2022 – Manufacturing Comes Home: ‘Reshaping’ British Fashion Champions | manufacturing sector

On a hot summer day in Derbyshire, Christopher Nepper is worried about bringing cloth from Shanghai to his factory in the former mining town of Alfreton.

In the spring and early summer, he had a container full of tissue stranded in the port of Shanghai for three months while the Chinese city was on lockdown due to COVID-19. Not wanting to wait any longer, he ended up paying an additional €5,000 (£4,200) to have it shipped by air, first to France and then to the East Midlands.

“I’ve had requests from clients in March and they’re saying, ‘Where’s my dress? I’m going to have to cancel it.'”

Now owner of David Nieper, the family business named after his father who has been making women’s clothing, knitwear, and lingerie in town since 1961, supplies his staples locally.

“You can make a week out of three months,” he says. “Think about the environment, save the energy you need to get something out of the way around the world. Think about time savings, waste avoidance, and customer satisfaction.”

In response to the severe disruption caused by the Covid-19 lockdown in China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than a third of UK manufacturers have increased the number of their suppliers, according to a survey by industry group Make UK. More than three-quarters of these companies are increasingly dependent on British suppliers.

“Seismic events in recent years have created a powerful mix of factors that have turned business models on their head,” said Verity Davidge, policy director at the Manufacturers’ Association. For many companies, that means moving away from ‘just in time’ and embracing ‘just in case’.

Epidemic disorder

However, the trend is far from clear, with questions about rising production costs and the UK’s ability to meet demand for resettlement after decades of industrial decline and underinvestment. For many companies – especially those with large markets on the other side of the world – there will be little point in switching to British suppliers.

“Businesses need to be confident that they can meet product quality, availability and cost requirements while being close to their customers and suppliers,” David says.

“Textile skills are almost extinct in Western Europe,” says Knepper. “The reason there aren’t any more in-house sourcing is because there aren’t any more factories going onshore.”

As businesses across the UK grapple with rising inflation, disruption to trade and a severe staff shortage, the garment maker’s boss is taking matters into his own hands as he seeks to ease a supply shortage in the country. Or at least Alfreton.

Nieper has campaigned for the local school and, as one of the Academy’s few supporters in the UK, hopes to invest in a future generation of workers. The school, which was renamed David Nepper Academy in 2016, was among the worst in the country and became the sixth most overcrowded school in Derbyshire, with nearly 800 pupils.

As with the JCB Academy in neighboring Staffordshire – with support from the excavator manufacturer and other companies such as Bentley Motors, Network Rail and Rolls-Royce – the idea is that close links with education can help the UK industry grow.

David Knepper Academy Director Catherine Hobbs. Photo: Fabio de Paula/The Observer

“Everyone is complaining and saying, ‘You can’t get any workers.’ Well, they just have to go ahead and do something about it,” says Nepper. He acknowledges that corporate involvement in education can be controversial (“The city was skeptical. What does the private employer that comes with him do?”), but says that supporting the school is one way to boost the local economy.

If a generation of children fails, the city’s economy will collapse. It burns out slowly when they grow up if it isn’t fixed,” he says, describing Alfreton as a ‘classic forgotten town’ that children tend to want to leave when they grow up. “If the school fails for 10 years, it will take a toll on the entire economy, leaving people with low levels of education and low ambitions.

More progress needs to be made. The school was awarded an ‘improvement needs’ rating from Ofsted in its last inspection in May 2019 – despite being praised for the ‘tireless’ work of the school’s principal, Catherine Hobbs.

“Children may not have the opportunities they have in other areas, but our job is to provide that,” says Hobbs, who grew up near Alfreton but was one of many who left. She came back to take on the challenge of changing school.

Low production share

Textiles once formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, with former mining and milling towns like Alfreton at the heart of the industry. However, only 3% of the clothing worn in Britain today is made locally. With globalization enabling the offshoring of manufacturing and amid a shift in advanced economies towards service sector activities, UK manufacturing has shrunk from more than a quarter of the economy in the 1970s to about 10% today.

