British manufacturing has been at the forefront of my mind over the past few weeks.
I flew up to Scotland at the end of September to visit Johnstons of Elgin in north Scotland, one of the only vertical cashmere and woollen mills left in the UK and a company steeped in history. I followed that with a visit to the refitted Jaeger store in Chelsea – where ‘Made in Britain’ products are prominently displayed, although they comprise only 5% of the range – and rounded it off by attending Best of Britannia (BoB) last week.
On each occasion, the conversations inevitably turned to affordability and how to attract domestic shoppers, not just export markets. Are large swathes of the British public ever likely to forgo cheap, Asia-produced fashion in favour of British-made socks that cost £15 a pair?
During my trip, Johnstons chief executive Simon Cotton was clear that British manufacturing was simply a “premium story”, yet Antony Wallis, co-founder of Best of Britannia, argued last week that products manufactured here are not that much more expensive – and said many British consumers would be willing to pay £50 more for an item with a story behind it, such as a Johnstons scarf.
But raising awareness in the UK is, he admitted, still a big challenge facing British manufacturers. It’s positive to see both Best of Britannia and the newer Meet the Manufacturer event are moving to bigger venues next year, with BoB also becoming biannual from 2015; but I sense this growth is driven by people already engaged with the cause, rather than members of the general public starting to buy British in significant numbers.
On the other hand when I popped down to BoB on Friday afternoon, although it wasn’t packed there was a buzz about the place. Friday was also the first Buy British Day, and the #buybritishday social media hashtag seemed popular enough. There is an appetite for British manufacturing, even if it remains stubbornly small. BoB’s decision, therefore, to launch an ecommerce site was a good one – it will make it much easier for the public to find authentic Made in Britain products in one place, in turn opening up a larger customer base.