quite well given the economic climate but it remains very competitive and especially so on price but he adds:"There will always be demand for good quality workwear especially in those sectors where health and safety is an issue and corporate image is important."
The company reports positive movement from the catering sector with several new hotels and it sees hospitality as its biggest growth area.
White Knight uses several workwear suppliers, which mostly use Klopman or Carrington fabrics. "Our main supplier Wearwell UK makes specials and also our chef’s wear, in the UK in its own factory and the high volume standard ranges in Morocco," says Adams. "The quality is very good and we find it difficult to tell the difference between workwear manufactured abroad and in the UK."
He adds that any "specials" tend to come from UK manufacturers because the lead time is much shorter – four to six weeks rather than three months. "The cost tends to be higher but overall it depends on the quantity ordered.
"About two years ago we experienced longer lead times because our suppliers didn’t have the stock due to the shortage of raw state fabrics. Garments made from navy blue fabrics had a very long lead time. Fabric availability has certainly improved."
Cheaper manufacturing costs abroad have encouraged many large companies to purchase their workwear directly from source but Tottman at Mascot says that an increasing number of end-users now tell him that sourcing direct from the Far East/Pacific Rim has actually cost them more. He explains that this has not only been due to the rising costs of labour, transport and production but also because direct sourcing is time consuming and expensive when you have to employ reliable agents to ensure that quality and production timings are met."
Tottman also adds that if you also take account of minimum order quantities that are not compatible with top-up requirements direct sourcing suddenly becomes a very expensive.
Mascot is certified to the SA 8000 international social accountability standard, which provides customers with peace of mind when purchasing. The company owns three factories in Vietnam and a further factory is being built in Laos with over 2,500 employees.
Shonfeld at Tibard believes that even though larger organisations may seek to go offshore, there is now more of a tendency to do business in this country. As labour costs rise in the Pacific Rim, there has been a call for the UK to support local businesses.
"The price differential between UK and offshore manufacturing is reducing as a result of the rising labour costs offshore, which is certainly levelling the playing field. Once you factor in insurance, shipping costs and shorter lead times, the advantage of using a UK manufacturer is probably greater than at any point in the last decade."
Shonfeld adds that offshore manufacturers tend not to be interested unless a customer is ordering several thousands of pieces. "For "top up" orders and staff changes, where uniforms are needed very quickly, it makes more sense to source in the UK because the reaction time is so much quicker. "
Jubert at Denny’s Uniforms says that a large buyer might be tempted to consider taking the supply route into its own control and place orders directly with foreign factories. The downside is that untried factories that are "one order wonders" may have to be used for small top-up quantities.
Prices in the Far East have risen due to wage increases and there is less capacity, with factories closing. "This has forced the cheap prices out of the market," says Jubert. Good customer service requires continuity of supply and this only comes with a very close working relationship between supplier and factory.
"Established suppliers from the Far East have proven arrangements for their manufacturing, with all accreditation clearly being shown," he adds. The company’s major investment is a warehouse in the Far East, which allows direct despatch to its worldwide distributors including Australia this year. This stock provides its UK business the fall back ability to call off bulk quantities without the need to factor in manufacturing time.
Wright at Slingsby agrees that prices are rising in the Far East. He also highlights media reports about cheap,
sub-standard products that are finding their way into the UK. Examples have included gloves and high visibility vests that are poor quality and use sub-standard materials. "These can be badly made, offer very little protection and usually do not comply with any safety standards. Such stories have underlined the importance of buying from reputable suppliers.

Improving the lifespan
The leading workwear manufacturers now place increasing emphasis on improving the lifespan of their products, according to Wright at Slingsby. "Everything we sell is guaranteed for at least 12 months against defective workmanship or materials."
He says workwear is evolving faster than ever before with new materials, styles and technology being developed all the time, he adds. Many workers are also becoming more brand conscious and want workwear that looks good as well as being practical and comfortable.
