Kate Hills, founder and CEO of directory and website Make it British, and trade show Meet the Manufacturer
Kate Hills Make it British
Since I first had the idea for Make it British in 2008, it was apparent to me that brands and high street retailers would not be able to continue relying so heavily on the Far East to source clothing and textiles. A return of some manufacturing to the UK was inevitable – it was only a matter of time.
Many may consider the news that Clarks plans to open a brand new factory to bring its shoe production back to the UK as a brave move, but to me it seems like a logical step that will pave the way for others to follow suit.
Any buyer who has worked in the industry for a considerable length of time will have seen cost prices rise significantly during their career, and the impact of the exchange rate since the Brexit vote has compounded the situation. Once all undue overheads have been stripped out of the supply chain, the only way for prices to go now is up.
Also take into account the fact that the growing Chinese middle class do not want to buy product made in China any more, and that customers are getting more savvy about “British brands” that don’t actually make in Britain. That, together with an increasing interest in sustainable and transparent supply chains, and a demand for faster turnaround of product, makes UK manufacturing once more a very viable prospect.
Over the last few years, I’ve had many conversations – from big retailers right through to small start-ups – about UK sourcing strategies. Everyone is looking for local factories so they are no longer entirely reliant on overseas sourcing, especially since the Brexit vote. Not only does making in the UK protect against the unpredictability of foreign currency rates, but orders placed closer to the season help to ensure that a business is not holding unwanted stock.
Fashion Enter factory
Fashion retailers such as Asos and Boohoo are in the ascendent because they react quickly to trends and customer demands, and they do that in part by manufacturing more of their product closer to home – Boohoo sources 50% of its product from UK factories.
However, the big issue is that large sewing factories with rows and rows of machinists, like those in China, just do not exist in the UK. The largest sewing factory here has probably no more than 150 machinists, and they make furniture covers, not clothes! Finding skilled machinists is one of the biggest barriers to growth, and the training of skilled staff is not going to happen overnight.
When it comes to clothing factories, those with the most machinists are generally making exclusively for their own brand, such as David Nieper and Barbour. Even those that once made exclusively for others, are now creating their own in-house brands – think Private White VC in Manchester.
So the solution for brands such as Clarks that want to resume any volume manufacturing in the UK is to open their own factory. This cuts out the costs of intermediaries and allows them to put what they want on the production line, when they (and their customer) want it. It does, of course mean a larger investment at the beginning, but will reap rewards in the long run.
Clarks has announced that it will be concentrating on making its Desert Boot in its new UK factory, which makes sense. Not only is it an iconic product worthy of a “made in Britain” stamp, but manufacturing just one style of product simplifies the production line and improves factory efficiency.
The new Clarks factory will apparently be using robot-assisted technology. This lessens the need for skilled labour, which in the UK is in such short supply. Automation has worked wonders for the UK car industry, where companies such as Toyota and Nissan use robots on the production line. The use of state-of-the-art technology to make production efficient is something that is already working for some of the UK knitwear factories, as well as enabling cotton spinning to return to the UK at English Fine Cottons.
Let’s not pretend that there is going to be a sudden influx of brands and retailers opening factories in the UK. Clarks has no doubt been planning this for a long time, and a factory on this scale is not opened overnight. However, what I hope it will do, is give any of those businesses that are wondering how they are going to increase their UK manufacturing, the courage to think that investing in their own factory could now be a truly viable option.