Made in the UK? The benefits to retailers of British manufacturing

I was thrilled to be given a Newgate clock for my second anniversary this year, as I have always wanted one.  Oversize beautifully crafted clocks made in the UK.  Or so I thought, until I received mine, and turned it over to reveal a made in china sticker on the box……….

There has been much talk of the need to reinvigorate British manufacturing to help the economy, but sadly that has all it has been.  Ed Miliband called for “patriotism not protectionism” earlier this year,  and David Cameron responded by buying a gift for Obama which was made in China.  And then only 6% of merchandise at the Olympics was made in the UK.  Surely a huge mistake when you consider the cache that British made products have in many Asian countries.

The question is whether we need more patriotic economic policy, or whether companies simply need to review the increasing benefits UK manufacturing can offer.

And it seems that some already are.  John Lewis are currently rolling out their Made in GB range of 4000 products from 130 UK manufacturers in store and online, which equates to roughly 15% of their own brand products.  Some of these products come from their own weaving mill in Lancashire, which they have owned since 1934. The reasons they cite for this renewed focus on UK manufacture are quality, innovation and design.


Quality has been a key component in ensuring the continuing popularity of some key British brands such as John Smedley, Barbour, Mackintosh, Brora and many others, in overseas markets and designer labels such as Izzy Lane, Tatty Devine and Beautiful Soul (more here). Bespoke men’s tailors Gieves and Hawkes’ biggest customer base is now in Asia, which explains why it was bought by Chinese company Trinity Ltd last year, and why luxury clothing manufacturer Aquascutum was bought by Chinese company YGM Trading, in June this year.

Innovation and design

This quality reputation also comes from the quality of the cloth coming from the UK, which is produced by remaining weaving companies such as S Dawes Weaving (who supply many brands and designers such as Nigel Cabourn, Laura Ashley, Next, West Bridge Furniture, Multiyork and family run reupholstery business, Plumbs, with designs such as the one below).  Their chief designer Joanna Brockbank notes that whilst they are a lot smaller than they were even 10 years ago, they are more innovative and stronger on design than ever before.


One company who strive to not only manufacture, but source everything from the UK because they believe in the quality is Cooper and Stollbrand, who has been making quality outerwear in the same factory in Manchester for nearly a century now.  Not only do they make 100% of their clothes in the UK but they also try to source all of their fabrics, and accoutrements here, and largely succeed in doing so (apart from their zips which are no longer made anywhere in the UK).  Their approach and craftsmanship have led to orders pouring in from customers (they sell their products direct through their own brand Private White VC) and from a range of well-known retailers.

Speed to market

Several retailers (including George at Asda) also cite speed to market as another key benefit, which allows them to react to popular trends, and have a new piece in store within several weeks rather than up to 12 weeks from most overseas suppliers.

And a number of other retailers are also dipping their toes in, including ASOS, whose Green Room service allows online customers to search for different sustainability credentials such as organic, fairtrade, and made in the UK.  Fat Face also launched a small but perfectly formed British Heritage range last year (pictured below), and River Island launched a Made in Britain range, and claim to have doubled their manufacturing in the UK last year (albeit presumably from a low base).

 Supply chain management

Another key benefit is the ability to develop strong and close partnerships with suppliers when they are not as far away.  As Anya Pearson (who set up UK manufactured clothing label Frank and Faith) puts it “Leicester’s a small world, and I know every factory, every supplier, and everyone in this business, so I know where my stock has been made and how it is being made!” This proximity and being part of the whole process should allow retailers to reduce wastage that can occur when a whole container of products are rejected, but more importantly help them ensure labour standards are high.  This is not to say that all factories in the UK have high enough labour standards (as was demonstrated by TNS knitwear in Manchester in 2009 and the Leicester based factory in 2010) but that ensuring standards are met should be far simpler, and less expensive and complicated than auditing of overseas suppliers.


This feeds into the most obvious benefit of returning to UK manufacturing, which is the increasing price parity that the UK can offer.  This was explored in the fantastic BBC2 series The Town Taking on China, which featured cushion makers, Caldeira, who have one factory in Kirkby and another in China.  Owner, Tony Caldeira explained to me that this year they have found that for the first time they can make some of their products as cost effectively in the UK as they can in China due to rising wages in China, the exchange rate, and the freighting and import taxes.

So it seems the UK has managed to hang onto some of its manufacturing skills, and some of the retailers are clearly already aware of the benefits which made in the UK can offer them.  The next step which needs to happen is longer-term commitment from retailers to allow the factories to offer permanent contracts to their staff, which would in turn help support retention and recruitment, and ensure that they are able to deliver quality products cost effectively and on time.   And crucially it could make the industry a more attractive career option.

