On a hot summer day in Derbyshire, Christopher Nieper worries about transporting fabric from Shanghai to his factory in the former mining town of Alfreton.
For three months in spring and early summer, he locked a container full of fabrics in the port of Shanghai while cities in China were on lockdown due to the coronavirus. Ultimately, to avoid waiting any longer, he paid his extra €5,000 (£4,200) and flew first to France and then east to his Midlands.
“A customer who placed an order in March said, ‘Where’s my dress? I’ll have to cancel it.'”
Today, the owner of David Kneeper, a family-owned company named after his father who has been manufacturing women’s clothing, knitwear and lingerie in the town since 1961, is in search of a key material.
“We can turn three months into a week,” he says. “Think of the environment and save the energy it takes to get something around the world. Think about time savings, waste avoidance and customer satisfaction.”
More than a third of UK manufacturers have increased the number of suppliers they use in response to the severe disruption caused by the Covid shutdown in China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a study by trade group Make UK. I was. More than three-quarters of these companies are increasing their use of UK suppliers.
“Earthquake shocks over the past few years have created a powerful combination of factors that are upending business models,” says Verity Davidge, policy director for manufacturers’ associations. “For many companies, this means leaving ‘just in time’ behind and embracing ‘just in case’.”
But the trend has been tricky, raising production costs and calling into question the UK’s ability to meet demand recovery after decades of industrial decline and underinvestment. For many companies, especially those with major markets on the other side of the globe, relying on UK suppliers makes little sense.
“By being close to their customers and suppliers, companies need to be confident that they are maintaining product quality, availability and cost requirements,” adds Davidge.
“Textile technology is almost extinct in Western Europe,” says Nieper. “The reason there is no more onshoring is because there are no factories left to onshore.”
With businesses across the UK suffering from soaring inflation, trade turmoil and severe staff shortages, a clothing manufacturer boss is taking matters into his own hands in a novel attempt to fix the country’s supply constraints. Or at least Alfreton’s.
As one of the UK’s few business backers of the Academy Trust, Nieper is committed to local schools, hoping to invest in future generations of workers. Renamed David Nieper Academy in 2016, the school once ranked among the worst in the country, but in Derbyshire it has the sixth most students, with around 800 students. I grew up to have
Close links with education help UK industry grow, as with the nearby JCB Academy in Staffordshire, backed by excavator manufacturers and others including Bentley Motors, Network Rail and Rolls-Royce I have an idea.
“Everybody complains, ‘We can’t get workers.’ Well, they just need to do something about it,” says Nieper. We recognize that can be controversial (“The town was skeptical. What are private employers doing?”).
“If you betray your generation of children, the town’s economy will collapse. If you don’t fix it, it will grow and it will only slowly burn itself,” he said, calling Alfreton “a classic forgotten town.” “If a school fails for 10 years, it will affect the whole economy and people will be less educated and motivated.”
More progress is needed. The school was rated ‘needs improvement’ by Ofsted at its most recent inspection in May 2019, but the principal, Kathryn Hobbs, was recognized for ‘persistent work’.
Hobbes, who grew up near Alfreton, was one of many who grew up near Alfreton but left.
Textiles once formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, with former mining and mill towns like Alfreton being the center of industry. Today, however, only 3% of the clothing worn in the UK is made locally. UK manufacturing has grown from more than a quarter of its economy in the 1970s to about 10% today, as globalization has enabled the offshoring of production and the entire developed world has shifted to service sector activities. scaled down.
One of the many reasons the once-industrial cities voted for Brexit was the idea that Britain no longer made things. Boris Johnson saw the opportunity and in 2016 on his trail of the UK’s Brexit campaign David visited his Nieper factory and used it to sew a voting holiday flag in a workshop. He joked that the EU was “badly designed underwear” and quipped “knickers to everyone who disrespects Britain”.
UK exports to the EU collapsed by 40% in the first month after the Johnson deal was introduced. Despite the recovery, the country’s trade performance still lags behind its developed peers. With little support for UK manufacturing, post-Brexit border issues and bureaucracy are driving up costs for businesses, while tougher immigration rules are exacerbating labor shortages.
Strolling through the ruins of David Nieper’s factories that dot Alfreton, you’ll hear very few non-English voices. Nieper says he currently has three Ukrainian refugees at the school, while there are several Polish and Lithuanian workers. He prides himself on employing a workforce that is predominantly local. “If you can grow your economy from within the city, it’s much better.”
Nieper has faced turmoil and increased costs since Brexit, but sales to France and Germany remain strong, according to the company’s boss. Because the company’s products are manufactured in the UK, they qualify for zero tariffs when sold in the EU, unlike the Asian-produced garments that many of their competitors export. However, most UK retailers are selling clothes made overseas, reducing his exports of UK clothing to the EU.
“Brexit has made it difficult to get supplies. Covid and supply chain issues make it impossible to get anything, so we decided to take it home,” Nieper explains.
Despite his optimism, major retailers are skeptical about the prospect of a widespread return to fully domestic supply chains. Nieper could sell the dresses for around £150 a piece, which reflects salaries and production costs higher than abroad, and is aimed at a much older and wealthier demographic. But it’s not affordable for everyone.
Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman said at the high street giant’s annual shareholder meeting that he hopes to get more product from the UK, but “realistically, we have to be cost competitive. We lost our domestic manufacturing skill set.” On a large scale I don’t think we’ll see [British clothing manufacturing] at any time,” he said.
Brexit uncertainty, the coronavirus pandemic and political turmoil at the heart of government have flattened the kind of business investment needed to boost the supply capacity of the UK industrial base. remains 10% below the level of The government’s independent economic forecaster predicts that Britain’s Brexit will reduce production capacity by 2% in the long run.
Nieper believes more companies need to get serious about investing in the UK to combat these headwinds. He has also criticized M&S for being part of the problem, having offshored his chain of supplies in recent decades to compete with Fast’s fashion competitors. Such movements had a major impact on the Midlands and northern England, historically home to the textile industry.
“When they went offshore, those factories closed and everything else collapsed like Trump’s pack.”
Things may be starting to change. M&S is testing production of Jaeger-branded clothes in the UK, but most of the furniture it sells is made in Wales, and half of its own-brand beauty products are produced domestically.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental and ethical impact of fast fashion. The carbon footprint of the industry is huge, with Oxfam estimating that producing every pair of jeans owned in the UK emits the equivalent of making his more than 2,300 flights around the world by plane. I’m here.
Reshoring could reduce flight distances and help UK industry, but the UK’s generally high production costs could mean higher prices and less choice for distressed consumers. There is concern that there is
This is a challenge that Nieper says must be overcome. “The secret of our becoming a richer nation is to start adding value [through more manufacturing]However, it requires extensive re-education.
“We have to lift it up slowly. It won’t happen all at once.