Robots are everywhere, whether we know it or not. Did you know that 95% of electrical equipment assemblers will face being replaced by a robot within the next 20 years? This threat of mechanization has been on the peripheries of the fashion industry for years, but, until now, the severity of this threat has been tempered by the fact that the fashion industry relied mostly upon sewing assembly lines. As it becomes harder to find a skilled seamstress, who is even harder to replace in developed markets, fashion houses are looking towards machines to fill the gap in the skills market.
It is generally accepted that robots and mechanization will increase productivity and the speed of the supply chain, there are still some issues around pushing fashion into the digitized world. The main issue is where it will leave the workers – and not just those who actually make the clothes. Robots will alter all jobs within the fashion industry as more tasks are digitized’, says Elizabeth Tilton, fashion writer at Essayroo and Academized. ‘Marketing and design roles will change just as much as the manufacturing jobs, so it is important to look at how and if automation will benefit everyone within the industry’. The disparity between the highest and lowest earners within fashion is, as we know, massive. The worry is that if the fashion industry does become more reliant on machines, those at the bottom will be thrown out into the cold, clothes will become cheaper still, encouraging people to buy and throw away more, which is damaging the environment.
Up to now, machines have not been able to create fabric and clothes in the same way as human hands. The garments have been very disjointed, they have been unable to work with the complex, limp fabric, despite them being able to work quickly and precisely. Some start-ups have recently been created that tackle this problem, by making new, innovative machines that coat the fabric in liquid polymers, which temporarily stiffens the fabric and makes them more easily manipulated by the robotic arm. When the machine is finished, the polymer is washed off and the fabric returns to its more fluid state.
Opinion is very divided on what mechanization will mean in the fashion industry, and whether the impact it has will be a positive or negative one. ‘The conditions in factories that have been outsourced to the third world are notoriously horrendous’, says Linda Kennedy, tech editor at Australianreviewer.com and UK writing. ‘The hope is that mechanization will prevent this exploitation, as the production lines are removed from the countries’. However, this flags up many more moral and ethical issues. If robotics succeeds, it will mean the loss of millions upon millions of jobs in these countries. Places like Bangladesh rely almost entirely on the exporting of cheap clothing to the West, which would result in a huge economic downturn. Other countries, such as Myanmar, are demanding severance pay for workers that are made redundant by factories that are moving towards mechanization, which obviously fashion houses are reluctant to do. Some hope that if the movement towards robotic is gradual, the impact on these manufacturing communities will be lessened, but it is uncertain how much of impact robotics will have.
Even those high up in the fashion industry recognize the potentially catastrophic consequences that complete mechanization could have. Panels have met at fashion weeks around the globe to discuss the effects, and how they have the power to prevent automation from being forced upon them. There has been a focus recently into how fashion does have a responsibility to keep people in work, and also to make it more sustainable from an environmental and social perspective. Six out of every ten garments made are thrown away or incinerated within the first year, and given how much strain is put on the planet to create each item of clothing, and how little people are paid for the privilege, it is clear something needs to be done and needs to be done soon.
Robotics have posed an external threat to the fashion industry for nearly two decades, and, given how cheap automation is compared with human labor, it is easy to see the appeal to fashion houses. However, the social and environmental responsibility that they have with the millions of workers employed in the industry means the future of robotics in fashion remains uncertain.