Stevens at Paragon/Brilliant says that the manufacturing industry remains under enormous pressure to cut costs. "Whilst we believe that workwear can help to lift morale and thereby improve productivity, getting beyond the procurement teams is always challenging. However, we have just had some recent successes where we were able to persuade customers to spend a little more for a different look, so maybe there are some hopeful signs. We’re excited to see what the future will hold for us in this area."
Recent developments in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology provides real potential to offer an asset management service for customers’ own uniforms – a proposition Paragon has developed for the Middle East market which does not yet have a rental service. "It’s an offering that’s gaining significant momentum and we are seeing significant take-up," says Stevens.
Mascot produces workwear that meets the ISO 15797 industrial laundry standard, which means the products will meet the rigours and high temperatures of an industrial wash process (even with hi-viz tape applied).
Tottman says the products are tested in the workplace to ensure that they are fit for purpose and have been tested in the laundry to ensure they will not only meet, but exceed the requirements of such processes. "With a two year guarantee on zips and seams, it is easy to see why laundries are turning to Mascot and why more large end-users are doing the same," he adds.
Mascot launched its Unique range in the UK in February this year. "It has been our greatest success to date in terms of product launches," says Tottman. The products have innovative design features as well as special fabrics that conform to the ISO 15797 industrial wash standard.
The company uses Tencel in the manufacture of some of its products as an alternative to cotton. This is a viscose that is extruded from sustainable forests of eucalyptus trees, which means that it is ecologically sound. It is used in place of cotton and is said to be more stable, to suffer less shrinkage and to be more colourfast. Other advantages include greater resistance to abrasion and better absorbancy so that it dries quickly, so reducing laundry processing costs.
Shonfeld at Tibard says that the company tries to absorb any costs in regard to raw state fabrics. "There was an increase in cotton prices four to five years ago and like everyone else we had to increase prices on a few core brochure items. But our main items have not increased at all. In fact we are selling some items for less than we were five years ago!" Tibard’s core requirement consists mainly of cottons and polycottons in natural or dyed colours. He adds that Tibard’s key focus remains manufacturing well-made tailored chef’s wear which is tried and tested for commercial laundering and delivers exceptional longevity if washed according to instructions. Tibard offers a variety of fabrics including 65/35 and 50/50 polycottons and 100% pure Egyptian cotton. "Some chefs will only wear 100% cotton, some will only wear cotton in summer and we are certainly selling more products with Cooltex."
The company continues to expand both its Oliver Harvey and Tibard brands. Oliver Harvey introduced its first ladies’ chef’s jacket and added the Suffolk and Norfolk jackets into what is a purposely limited range.
With Tibard about to launch a beautician’s range, Shonfeld says the company is also providing more corporatewear than ever before. "Ultimately we want to be known as a uniform company rather than a chef’s wear and laundry provider."
At Denny’s Uniforms, Jubert says the recession and the need for more competitive pricing led the company to introduce its Low Cost selections. "We worked hard to find savings wherever possible. The Low Cost ranges may feature slightly narrower aprons or lighter weight fabrics but Denny’s ensures that production standards remain high and that all these products are fit for purpose.
Denny’s Le Chef Staycool clothing continues to have good laundry sales. It includes Thermacool fibre in parts of the garment to help ventilation and move moisture away from the body. These garments can still be laundered industrially.
Adams at White Knight says that most of the fabrics it supplies and launders tend to be cotton-rich or polycotton. The catering sector is now moving to polycotton or cotton-rich because they are cooler, more colourfast and shrink less. He says that as a general rule, White Knight has a 24month contract for workwear, although it also has 18month contracts for chef’s wear. Garments can lose their whiteness and black trousers do fade. The amount of cutting and chopping that the job requires means that wear and tear on chef’s wear can be quite high, particularly around cuffs,
Following installation of a steam-free continuous batch washer at its Reading plant, White Knight is developing a different process for workwear. This divides customers into manageable batches to provide a more client-orientated approach. Features include targeted washing to remove heavy soiling, gentle drying to minimise creasing and repairs done "in line" to ensure that all return deliveries are complete.