‘Made in China’ – three words that have become ubiquitous all over the world, and etched into an enormous amount – almost certainly most – of our household products. Since British industry went into a sharp decline after the 70s, almost everything is imported. But is ‘Made in Britain’ making a comeback? Could homemade goods ride the retro vintage wave and get people excited about buying local goods once more? We look at this multi-faceted issue in today’s blog.
Firstly, it’s important to have some context rather than foaming at the mouth every time the dreaded ‘Made in China’ appears before your eyes. For better or worse, there certainly are reasons why so many items are made by foreign manufacturing. Believe it or not, we did actually used to make stuff over here once upon a time. But ol’ Maggie Thatcher, a woman whose name being mentioned could start a vicious fight at a yoga class – decided to close most of the industry in the UK, with long reaching effects that we still feel today. So from the 70s onwards, we inevitably began importing everything, with China being a massive beneficiary from this.
But how has China grown to become among the biggest exporters on the globe? Numerous ways, quite a few of which are not so nice. On the positive side, it’s partly because the Chinese are very effective at getting things done. They have good infrastructure and many businesses report how staggered they are by the speed at which projects are turned around when UK businesses so often decide to turn to Chinese help. It is also because components for products tend to be much cheaper in China, and also more in abundance and easily found.
The other less cheerful reason touches on the slightly awkward human rights chestnut. Labour is much, much cheaper in China. Many companies will be happy to leave it at that – they love their work, and they’ll do it on the cheap! But of course what this really means is longer hours, for less pay. Most Chinese workers have to do ten hour days, six days a week. Shouldn’t they get together and do something about that, perhaps? Well unfortunately, unions are strictly banned, so industrial action against hours and pay is off the cards. And if a worker quits or is fired, there’s a solid chance there’ll be someone ready to step in immediately. So there is some food for thought – if you buy British, at least you know the people who made your throw pillow (or whatever it may be) didn’t have a totally dreadful time human rights-wise (this is not to say that all overseas workers or all Chinese workers do!).
So by buying items made on our beloved Albion, you’re helping the economy, local communities, and assisting a comeback for British manufacturing. But how easy is it to get as many British things as possible? In a nutshell – very, very difficult, as it turned out for one family, the Bradshaws. At Christmas 2012, when the news dropped about big multinationals like Amazon and Starbucks paying next to no tax in this country, they vowed to not buy any of their christmas presents from ‘the everything store’ website that year. This got them thinking – if you can avoid giving money to behemoth companies who derive huge profits from us but steadfastly refuse to repay it in tax, could you instead only buy British goods and help local designers, workers, and the trade as a whole?
They decided that, for the entirety of 2013, they would not buy a single item which wasn’t made in the UK. This mission caught the eye of BBC News, who were keen to see how they would fare. There’s a great moment in the video where, on the family’s first Brit-buy-only excursion into town, Dad James enthusiastically picks up a mini pillow with the Union Jack emblazoned on, only to find the inevitable ‘Made in China’ in small print. The reporter also, rather cruelly, offers them some Belgian chocolates, which they manage to politely refuse. They had been a big fan of Cadbury chocolate – but they then remembered the British company was bought out by Kraft foods, based in the U S of A. Same goes for other seemingly British brands Twinings tea and Laura Ashley – the tea is in fact made in Poland, and the quaint home furnishings co is now owned by a pair of Malaysians. Who knows what’s next, perhaps the rights to Winston Churchill will be bought by McDonald’s.
In the book America Unchained, in which comedian Dave Gorman goes on a roadtrip with the challenge of not giving a single cent to a chain company, the second chapter sees our hero being violently sick into a toilet after eating a huge McDonald’s meal, having found his task utterly impossible. Thankfully, the ending was happy for the Bradshaws, they did it! They had to make a few things themselves i.e growing veg and a DIY radio – but you don’t have to go that far, because the fruits of their labour is Britipedia, an online directory they have set up where you can find a company who will make whatever item you are after! Cheers Bradshaws! Now no one has to throw up violently.
But we need more good work done rather than just relying on one lovely quirky family. We have companies like Burberry who claim to be the epitome of quaint Britishness (their whole branding and marketing revolves around it), but as Carole Cadwalladr found out in her piece on British manufacturing, they’ve actually slashed jobs as much as anyone:
“Five years ago, the workers in Treorchy’s 70-year-old Burberry factory fought a long, bitter and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to stop their jobs – 300 of them – going to China. Three years ago, 170 workers at Burberry’s Rotherham factory met the same fate. Another 130 jobs went at its two remaining factories in Yorkshire.”
We need some positivity to get British manufacturing thriving again. Positivity like Howie’s ethical clothing, who not far from the closed Treorchy Burberry factory, reopened an old jeans factory (cutting 400 jobs when it shut a decade ago) in Cardigan, West Wales – making sustainable clothing, and giving a big boost to the local community. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Burberry. Similar sounding company Mulberry recently took the decision to switch its workforce from China to Somerset. The signs are good, but what else do we need to see?
Startup loans is a step in the right direction, to combat the old saying “banks will only lend you an umbrella when its sunny”. We need to accommodate British businesses as much as possible, as many small to medium sized companies complain of having to lay off staff and the difficulty of securing loans. But what can you, dear reader, start doing now, to play your part? Well, the Bradshaw’s Britipedia is a fantastic place to start – have a look and be surprised at how many places you can get yourself some lovely UK treats. And shops like John Lewis now display a little Union Jack on items that weren’t made overseas. Hoorah!
It’s in our hands, let’s get Britain making again. It’s time to opt for local workers and entrepreneurialism over the convenience of Amazon. If you’re already buying local products, then keep calm and carry on.