Protecting the Orb in a world of the internet

When the Harris Tweed Authority was being created 30 years ago, one of its main missions was to “inform the world about the new Harris Tweed which offered exciting new opportunities while conforming with the traditions of the industry”.

HTA chief executive Lorna MacAulay says the internet has brought new challenges.
HTA chief executive Lorna MacAulay says the internet has brought new challenges.

Putting the word “new” in front of an old product was a popular marketing device in the 1990s, in politics as well as fabrics! As far as Harris Tweed was concerned, the need for an image makeover was urgent as demand plummeted and the weavers aged.

As the late Duncan Martin, who became the Authority’s first chairman, subsequently said: “The industry was dying. Radical action had to be taken if the fate of so many other communities built around textiles was to be avoided. There was no recruitment of young weavers. The work was seen as drudgery and insecure”.

A lot has changed in 30 years! But one constant is the continuing need for the Harris Tweed brand to be protected against those who, either through ignorance or fraudulence, try to pass off inferior fabrics as the venerated Clò Mor.

These were the days before internet and challenges – as well as opportunities – which have changed the role of the HTA in a way that was not then imaginable. A constant battle with on-line brand piracy has become the largest part of its work – a big task for a small team working from Stornoway Town Hall.

Ian Angus Mackenzie, then chief executive of the HTA and now of Harris Tweed Hebrides, recalls that counterfeiting was not a big issue in the 1980s or ‘90s. “It’s only when you’re doing well that people copy you. These were hard times for Harris Tweed and when you’re not popular, nobody copies you!”.

It was other factors which dictated the need for a Harris Tweed Act.

After decades of legal dispute to determine where and how Harris Tweed could be made, the celebrated judgement by Lord Hunter in 1963 apparently put the matter beyond doubt. By the late 1980s, however, the HTA was increasingly unsure about the strength of the legal protections if challenged. Only an Act of Parliament would make them watertight.

They followed the examples of the Scotch Whisky Association and the Sea Fish Industries Association to seek a statutory underpinning of a Scottish brand by promoting private legislation which was sponsored by Comhairle nan Eilean. It proved to be a masterly initiative as the legislation quietly weaved its way onto the Westminster statute book, where it remains.

As I have learned around the globe, one of the ways to catch attention is to point out that Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world protected by its own Act of Parliament. That immediately suggests that it is special! This could not have happened if Harris Tweed was a conventional business name, rather than a unique industry entirely rooted in its own community.

When the Harris Tweed Act passed into law in July 1993, the traditional role which the new Authority inherited was promotion of the brand in that pre-internet age. There was still need for protection of the Orb trade mark against those who breached the rules – close to home as well in distant lands - but it was of a different order.

“In my time at the HTA, we spent more time and money on disputes about Harris Tweed Cashmere and Harris Tweed Knitting Yarn than on worrying about China”, he recalls.

Thirty years on, much of the world lives on-line and the Harris Tweed Authority has seen the world change around it. Nowadays, most of its work is still concerned with protecting the brand, the trademark and the definition of Harris Tweed - the same old challenges but technology and its global reach have transformed the context.

That’s a message which the Board of the HTA is anxious to communicate. Much of its work is now unseen as it is tied up with on-line brand protection, mainly in Asia and about 80 per cent of it in China, according to the chief executive, Lorna Macaulay.

She joined the HTA in 2008, 15 years after the “A” started to stand for Authority rather than Association. The industry was again in a dangerous place and in 2008 hit an historic low-point in output. By then, however, the Shawbost mill had re-opened, change was underway and a significant re-positioning of the HTA’s role followed.

Lorna attributes this to two main reasons. The first was the evolution of uses for the fabric. Pre-Harris Tweed Hebrides, about 90 per cent of all the Harris Tweed produced went into men’s jackets. The Orb label was discreetly positioned for discerning customers to seek out as affirmation of what they were buying.

As the use of Harris Tweed in accessories and interiors grew rapidly, so too did the prominence – and value – of the label as it was increasingly displayed as part of the finished product, not all of them composed entirely of Harris Tweed.

