“Made in Britain”, all it’s made out to be?

While in London recently I met up with the owner of a British garment brand of some note. A great chap, with a long career in the industry and today doing his own thing, after many years of working for some of the leading figures in British men’s fashion. He’s an outspoken chap, with strong and wide-ranging opinions, and hence makes for excellent conversation.

One of the issues we got into was the “made in Britain” movement, something I’d asked him about previously, as I assumed that in his position he would be very eager to be a part of what is turning into quite the bandwagon. Surprisingly, he had a more considered view of the matter than the rather binary view many give of it, i.e. “made in Britain”=a good thing and made elsewhere (i.e. primarily low cost countries)=a really bad thing.

Made_in_britain_logo

This got me thinking: what is really behind the made in Britain campaign, why is everyone flocking behind it, and is it really about what we think it is?

Disclaimer: I’m not an economist or a political commentator, make of the following what you like. My focus in this piece is the manufacturing industry, specifically the garment industry.

Traditionally it hasn’t always been a selling point for merchandise to be made in Britain and the current change in attitude is very interesting. The British made product has gone from being considered below par, to now being promoted as a premium product, with a premium price tag. Anyone that has grown up with British made products may historically be less than enamoured with their qualities. Think back to when there was a British car industry and some of the horrors it produced. A country known for innovation and engineering, but definitely not at the forefront of quality. 

made-in-britain-brand

I don’t have a problem in seeing how important it is for Great Britain at the moment to promote British industry and manufacturing. In a time where outsourcing to low cost countries is the norm rather than the exception, anything that can stem the tide and keep jobs in Britain must surely be a good thing. Especially when low cost workers are also arriving in large numbers in Britain to undercut British workers on the manual and lesser paid jobs, those that haven’t already been outsourced, that is. This means the British workforce is under attack from two sides, the greedy company owners and the influx of people willing to work cheaper than them. We can safely say that with an economic downturn in addition, the prospects are quite bleak.

Let me sum up the situation in a little more detail. Companies have been moving production to places where they can find people who will produce for lower wages, in factories that cost less to run. There is no other reason for this than pure greed. It may be said that production has to be moved to save the company, but let’s be honest, this is rubbish, to use the financial term. It’s all about maximizing the profit. What they fail to see though is that by doing so, they are also dealing their own brand a crushing blow. Take Mulberry as an example. High-end British made handbags and such, a very British brand, built up over quite a short period of time (i.e. not a brand with any real heritage), very expensive. Then greed sets in and to maximize profit production is moved to China. Ok, so production is now in the same country that all the fake Mulberry bags come from, yet the price is the same to the buyer. What’s in it for the person buying an expensive handbag? The next move by Mulberry is even more exceptional. Let’s wave the old flag, production is moving back to Britain! And quality will be improved! And prices up by 50%! Honestly, what are these guys on?

photo_of_a_small_garment_factory_1000px

I asked another industry contact for his opinion, and he pointed out that the campaign is very much a case of the consumers calling the shots. Right now, the high-street consumers are wanting things made in Britain. The trend is for products labelled “made in Britain” and these are perceived as having the right values for 2013. This results in lots of brands proclaiming to be “made in Britain”, whilst not necessarily to a level that stands up to inspection.

The traditional customers that want their British made items are the discerning consumers that go to Savile Row for their suits, a traditional Northampton-based cobbler for their shoes, and wouldn’t dream of anything but the finest pair of side-by-sides for their sporting fun. They appreciate the tradition, the stories, the specific qualities of the goods, and the fact that they are face to face and on the doorstep. These consumers place value in this and are willing to pay whatever it costs to experience and own it.

These two are quite different phenomenon, then. They only have a name in common. One is short-term and trend-led, the other is long term and quality or product-led.

What is it about “made in Britain” that makes it so appealing? I think most of it is down to the marketing people. Always on the lookout for what will trigger people to purchase, the heritage angle is prime material. Take this promo-video by Grenson and Barbour as a good example of the kind:

From a foreign point of view, say Japan, there is that Olde Worlde British charm, where a cosy, little factory filled with salt of the earth craftsmen are producing items of quality, heritage and innovation amidst copious amounts of tea and biscuits, with a game of cricket on the radio.

And then we have a third category, those that really really support the “Made in Britain” campaign. I suspect these are a bit of a mix of the two really, having a strong feeling of nationalism, heritage and well, plucky spirit. I do wonder though, how realistic is what they are trying to achieve?

The world is a cynical place. A sad but true fact. Profit is king, the more the better. If there is more to be had, it will be had, regardless of how it is done. Witness Burberry’s embarrassing moves in the name of profit margins (read here). As if chavtastic Burberry didn’t have enough problems with their image already.

Atwater Kent Factory, 1928-29

Back to the discussion I had this summer with an experienced member of the British garment industry. As he explained it, of course he wishes to be a part of the “Made in Britain” movement, for all the obvious and good reasons, not least the fact that this is key to sales in Great Britain right now. At the same time though, having travelled the world inspecting garment factories, the two absolutely worst, in terms of working conditions, were to be found in Great Britain. So while he would very much like to produce his full range in Great Britain, it just isn’t feasible. Instead foreign factories with ethics and values are sought, primarily within the EU.

made_in_britain_ribbon_1

He also told me about a visit to a fairly large factory in the Midlands that produces a lot of garments for certain expensive British labels. The factory was staffed with a large number of seemingly competent young people, and he had to express admiration for finding a young and local workforce like this. As it turned out, they weren’t local workers, but young Latvians. Sourced from a Latvian job fair each year, living in accommodation behind the factory, and working for minimum wage. Is this “Made in Britain”?

