Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Woolly thinking and other disasters: updated

It's that time of year again, when I start to rant about wool. Wool is a subject close to my heart. I like knitting. I also love my duffel coat. Since I cycle, and often work from home, I really notice if I'm warm, unlike someone who runs from a heated car into a heated office. It makes a big difference to my quality of life.

Last week, I saw some tweets from a twitterer called @Lyndaflute, who lives in Yorkshire. She was doing a sponsored run, the Leeds Abbey Dash*. Age UK, a charity who were the recipients of the sponsorship money, were asking runners to bring old coats to the town hall in Leeds.

This prompted me to wonder whether the coats were actually given to shivering old ladies out on the Yorkshire Wolds. I wondered if old people were inside, wearing coats instead of turning the heating on. Or was it that their pensions were too meagre to afford a warm coat to go out in? And if so - why the hell was this happening in Yorkshire - the place that once exported high-grade textiles all over the globe?

On the other hand, I wasn't sure whether this was fundraising speak. (I've worked in the fundraising dept of a charity - I know how flexible they are with their terms). So I asked the press office of Age UK, who said the coats went to their charity shops, and raised funds for this campaign. Which is ok, given all's fair in love and charity fundraising. Their press officer did send me statistics: 36% of people aged 60 or over in Great Britain sometimes stay or live in just one heated room of their home to save money. Which is pretty shocking. And then, somebody else tweeted this, an appeal for winter coats for poor children in Sussex.

In no way do I wish to do down the efforts of anyone who is trying to help people, whether by running marathons, giving to charity shops, or distributing clothes in their community. I would, however, like to point out that they need to, is ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGEOUS. A few things:

1. Britain is the 7th largest economy in the world.

2. The CEO of British Gas earned around £4 million last year.

3. The welfare state, which was supposed to ensure that the vulnerable were fed, adequately housed and clothed, was set up in 1945 when the nation was virtually bankrupt after World War 2.

4. There are approximately 36 million sheep in Britain.

Britain is entirely suited to producing wool. In fact, that's more or less what Yorkshire used to do. The whole county produced textiles. That's how they have all those lovely stone houses and impressive Victorian town halls. The business of Yorkshire was textiles.

Except somebody had this bright idea. Why do all that tedious shearing and spinning and weaving and sewing, when we could get it done cheaper elsewhere? So hey presto, your coat, if you can afford one, is made by labour that's been locked into the workshop without fire extinguishers or toilet breaks somewhere in Pakistan or Cambodia, while old people shiver in Sheffield, and their grandchildren are on the dole.

What you're looking at here is the failure of an economic idea. We have resources and we have a need. That's called supply and demand. And what we're looking at, is a complete breakdown in the relationship between the two. Think about this logically. In one of the prime wool-producing areas of the world, there is widespread unemployment, while people appeal to charity to keep old people warm from the cold. This transaction between supply and demand, is being met not by commerce, but by charity. I dunno about Karl Marx, but I suspect Adam Smith is spinning in his grave.

The point is that old people, or children, shouldn't be having to get giveaways. If the economy was managed properly, then people would be using this productive resource to make garments locally. If you'd produced something useful all your life, you should have a pension that'll buy you a decent coat. If you're a kid, and your parents/family were in employment, they would be able to buy you one.

I'm not going to go through the economics, because I did that once already. Locally produced wool garments are more expensive than ones made from synthetics, in Thailand. This is because they last five-ten times longer. E.g. £200 coat, good for 5 years = £40 per year. £60 coat, will lose shape after 1 winter, £60 per year. Cheap coat = 50% more expensive. And that's before you've factored in paying for people in Yorkshire to be on the dole.

Incidentally, I did try and find some British wool garments you could actually purchase. I found this rather nice Gents overcoat from M&S, so good for them. There isn't a ladies equivalent, sadly. I did find this rather revealing press release.

I don't know what we should do about this. We could give our old coats to people, in the short term. But I think we might be better asking fashion manufacturers why they're not making coats in Yorkshire, in the long run.

I've already had one rant about this, last year. I'll probably be back, in 2013.

Updated 5th Dec

Really pleased to hear today that well-known bastion of radical ideas, Debenhams Department Store, is launching a 'Made by Great Britons' clothing label, and asking potential suppliers to contact them. This is great and I have nothing but 'well done' to say to them. You can read their press release here.

Obviously a press release won't go into the commercial reasons behind this decision. But I would imagine that they might include some of the following:
  1. Issues with quality of goods made in the far East
  2. Rising wages in China
  3. ...and more significantly the fact that ongoing recession and falling wage levels in the UK means less people are able to buy Debenhams goods. By pumping money into the UK economy, they create more customers. This is a no-brainer first stated by Henry Ford in about 1910, but it's been out of fashion as economics, recently.
Anyway good for them: I will definately go and review the collection when it gets in the shops.

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