Pants for the memories?

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.


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11 responses to “Pants for the memories?

  1. What is business for? What is economics for? These very relevant questions are what are asked at our own beginning:

    “At first glance, it might seem redundant to emphasize people as the central focus of economics. After all, isn’t the purpose of economics, as well as business, people? Aren’t people automatically the central focus of business and economic activities? Yes and no. People certainly gain and benefit, but the rub is: which people?”

    From this, a proposal to tackle UK poverty,:with an alternative to capitalism. The aim, to provide seed funding for social enterprise and micro business, which simply wasn’t to be found from mainstream lenders. It came with proof of concept, from microenterprise development in the Tomsk Regional Initiative: .

    “Dealing with poverty is nothing new. The question became ‘how does poverty still exist in a world with sufficient resources for a decent quality of life for everyone?’ The answer was that we have yet to develop any economic system capable redistributing finite resources in a way that everyone has at minimum enough for a decent life: food, decent housing, transportation, clothing, health care, and education. The problem has not been lack of resources, but adequate distribution of resources. Capitalism is the most powerful economic engine ever devised, yet it came up short with its classical, inherent profit-motive as being presumed to be the driving force. Under that presumption, all is good in the name of profit became the prevailing winds of international economies — thereby giving carte blanche to the notion that greed is good because it is what has driven capitalism. ”

    Now as Marxist economist David Harvey, explains, capitalism exports its problems, by which he means, in order to maximise shareholder returns, we must minimise costs by seeking increasingly lower labour costs.

    The greatest returns on investment could be found in property development and that is the focus of our banking industry.

    The solution, in the wake of the economic collapse in Russia, was to turn trickle-down economics on its head and invest in developing local economies bottom-up. A concept which has since gained considerable traction. The problem is, as I see it, a government who advocate it and don’t really understand how to do it. Instead of helping this people-centric localisation, they aim to spin out the public sector, which many, quite reasonably see as backdoor privatisation. .

    With localised manufacturing it has been argued, we won’t achieve the economy of scale we’ve known. Consider the cost of an iPhone and then perhaps its true social cost, as Eve Ensler, Chinese workers and Congolese labourers know it. .

    We should perhaps rather than ‘Think Different’. think more deeply. about business and people. . . .


  2. I enjoyed Mary’s programme last week.

    Sure, there are issues with it. It’s a television programme after all.

    But I’d prefer to see social entrepreneurs supporting each other than tearing strips off each other. Mary’s Bottom Line will be an eye-opener for many people who are less familiar with the issues of local manufacturing. It’s fantastic for all of us ‘social entrepreneurs’ to see these issues reach the mainstream – programmes like this help us to open conversations with potential funders and clients, and ultimately succeed.

    We could applaud Mary Portas and the production team for that, at least.

    Social enterprise is a relatively new, growing market. There’s enough room for all of us. The more we support each other, the faster our collective and individual successes will be achieved.


  3. Our future is best viewed as a wave of self-realisation. Our needs in the past were certainly water, food, warmth, shelter, friendship and maybe family. Industrialisation, land and resource ownership skewed the playing-field and BRIC countries have leveraged themselves up by the bootstraps in recent years skewing the playing field further.
    But the west has moved on. We value new things – education, IT, time. these are our our new wealth. Only if others take the time to manufacture can we move on, allowing them to move on, too.
    Old patterns of ‘work’ might have suited the shifting of money from the many to the few (even more so just now, and accelerating into 2013-14),
    We now need wealth system based on self-awareness, health, happiness and personal abilities. the Human Capital idea was a help, but an even newer framework is needed.
    The starting point for this is collaboration and non-selfishness. Local, time-rich, low-cost activities which we enjoy with friends, families…
    It is not difficult to break from pushed economics to personal enrichment. Ignore what ‘they’ say you want – work it out for yourself in an happy fun and rewarding life – for ALL. Life is much better if we do not all want everything now – which is a stupid impossibility! This is the first lesson.


    • I’m with you on that Ian. Localised economics where people gain access to the tools that can use to resolve their own problems and flourish.
      I see a role here for the Transition Towns movement, who might fit the role social enterprise support agencies have shied away from – being the conduit between the fledgling enterprise and local government to see local sustainability initiatives get under way.
      In this respect Mary Portas addresses a need, albeit on a selective high profile basis.on TV.


  4. Beanbags admin

    @Pascale – I’m not sure about applauding Mary Portas and her production team but this post isn’t at attempt to tear strips off them, I enjoyed the first episode, too, and I’m interested in the issues it raises.

    The people I’ve quoted criticising the show are lingerie producers who – reasonably enough – aren’t keen on the implication that they and their businesses do not exist.

    I’m interested by your point that this kind of show is good for raising the profile of social enterprise. Do you think viewers will associate questions around ‘buying British’ and supporting local manufacuring with the social enterprise movement?


    • Hi yes I didn’t mean your post, more the comments from other producers which I’ve also seen on twitter etc.

      They may well have good reason to be put out, but I’m not sure what they hope to gain by criticising Mary Portas.

      Re your last question – yes I think they will. Especially if we in ‘the SE movement’ make explicit that connection, in a positive and engaging way.


  5. If it wasn’t clear from my post, I completely agree with your post which I found to be very balanced as well as challenging. You’ve nailed the issues with the last three paragraphs.

    The new series of the Apprentice airs tomorrow … and Lord Sugar has just announced his new organic skincare line! ;D

    I hope lots of SE peeps will be joining me on the twitterfeeds (#Apprentice #ApprenticeUK #TheApprentice #BBCApprentice) and facebook ( – my page, loads of fun) bringing up the issues … as you say: “it’s important that we consider what we want business in the UK to deliver, beyond lots of cheap stuff.”


  6. Beanbags admin

    Yes, looking forward to The Apprentice.

    Although I do think they need to address the issue many of the tasks are based on delivering poor quality products and services, for as a high a profit as possible, on the basis that the business won’t be continuing beyond the day of the task so it doesn’t matter if the customer gets a bad deal.

    That’s not such a good strategy if you want to run a business that continues trading for more than a couple of days.

    Doesn’t make it any less entertaining, though.


    • Re Apprentice: Yes, it is definitely the TV business more than ‘real’ business! It’s a lot more engaging now that they’ve gone entrepreneurial … more of a focus on business and creating new products, more interesting candidates. IMO anyway. You just need to divvy the profits by the total hours spent to see it’s a complete joke – but whether that puts people off becoming entrepreneurs I don’t know (and if it did, would that be a good or a bad thing??)

      TV has its own internal logic I suppose.


  7. The disappointment of social enterprise organisations to watering down of proposals of CITR, reminds me of how difficult it is to find solidarity in social enterprise. I’m reminded that proposing to invest 50% of profit into CDFIs to tackle poverty, was very much ‘not invented here’.


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