© One of the main fears of the textile industry is that new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and automation, will eliminate the employment of millions of workers. How likely is this and what to do about it? The Executive Director of Fundación C&A explains.
Artificial intelligence is transforming the way we shop. Just look at the recent launch of Amazon Go in Seattle, the first store in the world without boxes or rows. Will this also change the way our clothes are produced, perhaps eliminating the employment of millions of workers in the textile industry?
With the rise of automation in innovative processes such as SoftWear Automation and Sewbo, and, the gradual reshoring or “homecoming” of textile production, it is not surprising that many are announcing (or fearing) the rise of the robot age. In fact, in 2016, the International Labour Organization warned that in the coming decades, textile workers in countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam could be replaced by robots. Without adequate control, this progress could lead to significant job losses in producing countries.
But the reality may be different. First, automation is not yet able to compete on price with manual labor. It will take time, but this will give the textile industry an opportunity to prepare.
Second, automation can have a positive effect on jobs by turning repetitive, minimum-wage jobs into jobs that need higher skills and better pay. However, this requires leadership and a significant effort on the part of governments, businesses and civil society. A change in the power dynamics between employers and employees is needed, as well as careful mitigation in addition to resources for conversion.
The emergence of concerns about automation and other types of innovation may seem fortuitous, but it has many factors behind it: the global garment industry is at a turning point. Never before has there been such a great potential disruption. At the same time, the level of pre-competitive collaboration between brands, retailers and manufacturers continues to rise. This should give us hope that the industry is taking sustainability seriously and is bold enough to set aside “lone wolf” approaches for the common good, whether with processes that include robots or techniques that can be executed immediately.
The Pulse of the Fashion Industry report showed that, if we continue to operate in the same way, fashion brands and retailers will see, by 2030, losses of 45 billion a year (a reduction of around 3% in EBIT). But how can we change this linear, waste-generating business model underlying our industry? We need to question our assumptions, challenge our economic motivations and bet on innovation.
Last year, C&A Foundation created a collaborative platform called Fashion for Good, which aims to find, drive and scale up innovations that seek to transform how we design, produce, sell and reuse the clothes we love so much. For example, We aRe SpinDye is an innovator who has developed a new dyeing technique that reduces water consumption by 85%, the use of chemicals by 70% and energy/CO2 by 30%. Also, Tamicare Ltd, created Cosyflex, the first technology in the world for the mass manufacture of finished and 3D printed textile products.
What is especially powerful, however, is the collaborative nature of Fashion for Good. By bringing together a diverse group of global brands and retailers (including C&A, Adidas, Kering, Galeries Lafayette and Zalando, all willing to test new technologies, processes and models in their own supply chain), we can help these innovators test and replicate what works across the textile industry.
Several technologies are enabling greater transparency and therefore greater accountability in the sector. The fact that purchasing practices can influence (positively and negatively) the working conditions of factories is something that is well documented. If these practices were publicly evaluated, perhaps buyers would have an incentive to change. But above all, this emerging “data economy” is helping us see what’s hidden and take responsibility for finding a better path. Now, more than ever, we have information. It is time to act.
The author is Executive Director of Fundación C&A.
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