The Journal

20th January 2015

Border Post 4. The Importance of Being Labelled

The Importance of Being Labelled

Weasel Words

What do the following statements mean to you?

XYZ Company, London, Proudly British

XYZ Company, British Bags

We Make Bags in our British Factory

British Bags Designed and Engineered in England

If you think any of these statements mean that you are buying a British made product, think again. “We Make Bags in our British Factory” may well be true but it does not mean that you are buying a British made bag. It just means that some of the brand’s bags are made in Britain. Basically unless there is a label on the bag saying Made in UK or Made in England, or you can see this statement clearly displayed on the relevant website product description, you can assume that your product is NOT made in the UK.

What’s the Law?

Sadly the UK is one of the few major economies NOT to require clothing and accessories to state where the product is made; of this sad state of affairs more later. There is a requirement not to mislead consumers, but this is a bit of a figleaf. If a product does say Made in England, it is illegal for that product not to be so made, but how it’s made is again a bit of a grey area. For instance, shoes “Made in UK” sometimes have the “uppers” (the top half of the shoe, where most of the artisanal craft and labour is employed) made in India, but the sole is attached to the uppers in the UK and the shoe is then labelled “Made in England”.

Who Cares?

When confronted with the labelling issue, the stock response of British companies who have their products made overseas is often “Who cares”? My stock answer is, if no one cares, why are you lobbying against proper labelling? The European Parliament has just passed a motion proposing that clothing and accessories sold in the EU should have a label of origin. My understanding is that the UK Government is actually opposing this move! Why? Because large multinational “British” companies do not want to tell their UK customers where their products are made and they spend a lot of time and money lobbying politicians to make sure it stays that way.

Why It Matters

Labelling matters both to consumers and manufacturers. I accept that, for those simply seeking the lowest possible price for the product they want, regardless of origin, it’s not a major issue. But for those who do care about where, how and by whom a product is made, there is no effective regime in the UK for comparing products. This is particularly relevant with the rise of internet shopping. Products should be labelled both physically and online. Even for those who profess not to care, seeing a product from a “British” company selling for £1,000 when it’s made in China might give them pause for thought compared to cheaper British made alternatives.

UK manufacturers have struggled with the labelling issue for years now. It is incredibly easy, and legal, for companies to brand their products as “British”, to have them made cheaply in China but to avoid informing the consumer. The issue is conveniently swept under the carpet. There is no doubt that proper labelling would give UK manufacturing a tremendous boost, not least because so-called “British” products made overseas would be revealed for what they are; brands would need to re-examine their supply chains and look again at UK sourcing, while price comparison in the marketplace would be far more intelligible and transparent to the consumer.

Why Don’t We Change the Law?

The basic answer is that large multinational brands have successfully lobbied against such a change. Whenever I ask politicians why they don’t act, they either profess ignorance of the issue, or make excuses like “But what do we mean by Made in England” or “What is the Industry View”? Again these are figleaves. If Government is serious about rebalancing our economy, rather than pandering to large multinationals, they need to take action urgently. There would be no cost to the taxpayer and virtually no cost to the retailer in adding a country of origin label. Neither is enforcement the issue: the regime would effectively be self policing as major brands would not want to run the risk of being found out.

Chapman Bags

We make all our products in our own factory in Carlisle, Cumbria. We recently completed a significant investment programme to expand our capacity and capabilty. We run 3 apprenticeship schemes to train a new generation of employees. While all these initiatives are a sign of our commitment to UK manufacturing, we are swimming against the tide; proper labelling in our own domestic market would certainly help turn that tide.

Next Time: Apprenticeships and Work Based Skills