Design: why buy British?

Emily Jenkinson
Thursday 16 September 2010 12:29 BST

Globalisation has put pressure on all types of business to outsource production, move jobs abroad and, in doing so, cut costs. As a result British producers have been in decline for a number of decades. In recent years, however, increased awareness of climate change, a growing world population, political instability and the financial crisis – not to mention the ethical issues often associated with working conditions abroad – have forced consumers to think more carefully about where their produce comes from.

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In the food industry, this question has gained pace with the community-focused Slow Food Movement, better supermarket labelling and a favouring of organic produce. Recently, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs wrote to fellow Cabinet ministers informing them that food procured and served by their departments must meet British standards of production.

In the fashion world, the provenance of our clothing has come under similar scrutiny. Unethical working standards abroad; cheap, low quality, "throwaway" clothing; and sustainability issues have become symptomatic of a shallower age with consumers increasingly discriminating about which brands they will buy. Today, the "Made in Britain" tag is a powerful branding message for the trend-conscious, more ethically and environmentally aware shopper.

But where do furniture or ceramics, glass or electrical goods fit into this increasingly British-focused consumerism? While we turn up our nose at Danish bacon, eat seasonal produce and avoid the cheap, high street clothing that is ruined after one wash, we seem less vigilant when it comes to our vacuum cleaners, kettles, dining tables or tableware. Why?

"It has to pass the safety laws and that’s all you really need to know," says Yorkshire-based Alan Cansfield, "you mainly go for style, and you don't care so much where it comes from. I think most people would prefer it to be produced here, but you realise that it's just not feasible."

Pierre Brahm, founder of Brahm Interiors disagrees. "Everything has a carbon footprint," he says, "if you are reducing your long hall flights and turning off your TV from standby at night, then sourcing locally produced fruit and vegetables – why not do the same with your furniture?"

Buying or commissioning a piece of furniture or a decorative object in Britain "is supporting the British economy," says Brahm, "but, more importantly, it's supporting the network of artisans in Great Britain who, without funding, would cease to exist."

For many businesses in the design sector, there is a growing discontentment with the standard of goods produced in the Far East. Portmeirion, the famous British pottery business, continues to manufacture a very large proportion of its ranges at its factory in Stoke-on-Trent.

"Many in our sector were tempted by lower costs in order to retain volume," says Carol Wright, a spokesperson for the group, "but without investment in new designs, they have struggled to retain consumer interest. Meanwhile changing lifestyle trends have impacted severely on their market."

It's not just that, says Nick Grey, founder of Gtech, a British product design company which develops innovative floor care cleaning solutions, "I know of two of our competitors who have struggled. They’re ready to give up the ghost due to rising costs in China, but I wouldn't say they’re rushing back to the UK at the moment. The problem is that the supporting industry just doesn't exist in the UK anymore, so it’s a very difficult route back."

There are green shoots according to David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council, who comments: "The UK design industry has experienced healthy growth over the last five years and is now worth £15bn to the economy – that's an increase of around 15 per cent. The number of designers in the UK has shown an even healthier growth: there are now 232,000 designers working in the UK, an increase of 30 per cent since 2005. In terms of international reputation, UK designers have a global reputation for being amongst the most creative and innovative in the world."

Buying British is alright for the middle classes, who can afford to spend more money on home-grown goods and produce, say some. But even this is changing, points out Kester. "China is moving from a 'Made in China' to a 'Designed in China' economy – as is India and all fast-developing nations. Unsurprisingly, no-one wants to be the low-wage sweatshop of the world. For designers, it means that producers around the world are seeking to move up the 'value chain' creating goods and services that command the margins on which wealth is created."

Buying British supports our own economy, encourages home-grown talent, helps the environmental effort and celebrates our own unique skills. As developing economies begin to catch us up, we'd do well to value British made food, clothing and design before it's too late. We owe it to our own industrial heritage, resources and wealth of talent.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website

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