Moving Professional Clothing Forward with Charlotte Clarke

PCIAW® recently met with Charlotte Clarke, the new Managing Director at Alsico, to discuss how the industry has been growing and adapting to the challenges we can expect to see in the years ahead.

In this interview Charlotte discusses the evolving professional clothing industry, highlighting the necessity of agility and resilience, Alsico’s commitment to sustainability, the impact of new eco-regulations, incorporating inclusivity, and the benefits of early investment for long-term cost-effectiveness.


Declan:

When did you join Alsico, and what has your journey to your new position as the Managing Director looked like?

Charlotte:

I joined Alsico five years ago as Commercial Director which has been brilliant preparation for my new role which is ultimately all about serving our customers and the market. I’m well positioned to move into the position of Managing Director for the UK, and from there I’ll be reporting directly to Alsico group.

Prior to working for Alsico, I’ve always worked in the professional clothing and textiles industry. I’ve worked for large national distributors in a number of senior roles, from supply chain management right through to sales, so I understand in detail how the industry has evolved, and the challenges that are being faced.

Declan:

As the new MD for a leading professional clothing provider, how have you seen the industry change over the last 5-10 years and how do you see the market changing going forwards?

Charlotte:

Over the last 3 years we have seen the unprecedented impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and witnessed the sheer agility of many suppliers who not only adapted to the situation, but also led businesses productively through the unknowns. Positively, the Alsico Group owns its production units with manufacturing plants in 11 countries therefore we were able to flex capacity at the rapid pace required throughout such challenging times. Alsico has and always will stay committed to its strong ambition as we continue to serve the industry ‘making life better for people at work’ and continually adapting to the changing global environment.

More recently, we have seen the industry transition out of that period and the spectrum of approaches adopted has been revealed. Some businesses demonstrated great agility and continued to develop and invest in innovation, whereas others paused somewhat as they navigated through the difficult time.

Today, the industry continues to adapt to world impacts such as the Russian war on Ukraine which continues to expose the fragility of energy and supply chains. We have also observed some of the hottest and driest summers in history, not to mention draughts in China and floods in Pakistan, as a result of the climate crisis. As such, we expect to see a continued focus from suppliers on their processes to ensure that fast and effective action can be taken in the face of further extreme events.

Declan:

It’s surprising how many once-in-a-generation experiences we’ve had in the last few years, isn’t it?

Charlotte:

It certainly is, but despite the challenges there is so much to feel enthused about.

I am continually impressed by how receptive the market is to change and I certainly see Alsico as a change aid. By working closely with customers across the sectors, we get a really detailed understanding of their challenges and what they are trying to achieve. Therefore, when we are bringing the designs to life in our development stage, we know exactly where we can add the most value for a customer.

A great example is our in-house developed fabric ALSIFLEX® – an extremely comfortable stretch fabric made from a combination of recycled and renewable fibres. Not only does this deliver great comfort and greater movement to the end-user, it also emits 2/3rds less CO2 per kg of material on average compared to other fibres. We are seeing significant uptake in the ALSIFLEX® product lines and are proud to prioritise both end user comfort and organisational conscience in the buying process. It is great to be working with organisations who value our innovative contribution and also recognise the value that can be added to their organisation.

Declan:

What are your priorities as you seek to grow Alsico strategically in the diverse industries you produce workwear for?

Charlotte:

Our main priority is pushing high levels of innovation and enterprise. Despite recent challenges, we never stopped innovating, investing, and testing the market to see where we needed to show up and add value.

Since its launch, ALSIFLEX® is doing extremely well across many sectors, including transport, public sector, utilities and construction. Encouragingly, buyers are making decisions now while taking into account a wider range of considerations, including commitment to sustainability and the opportunity to demonstrate a step change.

We’ve conducted lots of working group sessions, wearer trials, and we’ve been included in many inclusivity and diversity sessions with end-users, to capture feedback about the feel of new products and new styles. As a result, we have incorporated a number of those elements into our design process.

