Bringing it Home- With speed to market required like never before, demand for UK manufacturing is on the up.
With rising transport and labour costs, China’s once unbeatable cost advantage is beginning to fade in the face of increased demand for local suppliers who can provide speed to market.
This, combined with a genuine appetite for Made in Britain products, has led to a promising revival of the British textile manufacturing industry. Figures from the UK Fashion & Textile Association show sales across the cloth and garment-making industry surged 20% in the past four years to £11.5bn.
Initiatives such as Reshore UK have also galvanised the sector. Part of the Manufacturing Advice Service and funded by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, it aims to help companies take advantage of the business opportunities created through reshoring by offering expert strategic advice and providing access to funding to encourage it.
There are, however, major cost issues with sourcing in the UK. Workers on the minimum wage earn £252.40 for a 40-hour week, which amounts to just over £1,000 a month. The minimum wage per month in China’s capital Beijing was RMB 1,400 (£131.70) in 2013, according to the China Labour Bulletin, and can be much lower in rural provinces. Despite talk of wages increasing at an average rate of 13% per year in China, the levels are still very low compared with the UK.
Property is also more expensive in Britain. Finding the space to open a factory can often be time-consuming and costly, and the lack of investment in manufacturing over the years has led to a deterioration in standards of machinery.
And yet there are plenty who advocate sourcing here. Jenny Holloway, director of social enterprise Fashion Enter, is one of them. Fashion Enter runs a 7,500 sq ft factory in Haringey, north London, which produces more than 7,500 units per week for the likes of Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Asos.
“People have this view that UK fashion manufacturing is very niche, but we can produce big runs of product,” she says.
Holloway argues manufacturing in the UK is much more risk-averse than going overseas as there are cheaper transport costs, no need to send buyers to far-flung places, no lengthy stays in expensive hotels and lead times are much quicker.
A major problem, however, is finding skilled staff. Of Fashion Enter’s 48 machinists, not one is British. Most come from China or eastern Europe. They are all entitled to work in the country, but Holloway says it is a shame it is so difficult to find British staff.
By supporting schemes such as Fashion Enter’s Fashion and Textile Apprenticeship and its Stitching Academy, funded by registered charity Asos Foundation and the Department of Work & Pensions and run at the factory in Haringey, Holloway hopes a new generation of young people can be encouraged to develop careers in fashion production.
Mannequin and fit specialist Alvanon is working with Fashion Enter and a number of British universities on reskilling the manufacturing base to bring sourcing back to the UK. As well as providing technical tools and expertise to educational establishments, it sells design tools to British retailers including Tesco, Debenhams, Joules and Next. Alvanon president Edward Gribbin says: “Everyone wants to be a designer. We need to make the technical roles just as exciting.”
Handbag manufacturer British Bag Makers is an example of a firm that has combined large-scale production with hand-crafted luxury. Founded in 1994, about 20% of sales are generated from its own label Liz Cox bags, available from its boutique in Bath and at www.lizcox.com. The remaining 80% comes from making bags for retailers such as Jaeger, Dunhill and Mulberry. It operates a 12,500 sq ft factory in Bath and can produce between 600 to 700 bags per week.
Co-founder Andrew Cater says his biggest obstacle is convincing clients it is possible to mass-produce in the UK: “It is so rare, so unusual to find a manufacturing solution in this country that is price competitive - but we can do it.” He claims British Bag Makers is as competitive as any of the European luxury handbag manufacturers, with the added benefit that bags are 100% hand-crafted in Britain, often using British leather. Other advantages include being able to respond quicker to trends.
This view is echoed by Andy Gadsden, brand manager of JuJu, maker of beach jelly shoes and children’s wellington boots. Founded in Northampton in the 1980s, it has been manufacturing shoes in a factory in the town for more than 25 years.
“Having our offices and factory within the same building encourages a tight-knit network and enables us to maintain our high level of quality across sampling and production,” Gadsden says. “Our UK customers also benefit from short lead times and our ability to offer in-season reorders.”
Jigsaw also manufactures some of its ranges in the UK, especially in its menswear collection. It sources tweed from Linton Tweeds in Carlisle, wool from Abraham Moon & Sons in Yorkshire and shoes from manufacturers in Northampton. However, chief executive Peter Ruis says the UK will never be able to offer large-scale production as the costs are simply too prohibitive: “We use small designer units to make something special and unique for us, but it is quite hard to find a unit that will do a big run.”
Now is certainly an interesting time to be a British fashion manufacturer, with plenty of home-grown firms benefitting. As long as the price is right, the business is there.