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A real factory of the future: In Conversation with Creative Apparel

Stockport-based clothing manufacturer Creative Apparel is developing a new eco-factory that will save thousands of pounds in resource efficiency improvements.

The Growth Hub as a whole is absolutely brilliant. It’s been helpful it all kinds of ways, from manufacturing and textiles support to getting a mentor from Siemens.

Phil Millar, Managing Director

Phil Millar (pictured below), Managing Director of Creative Apparel in Stockport, tells us about his plans to open a ground-breaking eco-factory-cum-technology-incubator in 2022 and support more creative jobs.

Starting off as a two-person screen printing operation in 1988, Creative Apparel now employs over 80 people and produces around 50,000 items of clothing each week for the fast fashion industry, specialising in screen printing and embroidery.

The Hub has supported Creative Apparel with resource efficiency since 2015, when the company obtained grant funding for an automated screen cleaning machine, which significantly reduced water and chemical use. 

Following successful contract wins with major online retailers, Creative Apparel has outgrown its existing site in Stockport and now plans to build a new four-storey office attached to a larger factory nearby.

Over the last three years, Environmental Business Advisor Rebecca Chedd has supported Phil Millar to develop his vision for a cutting-edge smart factory that will double up as a collaborative incubator space for testing innovative eco-technologies. The new factory is set to open in early 2022.

What triggered your decision to radically transform your business towards sustainability?

While developing plans for the new factory, I visited other companies to find out how we could increase output at lower cost. One of them was a manufacturer in Congleton that has to produce its products 10% cheaper every year without affecting quality. I was thinking, how the hell do you do that? Well, what they did was invest in eco measures – solar, rainwater harvesting and so on – to lower their costs.

I also heard about another business in Milan that made leather seats for cars. It was struggling to make a profit and decided to save money by reusing waste leather. Then it suddenly got loads of orders from a major car manufacturer. That wasn’t the plan; they were just trying to save money. But because they were doing the right thing, they won a lot of business.

So that’s how it started. At the same time, Becky and her colleague Alasdair (Dalzel-Job) at the Hub were asking if I’d considered these things. I began going to events like Andy Burnham’s Green Summit and it just grew from there.

What will your new factory look like?

We’re adding a four-storey office building to the existing factory space, complete with solar panels, wind turbines and living walls. It will also have a rooftop garden, which will cut down our water rates and provide a cost-saving but will also be a great space for us to use. What I wanted was something that ticks the boxes for wildlife, for growing edible plants, for the staff to chill out and for photoshoots and entertaining customers. There will even be a drone landing!

Partnering up with people and sharing solutions is where the future lies. The aim is for people and universities to come to us with ideas and use our offices as an incubator to develop their eco technologies. I want to be a testbed for anything to do with technology and textiles – that’s the mission.

What specific measures will you be putting in place inside?

The aim is to achieve a BREEAM Excellent rating for the building, so we’re really pushing the boundaries.

For interior heating and cooling, we’re installing an air source heat pump system and hyper-efficient ‘MegaFans’, which push down all the heat we create from drying the clothes and move dust and fumes along the floor and up the walls to be extracted.

We’re upgrading to the latest A-rated equipment, including new embroidery machines and flash heating units that dry the ink from screen printing. We’re also putting in a bike shed and shower facilities to encourage staff to cycle to work, as well as charging points for electric bikes and cars. The long-term aim is to be completely off-grid. We’re trying to build a proper eco-business that isn’t dependent on things like carbon offsetting. We’re making provisions to add in battery storage and there will be a rainwater harvesting system to provide water for screen washing and cleaning – as well as feeding the plants!

Some of it is very simple. Having smart lighting and controls is one thing, but we’re also making sure there are lots of skylights in the factory so we don’t need as much lighting in the first place. It makes business sense – it’s about pounds and pence as much as it’s about carbon.

What will the working environment be like for your employees?

I like to say we’re going from Sunday League to the Premier League, and you need to bring everyone with you. We want a really good vibe in the building. Breakout areas, photo studio, a podcast room, flexible working, things that will encourage us all to be creative. We want to test how having plants and green walls might improve productivity. Our lighting will even change over the course of the day to match natural light.

The most important thing for me, though, is to get rid of repetitive tasks, up-skill our people and make jobs as enjoyable as possible. We’re investing in factory digitalisation to automate many of our processes – not just in manufacturing but in paperwork and procedures. It means less stress for everybody and more creativity, as well as reducing waste.

How important has the Hub’s support been?

Without Becky’s support, this would all have been impossible. Having her knowledge has helped me to understand what the right technologies are and when to push back on the builders and designers. I didn’t know what air source heating was. I didn’t know how much energy our existing machines were using. I’ve been able to bounce ideas off her and work out what will work and what won’t.

The Growth Hub as a whole is absolutely brilliant. It’s been helpful it all kinds of ways, from manufacturing and textiles support to getting a mentor from Siemens. I’ve also received great support from Made Smarter. It’s brilliant that these things are here to help businesses when they don’t know where to turn. 

Fast fashion has earned a bad reputation in recent years. How do you think your industry will change over the next decade?

The future of textiles is customisation and personalisation. Companies won’t need to carry bulk stock in the warehouse; an order will be placed online, and we’ll produce it and ship it on demand. We’re currently developing AI software that will eventually be able to predict designs that will sell. If we get that right, we’ll be able to predict quantities and colours in advance – which means we will cut out a lot of the waste associated with fast fashion.

With automation bringing lower costs, we can create high quality ethically made products and support well-paid jobs. We have got the best creative designers in the world here in the UK. There’s an opportunity to wave the British flag, create new ethical brands and make sure everyone, right to the farmers growing the crops, are paid well.

I really want to prove that doing what we’re doing makes business sense. It can’t happen overnight, but you’ve got to start the ball rolling and that’s what we’re doing. I call it doing the right thing, and that’s the mission.

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