The Blog

Can Maids In Britain Trump "Made In China"?


I write this in a gloomy hotel in the South Street Seaport district of New York, an area still not recovered from the battering by Hurricane Sandy. The stores are fighting to stay in business, which they should, selling, as they do, homespun nicely made American goods - fine wines, handmade clothes, original books by locals etc.

To venture due north to Midtown from here you wander up Pearl and Bowery and hit Chinatown and the legion stands selling, to be frank, rubbish.

Within the space of a ten-minute walk you can choose between cheap tat and, in all fairness, "strongly" priced artisan products from "kitchen-table" USA.

This difference prompted me to reflect on a rarely reported European Commission manoeuvre.

The Commission decided last November to exact a levy on Chinese ceramics. It came after an investigation into claims by an anonymous European manufacturer that Chinese producers dump excessive product into Europe, set artificially low prices and suffocate home grown producers.

Chinese-made products selling cheaply? Cor blimey guvnor. Well I never! Golly gosh. I bet the European Commission spent squillions working that one out.

The result of this levy is that producers in the €730m (£588m)-a-year Chinese ceramics market will be forced to inflict price rises on its European customers estimated at around 58%.

This will mean that the price gap between Chinese ceramics and UK made products will narrow.

Which is interesting because the UK ceramics industry is experiencing an up-lift. Quality British brands like Doris and Co and Emma Bridgewater are rekindling the fires of imagination in the Stoke-on-Trent potteries. Both these examples are classic examples of women entrepreneurs starting "kitchen-table" businesses, which quickly morph into serious concerns - a model whose reach embraces Anita Roddick, Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston.

Spoiler Alert! I'm not going to descend into jingoism. I'm just musing over the fact that one UK industry decided not to kowtow to the pressures of overseas product sourcing. Instead entrepreneurs are rebuilding a homegrown manufacturing base that was squashed within an inch of its life many years ago.

The Staffordshire Potteries became a centre of ceramic production in the 17th century and grew fast to become a globally distributed industry.

Then UK manufacturers looked East to cheap labour (ouch!) and Rampant Consumerism lapped up the chance to have good-looking china like the posh people had, but at a tenth of the price.

I don't know too much about the economics of offering the public traditionally made quality items except that received wisdom tells you it's like pushing water up hill.

The UK should support those businesses pioneering traditional manufacturing methods. They are re-creating jobs and reasserting the competitive advantage of the UK.

A strong UK across the board in both manufacturing and service is good for us all. The government appears to do precious little to help or understand this (I know, I'm going to get emails about "subsidy this" and "subsidy that", but phooey, the people I know who are striving to create something British and Good see bugger all in terms of government support). Sigh, I now look at South Korea's state support for Samsung - but that's another story.

It's a shame that what is actually a silly EC levy should narrow the price between imported and homegrown ceramics but it represents a broader opportunity.

It's an opportunity for the High Street to emphasis British quality as well as value, as Marks & Spencer are now doing.

After all, count up the number of times you have re-bought a broken cheap product thinking it a bargain. Now work out the cost of hardly ever having to re-buy a quality made product.

The argument that "it's so cheap I can throw it away if it doesn't work" doesn't hold and bolsters cheap labour.

Do the maths. Cheap can end up as expensive as Quality. But not nearly as heart-warming and life-affirming.

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