At this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the topic of ethical fashion and its progress led the discussions. More companies that focus on social responsibility are popping up. With millennial consumers, sustainability is becoming more attractive. However, while consumers do seem to think about sustainability in the industry, fast fashion sales have not shown any sign of slowing down. In fact, one source estimates that global clothing sales will reach $1.65 trillion by 2020. This indicates that while consumers may like the idea of ethical production and sustainable materials, they are still buying a lot of garments and accessories.
So how have industry innovators been dealing with these conflicting values?
Ultimately, introducing more technology to meet greater consumer demand is a popular solution. One trend that has occurred is the movement from production in Bengali factories to factories in Accord-free Southeast Asia. This migration allows for fashion production to take place in a region that is more open to technology.
For example, in Thailand, there is research being done to assess how cutting-edge technology can be used to work alongside humans instead of replacing them. There is potential for workers to become involved in the installation of new equipment and for workers to complete training to become more tech savvy. Other locations have been introducing machines with artificial intelligence. Fung Group and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have worked on building machines with AI in order to allow them to control the sewing, cutting, and chemical mixing processes. The machines would even have the ability to communicate with each other.
Fung Group created the “world’s first retail business model testing platform”, called Explorium. At the research hub, the company explores technology that can do rapid product prototyping. This technology can shorten production time from months to days. They are also able to complete virtual 3D stitching of garments.
There is no doubt that as researchers continue to look for ways to make the fashion industry more efficient, the introduction of robots and new technology, including AI and virtual reality, will continue to develop. It is unclear how these machines will be used by different retailers. For example, Adidas has used machines to make shoes in their Speedfactory. The production process, led by automated machines, is more efficient than hiring humans and avoids issues with ethical work conditions and a potential inability to oversee international production locations.
This example supports the idea that robots and new technology implemented in factories could possibly meet the contradicting consumer desire for ethical production with a speedy production time. This will allow consumers to continue buying more and as often as they please. We question, though, what impact technology could have on workers who rely on garment production as a main source of income. If companies would be able to retain human workers and train them on how to engage with the machines and troubleshoot tech issues, then perhaps introducing more technology could also provide a beneficial service to some garment workers. However, until this technology is broadly implemented in the industry, it remains to be seen how it will impact garment workers and fashion companies.