Over the past 50 years, the workforce has undergone a significant transformation, welcoming individuals from diverse backgrounds with various new needs and preferences. This shift has challenged some uniform suppliers, and many have struggled to move away from historic notions of a workforce dominated by young white men.
For example, the feminist movement has empowered women to take their place in traditionally male roles, but the uniform they are provided does not necessarily protect them. According to CREST, as of 2023 34.9% of police officers and 42.5% of police recruits in the UK are women. But despite the growing number of women in the police force, it’s taken decades for these women to receive proper support and protection in their uniform design.
The ‘unisex’ police uniforms of recent decades were meant to bring equality to the forces but failed to fit women appropriately dues to utilising male sizes. Another example is the mass-distributed protection vests which failed to account for a woman’s chest and body shape, which led to discomfort and low compliance which cost the life of WPC Nina MacKay in 1997.
Addressing the issues one step at a time
Issues in uniform design affect people from all walks of life, such as those with medical conditions, mental health conditions, and different religious requirements. While there are still real issues with a lack of inclusivity in uniform design, the professional clothing industry is still progressing and adapting to resolve these concerns.
British Airways recently made headlines with its new uniform collection designed by Ozwald Boateng, which included more casual items, jumpsuits, tunics, and hijabs, accommodating the needs and requests of its more diverse staff.
Other businesses like HSBC have redesigned their uniforms with a casual wear inspiration which prioritises comfort, and Walmart has recently announced they will be offering 7 new branded vests with specialist designs for small stature, hard of hearing, wheelchair users, and a medical device pocket for EpiPens and inhalers.
Benefits of inclusive design
Taking inclusivity seriously will bring many positive benefits to a business, particularly in workplace culture and employee satisfaction. Offering well-fitted PPE is widely known to increase compliance, and a survey from the EHS confirmed that apart from education and monitoring, the best way to increase compliance is to purchase more comfortable PPE.
Employees will also feel valued by their employer which can reduce incentives for staff to leave. Additionally, accommodating religious or cultural needs will open opportunities to attract high-value employees from more backgrounds, making sure there are as few barriers as possible for the right candidate.
Working together on uniform policy
The PCIAW® has reached out to Debbie Huntley, Sustainability Manager at PULSAR®, to share her knowledge on inclusivity from the perspective of both a supplier and a business needing to outfit its employees appropriately. PULSAR® have offered their hi-vis ranges in women’s sizes for some years now, and received the PCIAW® Best PPE / Workwear Design Award for their hi-vis, placing them firmly at the cutting edge of workwear design.
Why is it important to have inclusive uniform policies?
“The world we live in today is very different to the one workwear / PPE was originally designed for, and it’s important to be aware of these changes and act on them often to remain a relevant business for the people we provide clothing to.
Thankfully, people have a voice now and demand better for themselves at work, and rightly so given the number of hours they spend working in uniform. In order to provide the best well-being for people it’s important that they’re supported by supplying them with well-fitting uniforms which provide comfort, respect, and pride in their daily work, as they turn up to not only represent a company but also themselves.“
How is your business catering to the needs of diverse employees?
“As a business, we have an open-door policy on bringing issues in uniform to the table for discussion, and we have a sales team who supports this function by offering our services in round table discussions for areas where the uniform is not meeting the end user’s needs, be it because of religious concerns or medical issues such as menopause.
When we’re able to be a part of the discussion directly we can see what challenges are being faced and take that back to our fabric partners and manufacturers to work on a solution together, providing an improved uniform offering.”
What considerations are you aware of in the uniform industry that facilitates inclusivity?
“It’s been really great to be involved in and witness changes happening in the industry to support maternity wear, inclusivity, and religious clothing, and look further into well-being clothing with the impact menopause has on women in the workwear sector too.
It was also great to hear Karen Sparrow from Red Sparrow Consulting talking about neurodiversity at a recent PCIAW® event and the effects clothing can have on people with non-visible disabilities at work. Discussions are taking place and they’re being given space to build momentum, which is fantastic news.”
What materials and/or design choices could designers consider when developing inclusive uniforms?
“I think we need to be approaching the development of uniforms with a view of offering something that can act as an activewear item, utilising performance fibres in all clothing to combat the ever-unpredictable weather and temperatures we’re experiencing due to the impacts of climate change. We learn about the needs of workers by investing time to be on-site, allowing us to provide truly functional workwear, with features like stretch for moveability and well-being.“
What are the challenges in delivering inclusivity in your uniform programs?
“It’s always going to be minimum order quantity (MOQ) and lead time. If it’s a small take-up of items then going to the sample room is best, but there will be a surcharge and often end users don’t understand why they have to pay more.
When inclusivity and uniform pricing are brought up it can sometimes spook buyers who are focused solely on the cost, however, it is crucial to have more discussions on this matter to educate people about the true costs and benefits involved in producing goods with inclusivity in mind.
Size ranges can also play a significant role. If the size range is limited, it can result in repeated orders at the same high price, which often leads to kickback and frustration.
Lead time for development is another one. If a query has been brought to you it’s often a challenge to deliver in the time scales the client demands, particularly for PPE, as they want a solution readily available which simply can’t happen due to the care we need to put into the design process.“
The journey towards inclusive uniform design and procurement has been a long and ongoing process, as the workforce adapts to embrace diversity and cater to everyone’s needs. While challenges persist, businesses are taking steps to address uniform concerns and develop inclusive uniform policies. By prioritising well-fitted and comfortable uniforms, businesses can build compliance in their workforce and enhance employee satisfaction, ultimately benefitting both the business and employees’ safety.
Collaboration between uniform suppliers and buyers, along with active engagement of end-users, is crucial for achieving truly equal supply. Overcoming challenges related to minimum order quantities, lead times, and pricing requires education and awareness throughout the supply chain, so it’s crucial businesses continue to communicate and learn from one another to provide the best services possible. Embracing inclusivity is not always easy, but the world has changed and it’s time for professional clothing providers to change with it.