Is ANYTHING you're wearing made in Britain Cheap imports have swamped the High Street The Mail checked scores of outfits in 20 High Street shops – and
found just one dress made in the UK. Here we reveal the full, shocking
truth about the destruction of Britain’s clothes industry
22:52 GMT, 22 March 2012
Rummaging through the ladies’ lingerie section in John Lewis, I start to feel rather furtive as I pay perhaps a little too much attention to the fancy knickers.
If I were simply buying a present, I’d grab the first thing I saw, but today I’m on a mission — to hunt down a label that says: ‘Made in Britain’.
But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t find one.
I beat a hasty retreat along London’s Oxford Street, our most famous
shopping thoroughfare, and on I go through Selfridges, Marks &
Spencer, Next, Gap, Debenhams, French Connection and Topshop.
Mary's Bottom Line: Retail expert Mary Portas is producing British-made knickers in a bid to reinvigorate UK textile manufacturing
Labels swim before my eyes — Warehouse, All Saints, H&M, John Rocha, Ben Sherman, Jasper Conran, Fred Perry, Calvin Klein, Nicole Farhi, Burton, Monki, Miss Selfridge. In all, during a two-hour period, I examine 63 items of clothing at random — and only then, at BHS, do I find what I’m looking for: one single item, a dress, which has been made in the UK.
It is no secret that cheap imports have swamped the High Street in the past 20 years, but the extent to which they have destroyed home-grown manufacturing will shock you. It certainly stunned me. Since 2000, 52 per cent of jobs in the textile industry have been lost, and last year, we imported 12.5 billion more clothing than we exported.
Official figures show that around 90 per cent of everything we wear comes from abroad. Successive governments have presided over the demise of an industry that was once the envy of the world — and in the process, proud family businesses have collapsed or relocated to countries where workers put in up to 80 hours a week to earn a pittance.
Flying the flag The only British-made dress the Mail could find on the High Street was from BHS
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights has just released the report of an investigation into factories in Bangladesh — making knitwear for BHS — which claimed that workers were routinely beaten and forced to work overtime for what amounted to slave wages, somewhere between ten and 16 pence an hour. BHS has since launched an investigation.
Meanwhile, at home, factories lie derelict and so few skilled workers remain that the British clothing industry may never recover — even if High Street retailers put the brakes on their relentless drive for profits and deign to place contracts with our own producers.
So how did we get here ‘We first began to see the threat from cheap Chinese imports in the mid-Nineties and it became increasingly difficult to compete,’ says Simon Berwin, managing director of Berwin & Berwin, manufacturers of Daniel Hechter, Lambretta and Paul Costello suits and suppliers of garments to most of the major High Street retailers.
‘My great grandfather came here from Belarus with seven children and a sewing machine to start up our family business. We had three factories in Leeds and Pontefract and between 1997 and 2001 I had to close them all and move the business to China and Hungary.
‘I was the fourth generation and it fell to me to do that and put 700 people out of work. It was horrible and it broke my heart. I either had to do that or wind up the business. And it wasn’t just us. In the Seventies in Leeds alone, there were 30 factories each making more than 500 suits a week. Now there is just one.’
Huge investment by the Chinese government in factories, machinery and training, plus a keen young workforce paid a fraction of what their lowest-paid UK counterparts earn, meant British manufacturers with decrepit machinery in rundown premises simply couldn’t compete.
In 2005, what had become a steady flow turned into a tsunami when tariffs and quotas that had been placed on Chinese imports were removed. Now, garments that were once made in Britain bear labels from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Cambodia, Vietnam, Turkey and Romania. ‘From factory to store, a suit made in China might cost 60 and retail for 200 to 300,’ says Simon.
‘In the UK, a similar suit would come in at 120 to 150 and retail at 400 to 500. On average, a British-made garment would be about two and a half times more expensive. It is difficult to argue with the economics.’
In a bid to buck the trend, the retail guru Mary Portas — best known to TV viewers as Mary Queen of Shops — has re-opened a former clothes factory on the outskirts of Manchester in conjunction with Channel 4 and launched her own line of knickers to demonstrate that British products can still compete. The result is a four-part documentary, Mary’s Bottom Line — episode two is on tonight — but the jury is out on whether or not she will succeed.
‘People say that manufacturing will never come back,’ she says. ‘But you can make it come back. Marks & Spencer sells 61 million pairs of knickers a year — all imported. Put a million of those back into the UK. Sort it out!’
