Is artificial intelligence the future of sustainable fashion? Personalised outfits will soon be stitched in milliseconds by machines, and the Cher Horowitz digital-wardrobe of dreams will be issued as standard. Well, we’re not quite there yet. But we may well be heading in that direction and so let’s find out what role robots might have in the future of our wardrobes and whether it could have a positive outcome for the planet.
As consumers, we’ve reached a deadlock. As we watch those viral Instagram videos of plastic debris clogging up the oceans and the eternally growing landfill sites ruining the rest of the natural world, our appetite for throw-away purchases is waning.
The Millennial mindset
Millennials are by far the most ethical consumers, making our parents look like mean-spirited monsters. This is at least according to the analytics company, Nielsen, who when looking at our shopping habits found that 73% of us favoured buying from brands where sustainability was vital.
Our consciences are steering most of what we buy. Opting for fairly traded coffee or checking how our favourite skincare is made has become the new normal, and not just the preserve of hand-wringing middle-classes. Consumers earning £15,000 ($20K) or less are 5% more likely than their better-paid counterparts to buy from companies with ‘social and environmental impact.’
The ‘Fast-Fashion’ Behemoth
In January, Oxfam reported that some of fashion’s top CEOs earned a Bangladeshi garment worker’s lifetime pay in just four days. Meanwhile, our appetite for ‘fast-fashion’ has only increased.
Fast-fashion – a term coined when the high street went into overdrive over ‘boho-chic’ in the early 2000s and shops like Primark started clambering to churn out affordable celeb copycats of furry gilets and peasant skirts.
Today, online retailers such as Pretty Little Thing have taken the baton, replicating Kim Kardashian’s cycling short collection for a fraction of the price of Yeezy the minute Kim K was photographed in them.
In short, ‘fast fashion’ refers to an incredibly fast moving, mass-production lines of clothes designed to be worn once or twice, and discarded as quickly as they were made.
While it allows us to dress like our favourite tabloid heroes, it also puts enormous pressure on the warehouses making the clothes and creates the most monumental amount of waste as we regularly discard the garments.
Is This The Tipping Point?
It’s easy to see why the lure of affordable, accessible and catwalk-worthy clothing is a hard habit to stop, especially when so few clothing brands are getting sustainability right.
At this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit – which has become concerned with fashion’s slow ethical progress, Lily Cole mused:
I’ve worked with companies that put social responsibility at their core, and in every instance, there’s been a conflict of how to communicate that. There is a feeling that you turn people off by presenting your company as perfect. I feel like we’re at a tipping point where sustainability is becoming sexier, and people do care about it and think about it, and it doesn’t get associated with ‘hemp’. It’s a branding challenge, making it something that makes people feel good about shopping.
The demand for fast fashion shows no signs of slowing, as the global clothing manufacturing is expected to reach sales of $1.65 trillion by 2020, forcing the industry to put in place new technology that might save lives and ease our conscience.
The Fire That Killed Our Consumer Habits
At the end of 2012, a fire at a clothing factory in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka killed around 112 workers. Just five months later, again in Dhaka, the Rana Plaza disaster saw 1,134 workers die as a major clothing factory for brands including Primark, Mango and Benetton collapsed.
And it collapsed not because of natural disaster, but due to a breathtakingly neglected building heaving under the number of factory workers, confirming everything we didn’t want to be confronted with about how our clothes are made.
Within weeks of the tragedy, many significant retailers had signed up to the Bangladesh Accord, a legal agreement between brands, their suppliers and trade unions to improve clothing factory safety.
But further moves to a more ethical industry by major high street and online retailers have felt both slow, and motivated by public scrutiny rather than genuine concern for workers wellbeing.
Welcome To The Artificial Intelligence
Another after-effect of the Dhaka Fire and Rana Plaza, however, has been that manufacturers are shifting away from Bangladesh factories, towards factories in Accord-free Southeast Asia.
And this might be an excellent thing, for one particular reason: the region’s openness to new technology. In Thailand, for example, they’re testing how the introduction of cutting-edge technology could positively affect factory workers, instead of just replacing their jobs.
Long-time workers are being involved in the installation of new equipment and trained to be more digitally savvy, using new systems. In some places, these aren’t just machines being introduced, these are machines with intelligence.
A collaboration between China-based retailing giant, Fung Group, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the technology included machines being automated with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) to have the ability to control everything from sewing, cutting and mixing chemicals, but most importantly to also communicate with each other.
Taking AI in fashion production one step further, last year, an Amazon team in San Francisco created an AI fashion designer that examines images and copies the style, creating new items in similar styles from scratch. Hardly at haute-couture levels yet, but the fact that the technology exists is fascinating and indicates future possibilities.
Similarly, the Indonesian entrepreneur, Lingga Madu, set up Sale Stock, which uses AI to predict what styles will sell well, and what will fail. And far from contributing to the large waste output of fast fashion, there is the suggestion that this sort of technology could help cut waste down but ceasing production on styles that won’t sell.
What Is The Down Side?
Using AI alongside robotics in the hope of eliminating both the monotonous and downright dangerous tasks for factory workers is great, isn’t it? Not everyone, however, sees it in this way. In a report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) argued companies could not be trusted to equip and help educate regions like Southeast Asia.
Eventually, they argued, production would just be moved back to the West. Why shoulder the expense of teaching foreign factory workers thousands of miles away about AI, when new technology means production can now be done safely on your home turf?
Back in 2016, Adidas seemed to be moving this way, proudly announcing the opening of its Speedfactory in Germany, that would use machines to make their trainers. From the get-go the appeal was clear; local production clearly equals a tighter handle on how safely and ethically products are made.
This also avoids sticky situations, such as when one of Adidas’s suppliers, Pou Yuen – a Vietnam-based shoe factory that employs over 80, 000 workers –went on strike over employment rights.
Darrell West, a political scientist and author of The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation, is a little more optimistic about moving to manufacture away from regions like Southeast Asia, despite the potential job losses.
“Using robots for mass production will be introduced in the developed world first”, he says. “Then, the changes will start in urban town centres of developing countries. So, no, the factory worker from a small village won’t be the first to see these changes. But in a 10 or 20-year horizon these innovations will take place in every country and in every sector to relieve humans of the dirty, dangerous and mundane work and shield us from the worst consequences, which is a huge advantage”, he continued.
The Robots Are Coming!
Again, at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, during a not so subtly titled panel ‘The Robots Are Coming!’, the pros and cons of a digitised clothing manufacturing industry were weighed up. It was concluded that the tech would cause job losses but fill the gap with more employment opportunities than it destroys.
However, perhaps it’s the people and companies who own the technology we should be worried about. Pamela Mar, from Fung Academy, the learning wing of the Fung Group argued that workers want to evolve with the times.
“The digital economy is here and they feel worried”, so the responsible approach to automation enables workers to be trained and supported. But, she says, “it’s up to the corporate sector and government to transition from labour-intensive manufacturing by granting access to the support and education to do so.”
So it’s with great irony that the success of embracing our robot overlords in pursuit of safer, smarter and more efficient clothing factories, depends on corporations and government treating their current workers like humans rather than machines.
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Which would require the daunting task of admitting that centuries-old hierarchies favoured in big business need to be abandoned in favour of empowering the people who will know the tech the best: the workers on the factory floor.
Sadly, a truly sustainable and ethical future for fashion requires a seismic cultural shift in how humans work together and not just a technological one.