British economy more than pants

Last night I saw the conclusion of Mary Portas’s Channel 4 documentary, Mary’s Bottom Line.

At the first episode in the middle of March, I passed it off as another personal brand-building exercise by retail guru Portas. But by the series conclusion, which aired last night, I was convinced that Portas was genuine in her mission to rejuvenate Britain through manufacturing.

Her plan was simple; to produce a pair of women’s underwear manufactured using entirely British materials, labour, and packaging. She spotted a gap.

As she rightly pointed out, outsourcing manufacturing to places like China is becoming much less cost-effective, so she reckoned retailers would be willing to buy her mid-market (£10 per pair RRP), but quality British-made underwear. She also believed the British public would make this conscious decision to buy British.

She found a long since abandoned textiles factory in Middleton, near Manchester, which is an area badly affected by the economic crisis, and set about hiring eight apprentices to reopen it. She rightly chose young people who had either never had a job before, or had been out of work for a very long time.

There is now a large percentage of 16-24 year-olds classed as ‘neets’ – or not in education, employment, or training. The series started by showing the grim prospects such people face in a place like Middleton.

So how would her eight candidates take to working for the minimum wage in a sewing factory for eight hours per day? They lined up in their hundreds for the position. She chose the most enthusiastic of the bunch, a group made up of both young men and women, and also recruited some of the factory’s original workers to train them up.

The launch was a huge success, with many high street retailers placing large orders. But everyone employed at the factory knew it was temporary. To make the project viable long term, the factory would need to produce and sell 100,000 pairs of underwear per year. By the final episode and nine months in, it has sold just over 40,000. Thankfully, the project lives on beyond the cameras.

Even though the workers are on minimum wage, they are still, by far, the biggest outlay for the factory. But they were thriving in their roles.

Portas proved how she could create her very own micro economy. By the final episode, the employees were now in a much happier place, providing for their young families, going to restaurants and beauty salons – putting much needed cash back into the local economy.

Portas also pointed out how many other people were involved, from the packagers, the people who make the fabric, colour it, and drive it to and from the factory. All in all, dozens of people were employed through the chain. She proved it could be done.

So for the last episode, David Cameron agreed to meet Portas to discuss the project. He admitted that Britain should never try to compete at the lower end of the manufacturing markets in places like Indonesia and China, which would require a huge drop in employment standards, but saw the merit in her idea of quality products produced in Britain. The prime minister agreed to look into authorising a ‘made in Britain’ authenticating stamp for such clothing.

Without doubt, she proved it is possible. Britain can produce quality and create a domestic market for it. But where the real trick comes is to then start exporting these goods around the world, and ironically, to China.

Last year, the government asked Portas to compile a report on how best to revive Britain’s high streets. Following the programme, the government has today agreed to accept “virtually all” 28 of Mary Portas’s recommendations.

Can her micro experiment be rolled out across Britain’s traditional manufacturing heartlands, and can we return to the good old days of Britain producing some of the world’s best quality goods? Perhaps, but it will not be easy. What I feel Mary’s Bottom Line proved most of all is that, for our economy to thrive once again, we need the diversification that the manufacturing industry would supply.

I find myself agreeing with all the measures mentioned, and with what Portas has tried to achieve in her series. If her idea could be rolled out for lots of different products, in lots of different towns and cities in Britain, it would have a marked effect on our depressing growth figures.

But this growth must be sustainable. If it overcooks and greedy firms once again elect to outsource to cheaper manufacturing alternatives, then it would prove to be nothing more than a painful and damaging circle for Britain’s ‘neets’. Baby steps and sustainability planning are the way forward for Portas manufacturing idea.