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Karen Kay: ‘Buying British’ needs to be more than just window-dressing

PUBLISHED: 16:38 16 January 2017 | UPDATED: 16:38 16 January 2017

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Wachiwit

There’s now a fashion for ‘buying British’ but it needs to be more than window-dressing, says Karen

I recently wrote for a national broadsheet newspaper on the resurgence of UK manufacturing in the fashion industry. An increasing number of businesses, both designer and high street brands, are not only making garments and accessories here, but actively using this as part of their marketing strategy.

For years the ‘made in Britain’ label was the norm in our wardrobes: from knitwear to raincoats and lingerie, most of us would dress most days in clothes made in domestic factories. Since the Industrial Revolution, production lines around the country spun cotton and wool yarns, wove and knitted cloth, or made intricate lace. Whether you shopped in M&S or Aquascutum, much of your wardrobe would have been made somewhere on these shores.

But the last two or three decades has seen a revolution on the other side of the world, where vast, state of the art factories use computer-controlled production combined with cheap labour. That cost-effective productivity wooed virtually every High Street brand. M&S, BHS and TopShop, all homegrown, couldn’t compete with the likes of fast fashion labels. The only way to keep up was to play them at their own game.

Or was it? When you lose control over your product, your integrity as a business has the potential to unravel. When customers note inferior fabrics, or that buttons are falling off after a couple of wears, they hesitate before making another purchase. When they see stories about poor labour practices, they no longer feel comfortable. When they discover the carbon footprint attached to their new outfit, shipped half way round the world, their conscience is pricked.

Or is it? The demand for affordable, fast fashion has certainly supported the growth of companies making in Asia and Eastern Europe, where a cheap workforce means low production costs and bigger profit margins.

Friends and family tell me ‘we should be making in the UK’, as if it’s someone else’s responsibility. One has to pay a premium for British-made products. If you want workers to receive a living wage and work in clean, safe facilities with decent employment contracts and rights, then that has a cost which has to be factored in.

The relative cost of clothing in relation to average income has reduced dramatically. As a proportion of what we earn, most of us can afford to buy far more clothes than our fathers or mothers ever could, yet have forgotten to question their provenance – until now.

A growing army of customers are investing in clothes with a transparent supply chain, and a quality that means garments will have a longer lifespan. Consumers are beginning to boycott brands which fail to take responsibility for the wellbeing of those who make their products.

How can a pair of £4 jeans be ethically produced and still make a profit for the retailer when they’ve been shipped thousands of miles? The answer? They can’t. In Bangladesh, garment industry workers are paid, on average, £48 a month – under one fifth of the nation’s estimated living wage.

If you want to step out with a clean conscience, you have to be prepared to pay more – and if that means buying fewer garments, so be it. And not just paying more, but scrutinising where they are made, and ideally supporting a domestic labour force, paid a minimum of the living wage. Many of us have a rose-tinted vision of how we should be able to ‘buy British’, somehow believing UK production lines can be magically resurrected.

That overwhelming mood was certainly a factor in the result of the Brexit referendum, but the economics only add up if we seek out and support business that sell British-made goods by buying them.

I’ve been talking about clothes, because that’s the industry I know, but, if you look around, you’ll find manufacturers in other sectors.

Ercol, a world-renowned furniture maker, has a production facility in Princes Risborough – and an amazing on-site outlet offering slight seconds at a substantial discount, often not much more than flat-packed furniture. Though numbers have dwindled, there are still furniture factories in and around High Wycombe, once the heart of the UK industry, including Royal Warrant holder Hypnos, who make their beds in Bucks. That means jobs for local people, a boost to the local and national economy – and a clean conscience.

So why not make a New Year resolution? Next time you need something new, whether it’s a wardrobe or something to hang in it, support a British manufacturer. 


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