Not only did this create “equity in the label”, says Lorna, “but there was also a tightrope to be walked in determining how it could be used in order to avoid exploitation of the brand. We became brand managers”.

Counterfeit labels became the HTA’s biggest challenge. Not only was this a threat to the integrity of the product, it also had financial implications. Sale of Orb labels, strictly linked to the production of stamped Harris Tweed, represents a significant part of HTA income.

At the same time, the scale of monitoring required was exploding as they tried to keep up with the products that were appearing on vast on-line sales platforms. “We’re all used to using Amazon and Ebay in the UK”, says Lorna. “But there are bigger and angrier ones in Asia”.

The HTA now has a longstanding relationship with an Edinburgh-based company called Snapdragon which uses its own technology to trawl the internet in search of potentially offending products. It is an arrangement that has proved effective in keeping the counterfeiters at bay, though they will never go away entirely.

Lorna explains: “Infringers are largely but not exclusively in Asia. There are obviously degrees of action we are able to take, from persistent ‘take-downs’ of their products at one end, to cease and desist letters with compensation as well as evidencing the secure destruction of stock to ensure it doesn’t re-appear the next day. The last resort is litigation but we only use that in extreme circumstances.”

She says that the cases they deal with include “an element of mischief and an element of ignorance. Sometimes it’s very clear that the offender has no idea they have infringed our rights – or that Harris Tweed isn’t a generic term for cloth that has the characteristics of tweed. And over there, it is considered quite routine to get more labels made up if you don’t have enough!

“So we try to educate as well as threaten action. Our push on educating is via WeChat - the most used social media platform in Asia. We tend now not to name infringers and instead use that threat as a bargaining tool in settlements”.

Pre-pandemic, Lorna travelled twice to China to meet and “educate” some of the more obvious offenders. With her was the HTA’s lawyer, Colin Hulme, who is a partner in the Edinburgh firm of Burness Paul which has represented the HTA (in both its manifestations) for decades. Colin says he had a “two or three years apprenticeship” before taking over the brief 15 years ago.

“It is so complicated”, he says. “Way more so than any other client I deal with. We have invested a lot in China and the protections that are needed there. When someone puts up ’10,000 metres Harris Tweed polyester’ it’s easy to identify and deal with. But there are much more subtle abuses that are difficult to detect”.

The only positive is that imitation is the highest form of flattery. “If the brand is popular, it will be copied”, he says. “The counterfeiters will always see what is selling and go after it. Five or six years ago was a real high point but we have built the wall a bit higher and improved the protections for the brand”.

Ian Angus Mackenzie says: “The simplest test is that if you see something on-line being sold for peanuts, it’s not Harris Tweed. The exclusivity and price give levels of protection”.

With 30 years of hindsight, promoting the Harris Tweed Act in Parliament appears as an extraordinarily bold and visionary move without which little of the island-based Harris Tweed industry might now exist.

The Bill was introduced into the House of Lords early in 1991 and eventually gained Royal Assent in July 1993. In between times, it repeatedly had to be nodded through both Lords and Commons without raising an objection. It also had to referred to the European Commission to invite objections.

I have always regarded it as close to miraculous that these hurdles were cleared and the Act emerged unscathed. Given the past history of controversy and the ongoing attractiveness of the brand, a piece of legislation which tied it so firmly and exclusively to the Western Isles might have been expected to invite challenge.

Such an exercise 20 years later would have been impossible and all of us who now benefit from the flourishing state of the industry should be grateful to the people who took this radical step 30 years ago. Hopefully that will be suitably recognised on the anniversary.

The way in which the HTA has had to re-focus on internet-age abuses on the other side of the world confirms the basic point – that if it was legally possible to produce a fabric anywhere else in the world and call it Harris Tweed then that is exactly what would happen and the industry would be lost to the islands for ever.

Fortunately, the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 makes that impossible - but the need for vigilance will never go away and that will remain the primary role of the HTA.

Brian Wilson is chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides