I cannot say I am really surprised by the horsemeat saga. Following the decline and fall of the British Empire, we have been content to oversee a similar decline in British manufacturing, with the attendant loss of UK jobs and iconic brands. Textiles, cutlery, shipbuilding, car manufacturing, consumer electronics and more recently food manufacturing, have all suffered.
This change has been driven by a near-obsession with lowering the base cost of products to increase competitiveness and deliver greater consumer value. This premise is fundamentally flawed. Surely value should be measured using sustained quality as a key yardstick? Anything else is potentially dangerous and as we are seeing, damaging.
Within my own sphere of experience, confectionery, many regional brands have been dismissed with little regard. Global, rather than local is the mantra.
The loss of jobs and attendant manufacturing skills is blithely accepted as the collateral damage of so-called progress. Even where “home-grown” brands are seen as having potential as with Terry’s Chocolate Orange and Smarties, the pursuit of lower-cost materials and labour drives manufacturing overseas.
” Many regional brands have been dismissed with little regard”
This is at best short-termism, and, at worst, erroneous. Low-cost overseas labour is increasingly offset by excess distribution charges. Added to which wage costs are increasing in Central and Eastern European countries, admittedly from a low base but typically by more than 60% in the past 10 years. Similarly the benefits of low cost suppliers and ingredients are offset by questionable traceability and suspect quality standards.
The UK is fortunate to lead in food production standards, with a system of regulation and a quality and welfare ethos second to none. The same cannot be said of other countries as we now know only too well.
We can compete with the best, if only we are allowed to. UK-manufactured products DO have the potential to lead profitable existences, as long as we are prepared to invest in the right infrastructure, equipment and people skills to nurture them.
Retailers have led the drive for lower cost production. On the face of it, this has been great news for consumers. But the price retailers and suppliers are now paying is significant in terms of lack of trust and shift in consumer buying behaviour, never mind the financial impact.
It’s time UK retailers used their expertise and power to work with UK producers to deliver products of a consistent good quality at a price sustainable for the producer as well as the retailer.
Recent opinion polls suggest the British consumer is more predisposed to buying British than for many years. Within British manufacturing we still have some wonderful companies, with loyal, skilled workforces and good labour relations.
They make a significant contribution to the social and financial welfare of the local population, as well as the country’s economic wealth. While I accept that not all companies can be British-owned, the benefits of “local” manufacturing on so many levels are patently clear.
Chris Marshall is the former MD of Tangerine Confectionery