Even if an innovation will not be commercially ready for a few years, we still carve out a path for useful technology. The lovely thing about our method is that we are consistently hitting the objectives of end-users. We demonstrate that we can align with the objectives of both large and small end-users, playing an integral part in helping to achieve them.

Declan:

As an international business, how do you see the evolving regulatory framework in Europe relating to sustainability affecting the supply chain?

Charlotte:

It’s going to be revolutionary, and the extra work will be a surprise to organisations who thought it was some distance away.

At Alsico, we’re working in advance of the EU Regulatory Framework timeline and we have been doing so for some time now, so we are already committed to net zero emissions by 2034. By then, one hundred per cent of our products will be eco-designed – aiming at maximum lifespan, repairability and recyclability. Furthermore, one hundred per cent of our raw materials will comply with our preferred inputs list.

We have already taken a significant step forward by developing a range of garments using our ALSIFLEX® fabric. However, we have also created the first full end-of-life hub for used and discarded clothing at our site in Belgium. Here, customers can send back clothing at the end of use.  Our hub is compliant with the future Extended Producer Responsibility that comes into effect from 1st January 2025, and we look forward to putting similar hubs in place at our other Alsico sites, including the UK.

Declan:

As more professional clothing designs are inspired by fashion and sportswear, how do you see this movement feeding into the need for inclusivity?

Charlotte:

Naturally, design inspiration does manifest from fashion and sportswear into workplace designs and concepts. Wearers are certainly demanding greater movement and generally more comfortable garments today, particularly in uniformed roles where rigid fabrics can be restrictive for the task at hand.

The expectations on fit have completely changed, and we’re now seeing garments which will move with your body using sports technologies in a way that was historically difficult. Ultimately our purpose is to ‘make life better for people at work.’ Therefore, we not only play our part in terms of providing clothing which is fit for purpose and stands the test of time across many sectors, but we are also active in wider conversations to support improvements. These are often in the form of diversity and inclusion working groups, where we collaborate to identify how we can support innovation whilst considering the working environment the garment is expected to perform in.  

Declan:

Professional clothing companies can be that almost consultative partner, bridging the gap between what’s practical and what meets the buyer and wearer’s needs. It’s for companies like Alsico to drive that innovation forward, isn’t it?

Charlotte:

Yes, we can be quite helpful in those big-picture conversations. Sometimes it can start an ongoing journey because we trial something and find that we could better meet a user’s needs with adjustments so we keep developing new designs until the right value is being added to the workwear.

There’s so much exploration going on in the industry today, in general workwear and also personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers are often voicing difficulties with temperature regulation, sharing how warm they feel during the working day. We also hear that some of their garments lack stretch and movement. We listen intently to end-users in those high-risk environments, and I’m always impressed by how open our conversations with the end-user organisations can be. This means that we can make really specific changes to improve the day-to-day working environment for these team members.

Our approach isn’t just based on a manufacturing perspective, we work back from the end user’s requirements in order to identify what solutions we can bring to the table.

Declan:

How have you considered sustainability as a priority, and what has been your experience approaching the topic with the industry?

Charlotte:

Historically there’s been an assumption that sustainable garment options are expensive and therefore unattainable, however, we don’t want that to be the case.  We are close enough to the industry to know there is real intent in terms of making responsible choices. Therefore, we have to bring commercially viable solutions to the market and ensure customers really gain value back for making such important decisions.

Declan:

Alsico is quite advanced in meeting the design requirements for sustainability and circularity regulations, but how might companies have struggled to hit those targets if those conversations hadn’t changed?

Charlotte:

In terms of Alsico, if we had not put the effort and focus in as we did then we would have been left behind, that’s the challenge some businesses will now find themselves in. It can take more than twelve months to develop new innovations suitable for our industry and its essential to have a continual pipeline of developments coming through, which I’m proud to share that we do.

Organisations are extremely switched on and they’re looking for partners who can work with them on significant change projects. If there’s a lesson to be learnt, it’s about investing early in innovative solutions and continually bringing value to the industry.

PCIAW Uniform Networks Buyer, Trusted member