These are difficult times for the UK economy, with the latest figures showing 2.67 million people in the UK are currently unemployed. Retail guru, Mary Portas, could hardly be accused of failing to do her bit.
Not content with saving a series of struggling small shops, followed by some charity shops, she then responded to the government’s request to save whole the high street – while also finding time to successfully acquaint the fashion industry with the existence of women aged between 40 and 60.
Now the Queen of Shops has decided to save the UK’s struggling manufacturing sector – by launching her own line in British-made knickers. Unsurprisingly, the launch of Kinky Knickers, as the Portas pants are known, is the subject of a three-part documentary, Mary’s Bottom Line, which appeared for the first time on Channel 4 last week.
There has been a massive decline in employment in UK manufacturing, not just since the post-war period of nationalised heavy industries but also more recently: a 2010 report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills shows that the number of manufacturing workers fell from 5.2 million in 1990 to 2.6 million in 2009.
For Portas, the problem is clear: “Britain was once a manufacturing colossus, renowned for its world-class clothing industry. But today, most fashion is manufactured cheaply abroad and, across the UK, vast, bustling factories and skilled manufacturers have simply ceased operation. So when and why did we stop buying British?”
As is the solution: “Mary heads to Middleton near Manchester, where past generations used to thrive on a booming manufacturing industry, but these days many factories are closed and unemployment is rife. Mary will recruit eight apprentices, get them trained up, and start a knickers production line.”
It’s a relatively smallscale intervention but it might serve to highlight bigger issues.
Some existing UK underwear manufacturers are annoyed at what they see as publicity stunt that ignores their contribution to the clothing industry. A blog post from vintage lingerie brand, Kiss Me Deadly, offers a few choice thoughts: “… you might imagine that any attempt to help UK manufacturing would involve boosting the work and supporting the efforts of people who’ve been toiling away at it for a while now with minimal resources, rather than setting up an entirely new project which inevitably will only be able to offer a small product range instead of reflecting the enormous breadth the UK industry actually offers.
Or, you could try encouraging department stores and shops to buy British, or help find people who could make the fabrics, or educate customers about why it matters, or help factories that are struggling to invest in new workers expand, or help brands to find more outlets for their UK made items.”
Becky John of social enterprise pants company, Who Made Your Pants?, raised similar concerns at a recent social enterprise event.
The points are important but I think there’s a bigger underlying question about what Portas is trying to do, which also links in with her attempts to promote the high street over out-of-town shopping.
The underlying question is to what extent is the a short-term nostalgia fix and to what extent is it a serious attempt to raise questions about what business is for? While it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek, the promotional material for Kinky Knickers – the brand launched in Mary’s Bottom Line – is heavily suffused with nostagia. The carry-on style poster is rounded off with the strapline: ‘Made in Britain just for the milkman’ – meaning that any ladies wanting to enjoy the full benefit of their purchase will apparently have to move to an area that still has a milk round.
Just as there are now fewer milk rounds because most people prefer milk that is cheaper and doesn’t have to be left to curdle on, or get stolen from, their doorstep while they’re at out work, a big part of the reason that the clothing bit of UK manufacturing declined in the first place is because British shoppers didn’t care (in sufficient numbers) about the issues Portas is aiming to highlight.
Many of us like the idea of supporting local employment and a skilled manufacturing base but not as much as we like the nice holidays and bigger houses we – the UK population as opposed to me personally – have been able to afford as a result of buying cheap imports from elsewhere. Will the current economic situation – and the collapse of the model that brought us all these cheap goods – make us reconsider what our economy is for?
Whether or not rising wages in China mean that there’s genuinely another chance for UK manufacturing, Mary Portas has achieved partial success in drawing mainstream attention to the (to many of us) obvious point that economic decisions, taken by governments and by individuals, have social consequences.
We probably don’t want our economy to be exactly like it was at any specified point in the past but it’s important that we consider what we want business in the UK to deliver, beyond lots of cheap stuff.