The northern French city experiencing an industrial renaissance

Roubaix, which was once a powerhouse of the textile industry, is at the centre of efforts to bring production back to the country

The Résilience workshop in Roubaix employs people, many of whom migrated to France, who previously struggled to find work
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These days Roubaix is mainly known for the Paris-Roubaix cycle race – or for its high rate of unemployment.

However, the northern city, close to the Belgian border, was once a powerhouse of the textile industry, drawing comparisons with Manchester. Since the 1970s, it has suffered the consequences of outsourcing and deindustrialisation.

It is estimated the number of textile jobs in the former Nord-Pas-de-Calais region fell from 171,000 in 1954 to 12,000 in 2013. Today, Roubaix is at the centre of efforts to bring production back to France. President Macron has made ‘reindustrialising France’ a priority. Since 2017, 90,000 industrial jobs and 300 new factories have been created, the government claims.

The president recently announced a series of measures aimed at accelerating the process, such as reducing red tape for new factories, with a focus on green industries.

Read more: How does Emmanuel Macron want to ‘reindustrialise’ France?

Navigating cost challenges

Résilience, a non-profit that brings together 80 textile workshops across the country, chose a former textile factory in Roubaix as its headquarters when it launched in 2020 to meet the demand for face masks. Today, clients include large brands from the north, such as Decathlon, Jules and Auchan.

“It can be six times more expensive to produce in France,” said Jean Souflet, managing director at Résilience. A T-shirt produced in France costs at least €6, compared to €1 if it is made in Asia.

“Producing in France is a brave choice as clients don’t want to pay more, so producers take a hit on their profit margins.” He called on authorities to provide greater assistance to make local products cheaper, or to make it more difficult for companies to import from factories with questionable working conditions.

“There’s a paradox, with a real desire for Made in France and an interest in our work, but at the same time Shein [Chinese online fashion retailer] is a big success, and it’s the antithesis of what we do: fast fashion that’s all about the price.”

Creating jobs and fostering inclusion

The association has received state aid towards investment in machinery, but Mr Souflet says this is little compared to the subsidies on offer in Asian countries. As well as using cleaner energy and reducing emissions linked to transportation, reindustrialization is crucial, he believes, as “industrial jobs are not the same as service jobs. It allows us to have a wide range of jobs which correspond to people’s skill sets”.

In addition to those already employed in the 80 workshops (many predate the Résilience network), there are currently 200 people working on Résilience projects. At its mask-producing peak, there were 1,000. The workshops are either workplaces that adapt to people with disabilities or, like in Roubaix, they hire people who have been out of work for a long time.

Advancing sustainable fashion while empowering local talent

The idea is to get people into the rhythm of full-time work and then move on to a different job within two years. “In Roubaix, it’s easy to find people who feel shut out of the job market. One of the problems is finding other jobs nearby when they leave, as people in difficulty often cannot travel 10km or 20km for work,” Mr Souflet said.

Just down the hall is another association, Fashion Green Hub, created in 2015 to allow brands to share good practices and reduce their impact on the planet. Here, in the north, there are 140 members, ranging from young designers to local giants such as Okaïdi and Kiabi, and there are now hubs in Paris, Lyon and Nantes.

Among the outcomes of this collaboration is a production-on-demand workshop allowing limited series to be delivered in a matter of days. Madjouline Sbai, the association’s vice president, who was born in Roubaix, said:

“We believe environmental issues are not a constraint, but an opportunity to make less, make better and make smarter. “By producing only what you sell, you waste less and avoid resorting to sales.” Here, locals who feel shut out of the job market can receive training. “The focus is on new ‘circular fashion’ jobs.

Textile production is not the same as it was 100 years ago: the goal is to make the industry more attractive. For example, upcycling is developing fast, and having this speciality allows people to find work more easily.”

The association also works with men’s clothing chain Jules to train salespeople in explaining why certain products are more environmentally friendly than others.

“In this region we have a certain familiarity with the textile industry and there is a form of nostalgia, but the working conditions were tough, they were very repetitive jobs. People had to work in constant noise and dust. The idea is not to remake the industry as it was but to build a new way of creating fashion.”

Read more: Fighting false claims about green credentials in France

Addressing labour challenges

Members also work together to publish white papers, on how they were able to reduce plastic in their supply chains by 50%, for example. Soon, a new office will allow brands to evaluate the environmental impact of their products. An app already allows designers to source rolls of material that have been started so they do not go to waste.

Every year, the association shares its experiences during the National Circular Fashion Forum. Catherine Dauriac, journalist and France coordinator for the global non-profit Fashion Revolution, says Fashion Green Hub has “made a colossal effort in five or six years, training a large number of people for truly skilled jobs”.

While, in theory, French laws guarantee a minimum wage and decent conditions, there are more and more abusive practices, she said.

“We know that in Aubervilliers and around Paris there are sweatshops and semi-forced labour. Just because it is in France doesn’t mean everything is ideal.”

Roubaix is also home to Ensait, a renowned engineering school dedicated to the textile industry. Sacha Boyadjian came from the south of France to study here, and shortly after graduating, she opened a business opposite the school with two former classmates, Alex and Victor.

Innovative automation makes all the difference

Les Trois Tricoteurs offers bespoke jumpers and socks made using automated machines. It takes 15 minutes to produce a pair of socks, or 45 minutes for a jumper, and they also run a bar where customers can sip a coffee or local beer while waiting.

They work with brands, offering small quantities that can be restocked if needed. Brands, individual clients and the bar each represent a third of their business. Ms Boyadjian said: “There is a real demand, even from businesses, to be able to produce in France, and as it’s more automated, it’s slightly less expensive.

“The idea was to reduce our environmental impact by producing on demand. “Once we identified a machine capable of doing it, we decided the other problem with textiles was the lack of transparency, as we don’t know how clothes are made, so we really wanted people to be able to see what was happening.”

Windows between the bar and the workshop mean clients can watch every step. They have had people cycle all the way from Germany to visit, but they also feel deeply connected to the city’s history.

“As soon as we set up, there were lots of people who had worked at the Lainière de Roubaix [a major wool mill that closed down in 2000], who brought us archives. We were touched, and we could tell it was emotional for them to be able to buy a wool jumper made in Roubaix, which for years was no longer possible.”

She said there is a creative energy, and a feeling the city is heading in the right direction. “We love working with all the actors in Roubaix. It’s only the beginning.”

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