What is the actual difference between having production in a Latvian factory by Latvian workers, or having the same workers working for minimum-wage in a factory in the UK?

Another example is a very British brand known for it’s waxed outerwear. They claim to produce around 90% of their garments in the UK, specifically in a tiny, tiny factory near their HQ. There are strong rumours that their British made portion is more in the order of 5%, and then only the really high-end pieces. Consider that they sell a light jacket for 99 pounds and work the maths backwards. Once VAT, materials, shipping and salary has been taking into account, there has to be a loss on this, and we know that isn’t going to happen, right? How many percentage of production should actually be “Made in Britain” before a company can proudly fly the flag?

The same company outsourced production to a British company, but wink wink nudge nudge, let’s not mention that their factory is in fact in China. And whilst the factory in question is apparently a superbly equipped and well-staffed place, so from an ethical point of view it’s wonderful. It doesn’t really qualify for the “Made in Britain” label though.

And what about shoes? We’ve all heard about how these are produced in factories in India, shipped to the UK for the finishing touches to be added, and then proudly sold as “Made in Britain”. Just another dodge really, as while I’m certain the practice complies with some strict legal requirement, no one would actually have an understanding of this being made in Britain.

There are other dodges as well. Like having production in China, but shipping it through Macau to avoid the stigma of “made in China”.

9156335-close-up-clothing-label-made-in-china

So where does this leave us?

While I am 100% certain there are a huge number of properly fine companies that qualify for the label “Made in Britain” both ethically and practically, I am also 100% certain that there are a large number of ethically dubious and cynical companies that are ducking and diving to allow them to reap the benefits of being associated with the proud return of British manufacturing.

Is there any value in asking companies “Do you produce your goods in Great Britain?” and if they say “yes, we do” we should believe them and give them free advertising and increase their sales? While a lot of companies are honest, it appears a lot are not. How many will be honest enough to say “well, technically we do qualify as being Made in Britain, though we have outsourced almost all our production and only do the final finishing touches in Britain”?

And while I really like the “Made in Britain” campaign as an idea, I’m not sure how realistic it really is in light of how business really works. Perhaps a campaign for more ethical and environmental garment production might be a better move? For my own part, I think I’d prefer to know my shirt was made from organically produced cotton by a happy worker in Lithuania than by a minimum-wage illegal immigrant in a sweatshop in Birmingham, even though the latter would probably be proudly marketed as “Made in Britain”.

In an interesting development, I just noticed that there are things happening at an European Commission level as to how goods may be labelled. The proposal is that the most expensive element of a product will define the country of origin of a product, not the country in which it is assembled. This will have a major impact on many of the companies currently enjoying their “made in Britain” label. Read more about this here and here. Of course, companies with a lenient attitude to the truth will still be able to label as they wish…

How do you feel about this?

13 Responses to ““Made in Britain”, all it’s made out to be?”

  1. Scratch

    Interesting piece chap. While I do not think many really believe they myth that a British made item by nature is somehow “heritage” knocked up in a time honored fashion by an aged artisan – but if a brand is firmly nailing it’s colours to the mast of “British Made” and therefore somehow “authentic” – then very authentic it should be.

    Reply
  2. Alan Thorn

    I’ve always been of the view that I make my money out of people living and working in Britain. And therefore it’s both right and in my best interest, where possible, to put my money back into the British economy. After all, I need my clients to have an income, so that they can buy my services. But it’s not always easy, and I’ll not buy poor quality just to buy British. I made that mistake when I bought a MG Metro many years ago.

    Fortunately, the best HiFi comes from Britain, as does the best cheese, beer and meat. Cars present a difficulty. The British made ones are either Japanese designed and rather small, Machines for going off road and into the Waitrose car park, or beyond my budget. British made clothes and shoes, the theme of your article, are readily obtainable, though some of what you say about imported workers and simply finishing here gives me pause for thought.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad

      It’s a shame about the British car industry, indeed. Being an enthusiast of vintage Jaguars I have very much witnessed the sad demise of the British car makers. Then again, a recent episode of Top Gear did dig up a surprising number of vehicles (of all descriptions) that could be said to be made in the UK. Granted, not all were 100% British made, but it does show that the factories and skills still exist.

      Reply
  3. Antoine

    Very interested read for me, as I similarly wrote about the “Made in France” movement…”Made in…” is a very clever marketing ploy to try to get the “conservative” customers who think they will support the bygone good ol’artisans! “Made in” is only a geo-location tag after all…noone will ever check if the workers in a UK factory are all British and using British made products.

    Reply
  4. Des Ward

    Great article, I do look to the claims companies make in this regard. Ultimately though, if my pound goes to people who in turn spend their wages in the UK, I really don’t care about their heritage. The reason is simple how far do you go to determine Britishness?

    Reply
  5. David Higham

    A “cobbler” is a repairer of shoes. A “cordwainer” is a maker of shoes. A fine distinction but an important one.

    Reply

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