Can technology transform the fashion industry?

Dan Rees Photo

Dan Rees, Chief of Better Work

Talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution can quickly get abstract. Discussion travels at lightning speed into a world of augmented reality and robots, blockchain and biotechnology.

At the International Labour Organization (ILO) – which this year marks 100 years of promoting decent work – our focus is fundamentally the same as in 1919; it’s about people, it’s about social justice.

If the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to be an engine for positive change, it should deliver for the most vulnerable sections of society. That includes those who make the clothes we wear, who still do not enjoy fundamental rights at work.

Experience from the Better Work programme tells us the fashion industry can be a force for good. We have shown how improved working conditions benefit workers and their families and drive higher profitability for manufacturers. Can new technologies speed up these outcomes?

So far, there’s not much evidence of this. Most technical innovation in the sector aims to enhance consumer benefits – more convenience, more choice and ever faster delivery times. These innovations can have unintended consequences for workers and manufacturers. They add stress to production cycles, creating a chain reaction of excessive overtime, increased workplace harassment and accidents at work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Better Work is a partnership between the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation to improve working conditions in the garment industry and make the sector more competitive. © Better Work.

Contrary to the determinist rhetoric about robots taking over, in the ILO’s latest report on the Future of Work, experts advocate for a “human-in-command” approach to technology, to enhance work rather than be controlled by it.

Start thinking of robotics, big data systems or the Internet of Things as tools for improving conditions of work and the potential becomes enormous.

We have already seen, for example, how automating certain production processes like denim distressing (to create a vintage, worn or ripped look) can make work safer. Heat and light sensors can help monitor and improve workplace conditions, even at a distance. Mobile apps can expand workers’ awareness of their rights, and digitizing salaries can improve on-time payments. Up-skilling workers can improve their incomes and productivity, especially when women are trained to take positions of leadership.

The latest ILO research, coupled with our own on-the-ground experience, suggests that while certain segments of the industry are adapting quickly to new technologies the most labour-intensive parts of manufacturing – such as cutting fabric, sewing, checking and packing – are not.

This suggests a huge opportunity. In the decade ahead, the garment industry will create millions of jobs in places where people badly need them. Most of these people will be young women, many will be migrants and almost all will be among the poorest 40 per cent of the world’s people. If those jobs are safe and secure they can be transformative. The fashion industry can lift millions of people out of poverty by providing decent work, empowering women, and driving inclusive economic growth.

Seizing this opportunity demands leadership. It’s time for big conversations. What is the future of work that we want in the fashion industry? Let us determine this through a people-centred approach. Then design the technical solutions that fit our common purpose.

Dan Rees is Chief of Better Work, a flagship programme of the UN’s International Labour Organization, jointly managed by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group. Better Work brings together governments, employers, workers and international brands to improve working conditions and competitiveness in the global apparel and footwear industry.

A version of this article was originally shared with participants at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 15-16 May, which convenes fashion industry decision-makers to discuss the most critical environmental, social and ethical issues facing the sector. Dan Rees will speak about the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Summit on 16 May.

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