How Can the Rise of Automation in Fashion Be a Force for Good?


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This opinion-editorial was written in conjunction with Katrin Ley for Fashion for Good.

The idea of “fashion for good” is nuanced and the roadmap to achieving this ambition is complex. However, one thing is certain: the current model of production is undergoing  dramatic reinvention as we enter what many have termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This provides an opportunity for innovation, as well as for  rethinking  current models.

This is a challenge I embrace as head of Fashion for Good, an ambitious new initiative aimed at bringing the industry together to reimagine how fashion is designed, made, used and reused. Our goal is to inform a new way of thinking and at the same time, nurture and expand innovations that can lead to positive change. We scale innovations through a range of approaches, from collaborating with emerging entrepreneurs through our Accelerator Programme to supporting more advanced companies as they prepare for wider adoption through our Scaling Programme.

As part of this journey, I want to share our views on a range of disruptive ideas that have the potential to transform this industry, for good. We know identifying the problem is one thing, while finding sustainable and scalable solutions is far more complex. But this is why we exist. Our role is to bring together key industry actors to identify and pilot innovative ideas, as well as to explore difficult issues and engage in critical debate.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The first theme I want to explore is the rise of robotics and automation in the fashion industry. As recognised by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. Klaus Schwab, WEF Founder and Executive Chairman, notes that “today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution, but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one.”

This revolution is characterised by technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. “It’s disrupting almost every industry in every country,” he writes, “and the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”

Automation Is Already Here

We’re already seeing how these innovations are impacting the fashion industry, and we’re partnering with companies and initiatives in this arena to ensure Fashion for Good is part of the conversation. Joining our Scaling Programme is Tamicare, whose patented, fast mass production 3D printing technology, the Cosyflex®, allows manufacturers to eliminate the wasteful and chemically hazardous processes of dyeing and cut-make-trim. We’ve also partnered with Softwear Automation, whose Sewbot™ worklines combine patented computer vision with light weight robotics to sew garments. Both initiatives boost supply chain transparency, reduce waste and have the potential to shorten the geographic distance between the manufacturer and consumer.

As with the automation of jobs within any industry, the question becomes: what will the impact be for workers?

The global garment industry employs 60-75 million people worldwide. At Fashion for Good, we have spent significant time discussing and debating the implications of automation on workers in the industry. We have reflected on the large segment of garment workers that currently work long hours completing repetitive tasks, sometimes in unsafe conditions. And we have considered how these technologies could potentially provide for more dignified work.

The Impact of Automation

As highlighted by the tragic events of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, the fashion industry can no longer continue to chase the lowest labour costs as a sustainable model. While the rise of automation will undoubtedly have large impacts on this industry, our hope is that the transformation can be a force for good. Our ambition by partnering in this area is to influence automation in a socially responsible way.

The truth is, as it stands, we simply don’t know what the “rise of the robots” will mean. This is why it’s so important to be part of the conversation from the beginning. As cited in a recent Economist article, predictions that automation will make humans redundant have been made before, going back to the Industrial Revolution, when textile workers protested that machines and steam engines would destroy their livelihoods.

While there’s no denying that automation will impact garment workers dramatically, many economists believe that automating manual and repetitive tasks will eliminate some existing jobs, but could also enable some workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding, and more creative work.

Leila Janah, a friend of mine who founded social enterprise SamaSource, recently told VICE she believes this transition is a good thing. “Anything that’s not skill building — anything that is emotionally taxing and draining, if we can automate those unfulfilling types of work, all the better,” she said.

For countries such as Bangladesh, for which garment manufacturing accounts for over 80% of the country’s total exports, shifting to more creative types of work will require significant support. To facilitate the move to a more knowledge-based economy, and to ensure impacted workers are empowered and not displaced, companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed.

Looking to the Future

Imagine trying to tell someone, even 50 years ago, that her grandchildren would be a drone pilot an, influencer marketeer or a virtual reality specialist. These jobs simply didn’t exist, and nobody could have predicted they would. In the same Economist article, Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, said, “We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that.”

Our hope, as evidenced by 140 years of data, is that technology will continue to create more jobs than it destroys. Further, the rise of automation, if managed responsibly, could present an empowering opportunity with regards to skill development, as well as the potential to end the undignified exploitation of workers in low-wage countries.
But we’re not there yet. As economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out to WEF, the Fourth Industrial Revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. This is why, empowered by our unique position within this industry, it’s essential we take part in this important dialogue so we can work towards a future fashion industry that’s good.

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