Could embracing automation be the answer to a sustainable future?

Opening Ceremony collaboration with Unmade

Manufacturing clothes is one of the most ethically contentious industries in the world. Between the harmful impact of growing and sourcing materials to the poor working conditions and wages paid to garment workers, where will we find an ethical solution to meet the consumer demand?

When boiled down, the question of ethics is threefold; economic, environmental and social. So what if we found a solution that satisfied all three areas of concern? With the work of companies like Evernu and their partnership with big brands like Levi’s, technology is already being used to create 100% recycled fibres and in turn closing the loop on fabric production. Embracing automation could mean a massive wave of economic disruption, including the loss of millions of jobs. But could welcoming the advancement of robotic technology in fashion be the answer to a sustainable future?

Automation is as political as it is ethical

In Obama's farewell speech last week, the beloved president addressed the future of unemployment in the US. Rather than pointing to a government conspiracy or immigrant workers, he pointed to the reality of modern technology, automation; “The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

Fashion news journal, Business of Fashion, reported from the McKinsey Global Institute in their January 2017 report that the tasks set to be automated by 2055 currently make up 51% of work tasks in the United States, which include data collecting, physical activities and processing. However, Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute and a co author of the report cites reliability and less variants as benefits to automation. These changes would no doubt transform efficiency but also bring manufacturing costs more inline with expectations from consumers and thus the “need” to exploit workers with poor wages and working conditions.

Change is happening

It’s no secret that the fashion industry is already undergoing major transformation. An increasingly seasonless market, digital overhaul of fashion journalism and social media making an already saturated market even more competitive. Consumers are getting faster and brands and reporters are expected to keep up with the volatility. A move into automaty gives brands the chance to manufacture on order, and quickly with the introduction of “sew bots”. Overstocking and relying on buyers to make relative guesswork on orders could be a thing of the past, which is great news for reducing the impact of producing fabric and materials. It also makes it possible for companies to invest in their own machines and therefore cut out a hugely costly part of the supply chain. The ‘see now, buy now’ concept the industry has been trying to introduce for the last few years could become a reality.

The future is now

Unmade is a British knitwear brand who have already adopted this ‘made on demand’ model. “Linked to an automated production system, unique knitted garments can be made for the same unit cost and speed as mass production” it says on the Unmade website. When the customer orders a piece of knitwear, they can customise the design before it gets made, especially for them. Since launching the project in 2013, Ben Alun-Jones, Hal Watts and Kirsty Emery, have worked with sustainable designer Christopher Raeburn on an award winning catwalk collection and on various projects with the British Fashion Council.

With automated technology threatening millions of families livelihood, it seem crazy that we would want to embrace it. But perhaps this is our opportunity to radically rethink how our global economic system functions. Across the world people work long hours in exhausting jobs to sustain demand in all sectors; banking, medicine, media, labour. If technology is providing a more time efficient solution than humans are capable of, cost of product and services will go down and with it, the cost of living. Could people afford to work less hours and thus get rid of the need to find the hours lost?

The world might not be ready to migrate away from corporate capitalism just yet, but nor were we ready for Brexit, Trump or the ozone layer passing its point of repair. Maybe we just have to change.