What Impact Will the Robot Revolution Have on the Fashion Industry?

Automation is set to become the single biggest player of the workforce of the future.
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Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The robots are coming! The robots are coming!

They're vacuuming the living room. They're having sex. They're building us homes on the moon. Everyone is talking about robots, and the fashion industry is no exception.

At this week's Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a group of panelists speculated about the various impacts that robotics, automation and A.I. may have on the global apparel industry in coming years, highlighting the plight of today's human workers.

While it's generally accepted that automation and digitalization will increase supply chain productivity and greatly improve the fashion industry's sustainability performance, the panel was less united on where these innovations will leave workers.

"From manufacturing to design, to business analysis, all jobs in the fashion industry will change as some tasks are automated through the use of robotics and artificial intelligence," said Carys Roberts, Senior Economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, the U.K.'s leading progressive think tank. "The big challenge is how to make sure everyone in the industry can benefit from these changes."

Today, the disparity between the industry's highest earners and lowest earners is massive. Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that the CEO of a top-five fashion brand can earn a Bangladeshi garment worker's lifetime pay in four days. (About 80 percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are women of color, while most of fashion's richest are white men.)

Roberts has used Twitter to urge U.K. shoppers to stop buying cheap clothes and oppose tax credits that benefit fast fashion. She insists that enforcing minimum standards on business isn't "anti-business," it's just "pro-good business" — and good businesses are the ones worth supporting.

Global Fashion Agenda, the organizers of Copenhagen Fashion Summit, is urging companies throughout the fashion industry to embrace environmentally and socially responsible practices, and maintains that companies like H&M are leading the way. If the future is to be bright for workers, as well as planet, technological innovation's impact on people within the supply chain must be monitored closely. If it isn't, the heaviest blow will be dealt to workers in garment factories around the world.

As Head of Effective Philanthropy at the C&A Foundation, a Swiss corporate organization that advocates for a fair and sustainable apparel industry, Lee Alexander Risby put it: "We do not have to let automation just happen to us." Panelists all agreed that policy makers and companies who own data and robots must consider the impacts that automation is both having and will have on workers around the world. The message? Humans are still in the driver's seat.

"We live in a fishbowl – a spaceship called Earth. We once thought our fishbowl was so large that pollution and the unlimited taking of resources would not matter. We were wrong," said David Roberts of the Silicon Valley benefit corporation Singularity University. "In our world, anything not fully circular poisons our small plant. Technology offers solutions, but leadership sets the speed of progress and adoption."

In fact, circularity is going to be the application that will constrain the fashion industry to an appropriate scale, according to Paul Dillinger, Vice President and Head of Global Product Innovation and Premium Collection Design at Levi Strauss & Co. Now, he said, six out of 10 garments we produce end up in a landfill or are incinerated within the first year of production. "It will force us to ask how much better the four could have been if the additional six had not been made,” said Dillinger, earning spirited applause from the audience.

While circularity and sustainable responsibility were the primary focus of this year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit, speakers' readiness to use the robotics to advocate for justice and equality for today's workers reflects the urgency that many feel for the fashion industry to evolve both environmentally and socially. 

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