We are great at making things. The UK has an eminent history of manufacturing, which drove much of our early economic growth even before mechanisation, and expanded dramatically from the late 18th century with the Industrial Revolution. But the last hundred years or so has seen a shift, often dubbed the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ in which many of our manufacturing services have been replaced by imports.
A key fact dominates this change: British labour is expensive. In the UK, where we have stringent regulations around working conditions and wages, the cost of labour has, rightly, remained relatively high. As we are all too uncomfortably aware these days, this is not a globally adopted status quo, and so there are more cost-effective sourcing options available elsewhere. It also turns out that we’re not just great at making things, what we’re really great at is integrating supply chains. And so we can now make much more stuff, much more cheaply and much faster than ever before. Which is convenient, since we want it all, and now
A world of supply
To dig into the realm of manufacturing provenance is to enter a deeply murky place, steeped in ambiguity and opacity. Attempting to discover the true origin(s) of the components of anything which touches a global supply chain can quickly become problematic. Many of today’s manufacturers do not always operate within the boundaries of a single country. Companies can today share knowledge, materials, assembly platforms – everything they need to produce their wares as cheaply and quickly as possible – across countries and continents with impressive fluidity. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows, unsurprisingly, that a considerable proportion of UK manufacturing exports rely on imported inputs (What does “made in Britain” mean?, The Prospect Magazine, November 2016).
Legally speaking, to be marketed as ‘made in [insert country]’ a product must be manufactured, produced, processed or reconditioned in the said country. Further, if ‘substantial change’ is made to goods then they can still be deemed ‘made in’. There is of course scarce guidance as to what constitutes ‘significant change’, and so the moniker can be used with little assurance that a product is wholly produced in the country in which it claims to be.
Do we have a problem here?
It therefore follows that assessing the provenance of furniture purporting to be made in Britain can pose quite the enigma. For example, a table assembled in Britain from wood felled in China and connecting devices made in a factory in Mexico has, legally speaking, been made in Britain.
But does any of this matter? Instinctively: of course. However we can’t yet be sure how much it matters. Full carbon footprinting of mass-made furniture is expensive (as you’d expect given the complexity of its supply chain) and is often cited as beyond the reach of the companies responsible for its retail.
Not only is tracing the origins of materials difficult, but the total transport-related emissions are tricky to calculate. Where cited, transport emissions usually only include distances from the first link in the supply chain, that is, we might only be looking at travel from a local distributer, and not the total from source, which may be overseas. This is so hard to assess because manufacturers often don’t know where their parts come from. Furthermore, this sort of research is expensive and, for the time being, discretionary, and so just isn’t conducted. It’s far easier to simply suggest that the transport of raw materials forms only a small percentage of the total carbon impact of a product.
There is therefore a dearth of reliable, comparable data with which to assess the environmental impact of our global supply chain on ‘British made’ furniture. The Furniture Industry Research Association considered the feasibility of generating comprehensive carbon footprints across the industry and concluded that it was a “complex subject, with a number of difficulties that needed to be overcome” before any benchmarking could be adopted.
The Best of British
There are many brands which have long championed the use of British materials and craftsmanship, combining them with iconic, exciting design to make top-quality products, often with a good measure of eccentricity.
The question now must be, how can we take the best of our craft skills, blending traditional techniques with the latest technology to create a new breed of expertise, systems and artistry which can lead a serious movement towards a fully circular economy?
“Made in Britain” across the board might prove impossible, but “Re-made in Britain” might just stand a chance. This is why we RePEAR.