But the signs are that neither
retailers nor manufacturers believe revitalising the British clothing
industry will be that simple — the slide into obsolescence may already
have gone too far. Let’s take the
underwear sector: according to the Office for National Statistics,
between 1998 and 2008, the number of companies making undies fell from
936 to 214. The number of people they employed fell from 36,000 to just
3,000. Multiply that across shirts, suits, knitwear and so on, and you
have some idea of the rate of decline.
have reached a point where the industry has been denuded to such a
point that even if the big High Street retailers suddenly decided to buy
British again, manufacturers simply wouldn’t have the capacity, the
skilled staff and premises to meet demand,’ says John Miln, of the UK
Fashion and Textile Association.
have some fabulous producers in this country, but they tend to be in
high-end label or niche markets and specialised fabrics used in
uniforms, heat-resistant garments and so on. But the high volume textile manufacturing of days of yore has all but disappeared.’
During the past 12 months, reports of some retailers beginning to buy British again have provided a few crumbs of comfort. But
the numbers involved are minuscule in comparison with the number of
foreign imports and suggest that companies are merely paying lip service
to calls for them to be more patriotic.
In the past 30 years, the UK's manufacturing sector has shrunk by two-thirds, the greatest de-industrialisation of any major nation
River Island has increased its British buying by 50 per cent but a company spokesman has admitted that rise was from a ‘low’ starting level (she would not disclose the precise figures). Marks & Spencer obtains one-third of its hosiery from a factory in Derbyshire and has agreed to take some of Mary Portas’s British-made Kinky Knickers brand. It also has a range of suits featuring British fabrics — but they are put together abroad.
Last year Topman — a part of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group alongside BHS — crowed that it was selling Harris tweed jackets in its stores. But two well-placed sources told me that the group had bought just 70 of them — fewer than one for every two Topman branches. Simon Berwin believes there is no turning back. He fought hard to keep production in the UK but a lack of government support for the industry — such as tax breaks for investors — stymied him and many of his peers.
‘The prospect of moving to China to stay in business was frightening at first,’ he says. ‘Then you arrive and find state-of-the-art machinery in clean, bright factories — ours has a marble floor — and an enthusiastic, well-educated and nimble workforce.
‘We used to make 5,000 suits a week in the UK and it was a constant battle to patch up leaky roofs or fix ancient machinery. Now, in China, we make 16,000. And I would love to tell you that the clothes we made in Britain were of better quality, but they weren’t. All this is price-driven by the retailers, and that means that if you can make your product just as well but cheaper abroad, then that’s what they want you to do. Consumers want ever-cheaper clothing and the retailers will find the manufacturers who can supply it.
Keeping costs down: Many retailers prefer to import clothes made in textile factories abroad like this one in Beijing because items are produced quickly and cheaply
‘It’s relentless.Labour costs in China are rising as workers become more affluent. Recently, I’ve been told by some retailers that I should look somewhere even cheaper — perhaps India, Vietnam or Cambodia. “And where do I go after that” I asked them. “The moon” ’
Some see these higher costs in China as a tiny window of opportunity for Britain to compete, but this would require unprecedented levels of co-operation between government, suppliers and retailers. Mary Portas is likely to get that, but she has a television programme behind her. Others might not be so lucky.
‘We’d need so many things to improve if we were ever to compete with the likes of China,’ says Tim Roache. As Yorkshire regional secretary of the GMB union, which represents textile workers, he watched helplessly as factory after factory in his area folded. ‘We’d need huge investment in plant and machinery, skills and apprenticeships. Surely it’s better spending money on building a productive workforce in a vibrant industry than on paying people to stay at home on the dole
‘On top of that, there would have to be long-term commitments from retailers to buy from British manufacturers so they could steadily grow to meet demand. It would have to be a partnership but, to a large extent, any recovery would be in the hands of the retailers.’
Bucking the trend: Mary is proving, with the help of machinists in Middleton, near Manchester, that affordable clothes can be produced in Britain again
But it isn’t just about the retailers; it’s about you and me. We have become used to buying ever cheaper clothing. The question is, are we prepared to pay more The retailers think not. ‘Many of the products imported from abroad are cheaper in real terms than they have ever been,’ says Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium. ‘So households can enjoy living standards and a range of goods that previous generations could only dream of. That’s what people want.’
But what if we all said we would buy British, that we were prepared to pay a bit more to support our own industry Could the retailers set up little Made in Britain sections, with flags and banners, so we would know where to go to exercise our choices
‘I really don’t think there is any demand for that,’ says Richard. ‘All the evidence is that the price of an item is more important to consumers than its place of origin.’
So, it’s up to us. If we turn our backs on cheap foreign imports and create demand for British goods instead, then the retailers will put them in their shops. It’s as simple — and as unlikely — as that. As for that British dress … I wanted to hold up the team who made it as an inspiration. Well done for managing to get a British item of clothing into an outlet that was once proud to call itself British Home Stores! But, in what might almost be a metaphor for the sorry mess in which we find ourselves, BHS refused to tell me who they were.