UK high street retailers have been making a lot of noise of late about increasing their local sourcing. But with the domestic manufacturing sector now just a shadow of its former self, how realistic is such a move? Petah Marian reports.

In the last couple of weeks, supermarket fashion brand George at Asda has revealed plans to bring some of its production closer to home, while Charlie Mayfield, chairman of department store retailer John Lewis said he expects to see a "resurgence" in UK sourcing.

Marks & Spencer also says its new tailoring collaboration with Richard James uses all British fabrics, despite being manufactured in China.

In its heyday, UK production was responsible for most of the clothing sold in the country. But while there are a number of reasons for bringing production back on shore, few seem to hinge on servicing patriotic UK consumers' desires to buy locally sourced products to support the British economy.

For export
Describing the strategy behind the launch of its Savile Row Inspired men's tailoring range, Marks and Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland told just-style that the retailer wants to bring the "best of British" to its consumers around the world.

Speaking about the countries where the range is likely to have the greatest impact, he named Dubai, Russia, Hong Kong and China - those where notions of Britishness are aspirational.

Indeed, much of what the apparel and textile industry currently makes in the UK is exported internationally.

John Miln, CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, tells just-style that an estimated GBP8bn (US$12.6bn) worth of goods is produced by UK companies at ex-factory prices - although potentially manufactured at their facilities around the world. Of this, at least GBP6.5bn goes for export.

The multi-channel challenge
Speaking about John Lewis' desire to source locally, Mayfield attributes the shift to a desire to offer unique products to the increasing numbers of consumers who shop online.

Last year, the retailer said it intended to support British manufacturing by putting a 'Made in UK' logo on more than 4,000 products. The identifier will appear on ticketing and online product information to highlight British-made items - including the recently launched John Lewis & Co men's wear range.

George at Asda is bringing some of its production back to the UK as part of efforts to source closer to the season. A spokesperson for George told just-style that the retailer signed deals with seven factories in the Midlands to support the "rapidly increasing demand for shoppers for up-to-the-minute fashion".

The supermarket said the number of units manufactured in the UK have grown by 80%, albeit from a small base.

A report released last week by retail analyst Verdict called for women's wear firms to consider UK manufacturing opportunities to offset rising international sourcing costs. It argues that the higher cost of labour in China and India, along with high freight charges and import duties, put pressure on retailers to raise retail prices or take a hit on margins.

"While labour and production costs may still be more expensive in the UK, freight and import charges are eliminated and it allows for shorter lead times and provides retailers with greater flexibility in repeat runs and short orders - especially retail brands that need to translate styles from the catwalk to the shop floor quickly," said Verdict analyst Honor Westnedge.

A feasible move?
With all of the rhetoric around bringing jobs and manufacturing back to the UK, just how feasible is such a move for high street operators?

Speaking at a conference organised last week by the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry), Maurice Bennett, the joint chairman of Long Tall Sally, Kookai UK, and chairman of Austique, noted that before World War II, Britain was one of the largest exporters of textiles in the world.

Indeed, until the late 1970s textiles were the country's fifth largest export - but the once vibrant sector has been decimated over the last three decades as retailers looked to cheaper options overseas.

A report released by the British Fashion Council (BFC) called the Future of Fashion estimates that the value of UK fashion manufacturing has fallen by two-thirds since 1995.

Mike Flanagan, chief executive of industry consultancy Clothesource, estimates that UK manufacturing accounted for just 1% of clothing sales by volume in 2010. Citing statistics from Eurostat, he calculates that UK textile and apparel manufacture is worth around GBP375m per year at ex-factory prices.

He also says UK production actually fell during 2011, although it is possible that its share of the UK market rose amid a decline in the total number of garments sold.

But is the industry in terminal decline?
Miln describes the current state of the industry as "akin to going home and wanting to put water in the kettle, but you turn on the tap and no water comes out. You can't turn on what's not there.

"Where it relates to the high street generally and mainstream brands, our view today is that as much as we applaud initiatives to get involved in UK manufacturing once more, that infrastructure disappeared some time ago," Miln adds.

Where the sector remains, Bennett says many of the successful factories are "working to full capacity and have difficulty training and recruiting new staff". Indeed, the UK's textile manufacturing workforce is an ageing one, according to the BFC, which says 60% are over 40 years old, "with little enthusiasm from younger people to learn their skills".

And for the industry to see a resurgence, Miln argues that manufacturers would need finance and a long-term commitment from buyers to continue using their factories in order to justify ramping up production again.

"Even if you owned the factory, and had people climbing over your back door to give you orders, then you'd want to know there's a long-term commitment from those individuals to do that.

"You must remember that mainstream UK retailers walked away from UK manufacturing 20 years ago, and they were single-handedly responsible for the significant reduction in capacity as manufacturing moved offshore," emphasises Miln.

And even though the benefits of local sourcing are becoming apparent to more retailers and brands, this trickle back to the UK is unlikely to become a flood.

This may be the beginning of a new trend," says Flanagan, "but I wouldn't hold my breath".