Back to Britain – will coronavirus lead to a rush to buy local?


Coronavirus has caused unprecedented disruption to the global supply chain. In the years to come, will that lead some in our industry to consider sourcing goods and materials more locally? Caldwell Managing Director Ken Wilson gives his view.

For decades, glass and glazing companies, like businesses around the country, have made a trade-off.

They get components, and sometimes whole products, made abroad, where labour costs are much lower. But in return, they have to put up with the risk of major disruption if something goes wrong.

For a long time, that seemed like a win-win situation – the world was stable, so getting your supplies delivered from thousands of miles away was rarely a problem. But then coronavirus arrived.

Major disruption

China provides 16% of the inputs for the UK’s construction sector, supplying it with goods and materials worth £2.8bn every year – but earlier in 2020, the threat of COVID-19 saw the Chinese government implement one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Germany, Italy and Spain are the UK’s next three biggest importers of construction inputs, and all three have been hit by the virus, the latter two particularly hard. For British manufacturers, that obviously caused major disruption.

Now fenestration companies across Britain have largely returned to work, for the moment the market appears to be healthy, and people seem cautiously optimistic about the sector’s future prospects.

But I wonder whether the experience of 2020 will lead some to reconsider whether we should be sourcing so many goods and materials from abroad.

International instability

Caldwell is never going to be the kind of company that calls for Britain to pull up the drawbridge and try and fend for itself. We’re an American business with a presence in countries all over the world – late last year, we founded Caldwell South East-Asia, for example.

But I think we could see a shift back to producing some – not all – components much more locally in fenestration in the years ahead.

In part, that’s because of coronavirus. Until we’re able to develop a vaccine, or some other form of effective treatment, it’s likely to be a fact of life for months if not years, with major potential to disrupt global supply chains.

If that does lead to a shift back towards sourcing products more locally, it will pose big challenges for our industry – we’ll have to get used to paying more for them, for example.

But it’s also likely to have positives – like better product quality.

Great quality, made in Britain

Let’s take hardware, our own area of expertise, as an example. We produce many of our friction stays in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, but you can also buy them from dozens of Far East manufacturers as well. Ours come at a different price point, but they’re also much higher quality.

When it comes to something like balances, that difference is even more stark. They’re complex products, that take a lot of skill and precision to make.

We’re not the only company to manufacture them in the UK – Coventry, to be exact – but our products are in a different league entirely to the sort you get from the Far East.

So while there are undoubtedly huge challenges ahead, and coronavirus will continue to reshape fenestration’s normal ways of working for the foreseeable future, businesses can be confident of one thing – if importing goods from abroad gets more difficult, they’ll find outstanding quality alternatives right here in the UK.