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Coronavirus prompts UK buyers to look closer to home

Lauretta Roberts
27 February 2020

Half of British fashion and textile manufacturers have reported an increase in new business enquiries since the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new survey carried out by Make it British.

A number of Chinese textile and garment factories remain closed as a result of the outbreak, which could result in some UK-based retailers facing medium- to long-term issues of supply. Primark announced earlier this week that coronavirus could have long-term supply implications if the outbreak continues, however it said it was working on potential solutions as a precaution.

With no end in sight for the outbreak, many retailers and brands are looking to source closer to home to mitigate any potential issues with enquiries at UK suppliers centring on high summer stock, such as dresses and swimwear, as well as the raw materials to make winter stock, such as wool yarn and cloth. Sewing factories are also being asked to make face masks.

Kate Hills of Make it British explained: “Coronavirus is causing chaos for big retailers and their supply chains as many factories in China remain largely closed, where a large proportion of the world’s fashion brands are made. A lot of retailers are worried they’ll have no stock in their stores soon because so much comes from the Far East now, particularly in textiles. They’re urgently looking at how they can plug gaps for products that are due on shelves in as little as eight weeks. And that’s where UK manufacturers can offer a solution.”

However while the increase in enquiries is, on the face of it good news, some UK manufacturers are cautious about taking on too much work for fear that it will simply be moved back to China once the virus outbreak is over. Equally coronavirus has had an impact on the prices of imported raw materials.

Alkesh Kapadia of Leicester-based fashion manufacturer Barcode Design said: "A lot of UK manufacturers are relying on imported fabrics. The impact is growing and the prices of the raw materials has gone up by 4% already. The UK fabric manufacturers will get busy but they will have to source yarns from different countries and that may affect the prices too.”

The outbreak has highlighted the fragility of the fashion supply chain. Brands that manufacture locally and source their raw materials from the UK are in a much better position. When the whole supply chain is local, and is not reliant on crossing borders, it is much less vulnerable. Steff McGrath of lingerie etailer Something Wicked, which makes its product in the UK, said: “We’re relieved that we manufacture in the UK and use UK suppliers wherever possible. I would be extremely worried if I outsourced to China.

Jenny Holloway, who runs Fashion Enter, a social enterprise garment factory in London, described coronavirus as a "dual-edge sword": “There’s been a spike in sampling and we have opened two new accounts for bulk production almost immediately, but the downside has been yarn supplies.

"This in turn has created a further opportunity with retailers panic-buying stock fabrics, which is then coming to the UK manufacturers. Many knitters had bulk yarns in reserves. However, these stocks are going to run out... what then? Surely this all points to a new type of collaboration between retailers and manufacturers and not before time. We are already aware of one retailer giving shares to their supply base binding them together. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go yet,” she added.

Depending on how long the outbreak lasts, coronavirus could be the turning point that results in brands and retailers sourcing their manufacturing closer to home (or indeed at home) ending China's 20-year reign as the dominant manufacturing source for UK-based brands.

Hills of Make it British believes this might be the case and called on the Government to do more to protect the UK's manufacturing base. She said: “The spread of the coronavirus is happening fast, and there is no doubt more disruption is to come. But if there is one bitter sweet outcome to the tragic situation, it is that this might just be the wake-up call that the industry needs to relook at the wonderful manufacturers that we have closer to home.”

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