Automation in Apparel: How Society and Industry Need to Prepare

"Don’t turn away from the issue of your labor force just because robotics are coming."

Automation will change the way the fashion industry operates. So far, much of the conversation has been centerd on the scourge of robots and their threat to the workforce. While it’s only natural to worry, it’s time to move the conversation past the risks, embrace this window of opportunity, and prepare for the future.

This issue was recently addressed at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2018, in a session hosted by Lee Risby of C&A Foundation titled The Robots Are Coming.

Disruptive automation is hardly a new concept. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, people have feared that machines might cause mass unemployment. As civilization has advanced, machinery indeed has replaced jobs. However, new jobs have also emerged.

There’s no denying that automation and digitalization will enable manufacturers to produce the same amount with fewer workers, altering and eliminating some existing jobs. The fashion industry must embrace new technologies in their supply chains or risk being left behind, a point supported by Pamela Mar, Fung Group supply chain futures director.

“Digitization, connectivity, automation and upgrading technology is the way of the future; there’s no way factories can survive without it,” she said. This underlines a critical question for the industry: what is a responsible approach to automation?

Carys Roberts, research fellow in the economy team at progressive policy think tank IPPR, expanded on this: “Whenever there is change you have winners and losers. The winners will be those who quickly find new jobs…but there will also be losers – people who see their wages pressed down because they are increasingly in competition with machines…there is a big risk of inequality from diverging wages and the people who own the robotics and the data winning.”

While there are differing opinions on the timing and breadth of automation, it is clear we currently have a window of opportunity before automation impacts apparel production jobs at scale. According to Pete Santora, chief commercial officer at Softwear Automation: “the way robotics are coming into the market will be gradual and will start with the least skilled workers.”

He called on the audience at Copenhagen Fashion Summit: “You need to start implementing things for the workplace today. Don’t turn away from the issue of your labor force just because robotics are coming; stand up and start doing something.”

In fact, some companies are already proactively focusing on the potential of automation to positively impact apparel workers’ lives.

“It’s a myth that workers should have to stay in labour intensive jobs for their entire career,” explained Mar. “[Li & Fung’s] research into automation and IoT (internet of Things) shows that workers in our factories want to evolve with the times because they see all around them that the digital economy is here. It’s up to the corporate sector to do that responsibly, and to work with government to ensure that the workers who transition out of labor-intensive manufacturing have access to support and relevant education and new employees enter the workforce with relevant skills.”

For David Roberts, a leading expert of disruptive innovation at Silicon Valley-based think tank Singularity University, education is critical. “Our educational system is almost completely obsolete. We’ve been teaching the same thing for a hundred years. Governments should think disruptively about education.”

Cross-industry and multi-sector action and investment in upskilling and education must begin now if the industry is to make this transition smoothly. Roberts highlighted: “The ‘do-nothing’ approach isn’t an option. We absolutely need companies to be investing in technology; that’s how we get economic growth and higher wages. But we need to make sure that it is benefiting everyone. Education isn’t enough if there aren’t enough jobs. Governments need to incentivise and support businesses, but businesses also have to work towards it too, with higher wages and better conditions which go hand in hand with increases in productivity. An international partnership is needed and a focus on how to bring workers into this conversation through unionization.”

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