It’s a question we get asked a lot - why don’t you make your backpacks in UK, given that you’re a British company? The answer is not as straight-forward as you might think. There are a lot of reasons we aren’t manufacturing in the UK, but there are three big ones that I’ll try to explain:
The best manufacture in Vietnam.
If you examine the label of almost any consumer item, you’ll see the same thing again and again - “Made in China”. And it’s true that most backpacks are made in China. There’s a lot of backpack manufacturing clustered around southern China which is where we made our first two models of backpack. But while China the world’s largest manufacturer of backpacks, it also produces some of the worst.
The reason? Manufacturing in China is geared towards scale. And when your supplier is constantly pressing you to increase the volume of your order, they simultaneously cut corners in production. Inevitably if you’re a small producer like us, you get pushed to the sidelines. The order gets pushed back, customers receive their products late. Overall our experience manufacturing in China could have been better.
When we started to look at where the best backpacks were made - the ones we could actually see ourselves using - the story was a bit different.
Most high quality outdoor brands are not ordering from China. When we looked at the labels of higher-end brands, Vietnam was the most popular place for bags to be made. Historically, Vietnam has acquired a reputation for high quality backpack manufacturing. And it’s clustered there, each business sharing the skills and contacts of an entire manufacturing ecosystem. And as more higher quality manufacturing moves to Vietnam, so more businesses and skilled people show up. Just as Hollywood is a place where movie-production is clustered, Vietnam has become a cluster for high quality bag manufacturing.
So when we decided to move our production from China to Vietnam it was for the same reasons that brands like North Face, Fjallraven, Patagonia and others did - to be part of that ecosystem and benefit from much higher quality products.
We have a supplier who gets what we're trying to do.
I’ve already touched on why manufacturing in China has its drawbacks. But there are also some big advantages - manufacturing there is totally geared up for export, so moving goods out of the big ports in China is easy. Lead times in China are also considerably shorter as many of the components for backpacks are made in China.
However, we found it was difficult to communicate our vision of how the products should be made. Instead of working with us to produce a high-end product, our old supplier tried to push us into using lower quality components and manufacturing methods that suited them, rather than doing things the best possible way. Instead of having our customers in mind, our manufacturer only thought of how they could benefit themselves.
And why not manufacture at home? After all, the shipping time would be lower, and we could also make fewer bags as a minimum order.
The reality is that it isn’t easy producing backpacks at scale in UK. As manufacturing has gradually moved away from Europe and the developed economies, so too has the skill and workforce required to do it. Put bluntly, there aren’t many factories left in Europe that can handle the production of complicated backpacks like ours. And since many of the components we use aren’t readily available here, it would mean making a big compromise on the features we chose to include in our products.
Happy workers make good products.
At a meeting with the factory boss a few months ago, I began to explain how happy we have been with the production so far, and the positive feedback our customers had given us. So I decided to ask what he was doing to ensure such high quality production.
"the workers are happy because they’re being listened to and have good working conditions, and our customers end up with the best product."
The answer actually was different to what I expected. The approach of the factory we work with is to ask the staff what they think could be improved. The boss listens to the staff on the production line to get insight into how the process could be done better and it’s his job to make sure the staff get the best working conditions they can possibly have. In doing so, he creates an environment where workers feel they are able to do their best work.
As a result, the workers are happy because they’re being listened to and have good working conditions, and our customers end up with the best product.
One interesting topic that we discussed was a “short” work-week. Most factories in Vietnam operate 6 days a week, which means only Sunday is a free day for the workers. The factory boss decided it would be better to work a little bit longer 5 days a week and give everyone a proper weekend. He told me that overall, the production output is exactly the same due to increased efficiency, and everyone is much happier as a result of having 2 days off a week.
Our manufacturing partner is the first and -as far as we know - only one to have a 5 day work-week. But even with fewer working hours in the week, the factory still produces incredibly high quality products on-time; and with a much happier workforce.
There are of course drawbacks to manufacturing so far away from the majority of our customers. From start to finish it takes around 5 months to process, manufacture and ship an order. This means we have to finance a production run a long time in advance of the stock arriving. And as a result we can’t respond quickly if our stock gets sold quickly. It’s one of the reasons we have used Kickstarter as a way of launching our business.
Despite that drawback, we still think we made the right decision to manufacture in Vietnam.
We have found a good balance between quality, price and ethical values. We just wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if we felt that our supply chain was exploitative. Equally, the route we have chosen isn’t necessarily the quickest or easiest for our business, but does result in very high quality products at a good value price point. And ultimately, when our customers are happy with our products, we are happy too!