The Sharp End: Buying British for a day

How far can you get shopping only for UK-made goods? MT gives it a try.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 28 Feb 2011

For MT's Best of British issue, my challenge is to spend a day using only British-made products. Even 40 years ago that wasn't easy: when the government ran an I'm Backing Britain campaign in the 1960s, its promotional T-shirts turned out to have come from Portugal.

The morning kicks off surprisingly well when I learn that my Lush shower gel is from Dorset. The company is so right-on there's actually a sticker on the bottle showing which individual made it. I start to think that perhaps this isn't going to be so hard after all.

The feeling lasts until I turn on the taps. You'd think that water operates beyond the limits of national boundaries, given that it comes from the sky. But when I pay the bills it's Thames Water that profits. And that's owned by Australian bank Macquarie. Five minutes in and I've already failed. I scrub hard as penance.

The plan is to head into the centre of London to buy simple day-to-day stuff - some British clothing and a toaster. It's a task that could prove awkward and not just because such things are hard to come by: none of my existing clobber hails from Blighty, so technically I'll have to go nude.

Such behaviour would be distinctly unBritish, so I decide to dress as patriotically as I can - my cords by Howies of Wales (made in China) and jacket and T-shirt by Cornwall's Finisterre (made in Portugal). Then I go off seeking something that's bound to cause problems: British transport.

Now here's a conundrum. London buses are made by the likes of Volvo and Mercedes. Most London Overground trains come from Canadian-owned multinational Bombardier's German factories. Even hitching a ride in a Land Rover or Jag would be pointless - both are proudly British-built, but owned by Tata. Maybe get on a Boris bike? Nope: made in Canada.

A little research does, however, reveal that the Southern Trains service still uses ageing British rolling stock. Built in York by British Rail Engineering in the 1980s - in the halcyon days when we moaned about our own services, not foreign ones.

I take the British train, then walk from Victoria to Oxford Street. It's time to buy a toaster. I plump for Selfridges, another British institution. Also Canadian-owned.

I quickly encounter Josh, a sales assistant who points out the bright and trendy Dualit range. 'Proudly made in England,' he says. I ask Josh if he sells other British-made products. 'Specifically made here?' he asks. 'That is a challenge.' He wanders off across the vast shop floor to ask a colleague. Then he returns - holding a cup. Is that it? 'Uh ... yep,' he says.

It's time for a snack. UK sandwich chain Pret a Manger hit the news last year when it emerged its chicken came all the way from Brazil - so I opt for good old M&S.

Upstairs I set myself the challenge of buying something I really need - undies. Only a few years ago 80% of M&S clothing bore the label 'made in Britain'. Now, despite the vast range of stuff on offer, it is all knocked up in far-flung locales like Indonesia and India. Even the posh Collezione sock range is 'Inspired by Italy ... made in China'.

Is it possible for modern man to gird himself with British-made pants? Ethical retailer Toast has just launched a menswear range, but it doesn't cover underwear. Groovy label People Tree puts great emphasis on where its gear comes from, but has to buy where it's cheap like everyone else - so its shtick is about improving conditions for foreign workers, not making stuff here.

I decide to cleanse myself by getting a haircut. Soho yields only trendy Japanese salons and old Turkish barbers. So I head off to Geo F Trumper of Mayfair, 130 years old and still using the same self-made products. 'I want a haircut that makes my wife not realise I've had a haircut,' says the impeccably upper-crust gent in the adjacent chair. I blow £35 on a flag-waving British trim.

My day ends at the Tate Britain, among the Tudor portraits. Times have changed and the UK economy simply had to change with them. Looking at the 17th-century Sir Richard Saltonstall attending his wife's deathbed, I don't need to ask where his platform-boots were made.

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