The idea of ​​Britain stopping making things was one of the many reasons why former industrial cities voted overwhelmingly in favor of Brexit. Spying on an opportunity, Boris Johnson visited David Nepper’s factory on his Brexit campaign trail in 2016 to use it to sew a vote-leaving flag together in the workshop. He joked that the EU was a “poorly designed undergarment” and sarcastically said: “Pants for anyone who curses Britain.”

UK exports to the EU fell 40% in the first month after the Johnson deal was completed. Despite the recovery, the country’s trade performance still lags behind similar developed countries. Post-Brexit border problems and red tape, which do little to help British manufacturing, have increased corporate costs, while stricter immigration rules have exacerbated labor shortages.

Canvas on production line at David Nieper in Alfreton. Photo: Fabio de Paula/The Observer

While touring David Nieper’s factories dotted around Alfreton, few non-English sounds could be heard. There are some Polish and Lithuanian workers, says Nepper, while there are now three Ukrainian refugees at the school. It prides itself on employing a predominantly locally born workforce. “It is much better if the economy grows outside the city.”

Nieber has faced disruption and higher costs since Brexit, but his boss says sales to France and Germany remain strong. Because their products are made in the UK, they are considered duty-free when sold in the EU, unlike the originally made-in-Asia apparel that many competitors export. However, most UK retailers sell made overseas clothing, which has led to a decline in British apparel exports to the EU.

With Britain leaving the European Union it was difficult to get supplies. With Covid and now with supply chain issues, you can’t have anything anymore, so we decided to bring it home,” explains Nieper.

Despite his optimism, major retailers are skeptical about the chances of a large-scale comeback for entire local supply chains. Nieper may be able to sell the dresses at around £150 a piece – reflecting higher salaries and higher production costs from abroad – to a vastly older affluent demographic. But it will not be accessible to everyone.

Archie Norman, chairman of Marks & Spencer, told the main street giant’s annual general meeting that he would like to get more products from the UK, but “we have to be realistically competitive and have lost the ability” to manufacture locally. I don’t think we’ll see that on a large scale [British clothing manufacturing] anytime soon.”

Amid uncertainty over Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and political chaos at the heart of the government, the business investment needed to increase the supply capacity of Britain’s industrial base has dwindled. Spending is still 10% below pre-Covid levels. The government’s independent economic forecaster estimates that Brexit will affect production capacity by 2% in the long term.

David Nieper's master dressmaker's room in Alfreton is decorated with Union flags and streamers while tailor Donna Wass works at a machine.
Raising the Flag: David Knepper’s Master Apparel Sewing Workshop in Alfreton with seamstress Donna Wass. Photo: Fabio de Paula/The Guardian

Nieper believes more companies need to invest seriously in the UK to counter these headwinds. He also criticizes M&S for being part of the problem, having outsourced its supply chain in recent decades to keep up with fast fashion competition. Such moves had a major impact on the Midlands and northern England, historically the home of the textile industry.

“When they went outside, those factories closed and everything else fell like playing cards.”

Things can change. M&S is experimenting with producing some of its Jaeger brand clothing in the UK, while most of the furniture it sells is made in Wales and half of its brand beauty products are made locally.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical implications of fast fashion. The industry’s carbon footprint is huge, with Oxfam estimating that production of all UK owned jeans equates to roughly 2,300 flights around the world on an airplane, for about CO2 emissions.

While re-supply could reduce mileage and help UK industry, there are concerns that higher UK production costs could mean higher prices or fewer options for consumers under pressure.

It’s a challenge, according to Neeper, that must be overcome. “The secret to our evolution into a more prosperous nation is to start creating value [through more manufacturing]. But we need extensive retraining.

“You have to drive slowly. It won’t happen all at once. But if we raise them all, it will help the country as a whole.”

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