Philip Green has recently been urging UK retailers to buy British made goods, so hopefully this will translate into targets for Arcadia’s manufacturing and spur other retailers to follow suit.  And if they get the products right, hopefully UK consumers will show their appreciation.   Judging by the recent show of patriotism, it would be an excellent time for retailers to give it a go.

P.S. After my disappointing clock experience, I have since cheered up a lot by buying the beautiful velvet chesterfield sofa above, which was made by a lovely man called Brian from Bolton based Saracens Furniture for a very reasonable £710.  I can say without doubt it is the best quality sofa I have ever sat upon and will certainly outlast me.

For retailers who are looking for help to find the right suppliers in the UK, Kate Hills at Make it British can help.  And for consumers looking for a list of British products try Still Made in the UK or just ask your retailer and see what they say.


5 responses to “Made in the UK? The benefits to retailers of British manufacturing

  1. I’m up for nurturing a return to manufacturing in my locale, to address the dominance of the financial sector in recent years. That said, I have problems with the patriotic turn. The first is that as far as I can see, patriotism in trade is simply an individualised, nationalist form of protectionism – apart from not being institutionalised, what *is* the difference between consumer patriotism and protectionism? Why doesn’t Miliband advocate for a culture where consumption is based on principles other than price alone – why does it have to be packaged as patriotism?

    The second is that it’s rare that the UK can compete on price. Britain’s poor are a growing section of society – clearly if the UK wants this kind of localised economy it will need to increase the minimum wage and grow a consumer base that can afford its produce. It would be slightly ridiculous to advocate patriotism for Britain but free trade everywhere else we want to export to.

    Thirdly, the UK is the 6th wealthiest country in the world, still dining out on an imperial legacy which brought us infrastructure, cheap imported raw materials, and the technologies to add value to those and consolidate an advantage – I’m not so comfortable with rich countries in an overwhelmingly poor world advocating ring-fencing wealth for themselves.

    Fourthly, as mentioned, isn’t a turn to patriotic consumerism is inconsistent with exporting our stuff to other states? For example, there’s something dodgy with e.g. what the UK did in the 1800s – import cheap cotton from India, add value to it in the mills, and export the cloth back to India at a far higher price. Any economy which depended on that would necessarily compete with (often low income) countries producing raw materials and trying to grow their own opportunities to add value. Ha Joon Chang writes on the benefits of early but strictly time-limited protectionism of governments of poor countries trying to nurture their own value-adding industries. But if all countries went patriotic for the long time, the UK would eventually find itself deprived of raw materials and working solely in willow, straw and mud. We’d probably have to start wearing skins and woad again.

    So, putting aside some of my more far-fetched ideals about doing away with pay and purchasing altogether, I think we should continue to choose purchases on the basis of ethics, quality and price, I’d say (some days I reverse the first two). UK products do relatively well on ethics, ironically we have the European Union to thank for this. And they are local, of course – jobs which of course is a huge potential benefit for communities near manufacturing sites. Not so competitive on price (some good reasons for this e.g. we have a minimum wage, and some bad ones e.g. inefficiency). And unless the design, quality, durability reflects the higher price and better ethos, surely we shouldn’t be sitting ducks for shonky manufacturers – that’s not sustainable. And price is really important. We don’t want a manufacturing base of artisans making stuff only rich people can afford. We need a Bauhaus (we got IKEA).

    • Did you watch the programme I cite, which talks about how the UK can compete on price now, even with a minimum wage? This is due to increasing efficiencies and rising import taxes and fuel price. It certainly isnt the case for all industries yet, but the programme makes the case for soft furnishings market. So don’t assume UK made products are necessarily more expensive, as things are certainly changing.

  2. Great article, Georgina. I really enjoyed the references to a range of retailers which are practical starting points. I was delighted the other day to discover that the Nissan Qashqai is made in the UK. I am not 100% sure that my particular car was UK made but I never imagined in a million years that would be the case. I felt reassured that the quality (that you talk about) would rival a German made brand. The other major issue for retailers now is to invest in a decent instore experience or the high street may well be in jeopardy.

  3. I agree with Mira re cost. I think a lot of people like the idea of supporting locally made or ethical but cannot afford it. Maybe the argument also needs to include sourcing of labour as I feel (and am certainly not an expert on this) that making more of the child and other inadequately paid (slave?) labour argument may lead to people paying a bit more for their clothes especially if the quality/price and offering is right.
    Definitely food for thought…

  4. I was pretty pleased to find this great site. I want to to thank you for your time due to this wonderful read!!
    I definitely savored every bit of it and I have you book-marked to see new things in your website.

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