On a hot summer’s day in Derbyshire, Christopher Nieper worries about bringing fabric from Shanghai to his factory in the former mining town of Alfreton.
For three months in the spring and early summer, he had a container full of fabric stuck in the port of Shanghai as the Chinese city was on lockdown due to Covid. Eventually, to avoid waiting any longer, he paid an extra €5,000 (£4,200) to have it flown, first to France and then to the East Midlands.
“I’ve had clients who ordered in March saying, ‘Where’s my dress? I will have to cancel it.
Today, the owner of David Nieper, the family business named after his father that has been making womenswear, knitwear and lingerie in the city since 1961, is looking closer to home for his vital materials.
“You can turn three months into a week,” he says. “Think about the environment, save the energy needed to bring something around the world. Think about the time saved, the waste avoided, the customer satisfaction.
In response to severe disruption caused by Covid lockdowns in China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than a third of UK manufacturers have increased the number of suppliers they use, according to a survey by the industry group Make UK. More than three-quarters of these companies are increasingly using UK suppliers.
“The earthquakes of recent years have created a powerful cocktail of factors that have upended business models,” says Verity Davidge, director of policy at the manufacturers’ body. “For many companies, that means leaving just-in-time behind and embracing just-in-case. »
However, the trend is far from straightforward, with questions over higher production costs and Britain’s ability to meet relocation demand after decades of industrial decline and underinvestment. For many companies, especially those with large markets on the other side of the world, turning to UK suppliers makes little sense.
“Companies need to be sure they are meeting product quality, availability and cost requirements while being close to their customers and suppliers,” adds Davidge.
“Textile skills have almost disappeared from Western Europe,” says Nieper. “The reason why there have been no further relocations is that there are no more factories left to relocate.”
As businesses across Britain grapple with runaway inflation, trade disruption and severe staff shortages, the clothes maker’s boss is taking matters into his own hands, with a fresh bid to resolve the constraints of country supply. Or at least that of Alfreton.
Nieper has thrown his weight behind the local school, hoping to invest in a future generation of workers as one of the few business backers of an academic trust in Britain. Renamed David Nieper Academy in 2016, the school once ranked among the worst in the country has become the sixth busiest in Derbyshire, with almost 800 students.
As with the JCB Academy in neighboring Staffordshire – backed by the excavator maker and other companies such as Bentley Motors, Network Rail and Rolls-Royce – the idea is that closer links with education could help the British industry to develop.
“Everyone is complaining, saying, ‘You can’t find workers.’ Well, they just need to go on and do something about it,” Nieper says. He acknowledges companies getting involved in education can be controversial (“The city was skeptical. What does a private employer do?”), but says supporting the school is a way to help improve the economy local.
“If you fail a generation of children, you will collapse the economy of a city. It’s a slow burn as they grow up if it’s not fixed,’ he says, describing Alfreton as a ‘classic forgotten town’, where children tend to want to leave when they grow up. “If a school fails for 10 years, it will affect the whole economy, leaving people with low educational attainment and low aspirations.”
More progress needs to be made. The school received a ‘needs improvement’ rating from Ofsted when it was last inspected in May 2019 – although it has received praise for the ‘tireless’ work of its principal, Kathryn Hobbs.
“Children may not have the opportunities they have in other areas, but it’s our job to make that happen,” says Hobbs, who grew up near Alfreton but has was one of many to leave. She returned to take up the challenge of transforming the school.
Textiles once formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, with former mining and manufacturing towns like Alfreton at the heart of the industry. Today, however, only 3% of clothing worn in Britain is made in the country. With globalization allowing the relocation of production and amid a shift in advanced economies towards service sector activity, UK manufacturing grew from more than a quarter of the economy in the 1970s around 10% today.
The idea that Britain no longer makes things was one of the many reasons former industrial towns voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Spying on an opportunity, Boris Johnson visited the David Nieper factory in 2016 on the trail of the Brexit campaign, using it to assemble a Vote Leave flag in the workshop. He made jokes about the EU being ‘poorly designed underwear’ and quipped: ‘Knickers to anyone bashing Britain’.
UK exports to the EU collapsed by 40% in the first month after Johnson’s deal was introduced. Despite a recovery, the country’s trade performance continues to lag behind comparable advanced economies. Doing little to help Britain’s manufacturing industry, post-Brexit border issues and bureaucracy are driving up costs for businesses, while tougher migration rules have exacerbated labor shortages.
On a walk around the David Nieper factory sites, dotted around Alfreton, there are few non-English voices to be heard. Nieper says there are Polish and Lithuanian workers, while there are now three Ukrainian refugees at the school. It prides itself on employing a predominantly locally born workforce. “It’s much better if you can develop the economy from the city.”
Nieper has faced disruption and higher costs since Brexit, but his boss says sales in France and Germany remain strong. Because its products are made in Britain, they enjoy zero duty status when sold in the EU, unlike garments originally made in Asia which many rivals export. However, most UK retailers are selling overseas-made clothing, leading to a slump in UK clothing exports to the EU.
“With Brexit it’s been difficult to get supplies. With Covid and now with supply chain issues, you can’t get anything in, so we decided to bring it home,” says Nieper.
Despite his optimism, major retailers are skeptical of the chances of a widespread return to all-domestic supply chains. Nieper might be able to sell dresses for around £150 each – reflecting higher wages and production costs than overseas – to a vastly older and affluent population. But it won’t be affordable for everyone.
Archie Norman, chairman of Marks & Spencer, told the high street giant’s annual shareholder meeting that he would like to get more products from the UK, but “really we have to be cost competitive , and we lost the skills” for domestic manufacturing. . On a large scale, I don’t think we’ll see [British clothing manufacturing] soon,” he said.
With Brexit uncertainty, the coronavirus pandemic and political chaos at the heart of government, business investment of the type needed to increase the capacity to supply the UK’s industrial base has stagnated. Spending remains 10% below pre-Covid levels. The Government’s independent economic forecaster estimates there will be a 2% long-term impact on production capacity due to Brexit.
Nieper thinks more businesses need to seriously invest in Britain to counter these headwinds. He also criticizes M&S for being part of the problem, having outsourced its supply chain in recent decades to compete with fast fashion competitors. These movements had a significant impact on the Midlands and the North of England, historically the cradle of the textile industry.
“When they went overseas, those factories closed and everything else fell apart like a deck of cards.”
Things could start to change. M&S is trialling production of some of its Jaeger-branded clothes in the UK, while most of the furniture it sells is made in Wales and half of its own-brand beauty products are made in the country. .
Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical consequences of fast fashion. The industry’s carbon footprint is enormous, with Oxfam estimating that the manufacture of all jeans held in Britain was responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to flying an airplane around the world more than 2,300 times.
While relocation could cut air miles and help British industry, there are fears that Britain’s generally higher production costs could mean higher prices or less choice for beleaguered consumers.
It’s a challenge that Nieper says needs to be overcome. “The secret to becoming a more prosperous nation is to start adding value [through more manufacturing]. But we need massive conversion.
“You have to bring it up slowly. It won’t happen all at once. But if we remove them all, it would help the country as a whole.