THE EMPLOYMENT KILLER: ROBOTIC APPAREL MANUFACTURING. IS IT A PROBLEM?
Robots are no longer a futuristic fantasy but now a reality and the essence of technological improvement to day-to-day life. The ability to create a machine that can replace daily actions has blown away the commercial landscape over the last few decades. Ranging from day to day tasks (ex. the use of an automatic vacuum cleaner) to large scale corporations (ex. drone deliveries via Amazon), robots have paved the road to an unprecedented boom in commercialization. In terms of retail, think fast fashion. Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the presence of fast fashion, aka mass produced cheap clothing. Companies like Shein, Romwe, Zara and Aliexpress have gained public attention and appeal due to their ability to produce insane numbers of clothing and styles quickly and cheaply. Shein CMO Molly Miao informed Forbes that Shein drops “700-1000 new styles daily.” Putting the incredibly negative environmental effects of Shein’s choice of material, mass production, and ethical disregard aside, how is Shein, and other fast fashion brands, able to produce mass amounts of apparel daily?
Machinery. Fast fashion utilizes extreme amounts of robotic instruments to speed up the production process. The automation of sewing and fabric development has taken the industry by storm. At the Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters Ltd. factory in Bangladesh (a factory that makes sweaters for H&M and Zara), hundreds of employees have been replaced by 173 German-made machines in the last 8 years. As labor costs climb, even in developing countries, new robotics that handle difficult tasks in the apparel industry, including sewing and stretching fabric, is an appealing alternative to tedious human labor.
Another example of a new venture is found within the fast fashion enterprise Tobi. Tobi utilizes robotic technology to increase order efficiency and accuracy—a job that would have previously been completed by employees. Similarly to Mohammadi, Tobi’s use of robots replaces positions traditionally held by people. In terms of the specific robots that Tobi utilizes, like inVia robotics, there is no on-staff engineering required. Kenneth Chan, Tobi’s founder and CEO, states that “in order to...continue to wow our customers we needed automation to deliver.” Lio Elazary, founder and CEO of inVia Robotics, believes that warehouse automation for e-commerce retailers is a competitive advantage. However, while e-commerce sales continue to grow, unemployment ratios consistently increase in a number of developing countries, as robots take over human jobs.
The Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters Ltd. factories have replaced about 500 workers with machines and intend to buy more in the future. While this has resulted in greater efficiency and profit, the employment effects have been catastrophic in Bangladesh. An International Labor Organization study from 2016 predicts that some Asian countries could lose greater than 80% of the current apparel employment availability as automation spreads. Furthermore, the director of MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Erik Brynjolfsson, states that as automation progresses, most jobs in the future will necessitate greater training, an area in which developed countries thrive, contrary to the repetitive tasks controlled by poorer nations, and now robots.
It’s easy to see how fast fashion has changed the world we live in today, but this is not necessarily for the better. While robots are able to decrease pollution, ethical mishaps, and negative environmental effects (the surface level problems of fast fashion), a deeper dive reveals that fast fashion’s quick switch to automation to succeed in the heavily competitive industry decreases job availability in underdeveloped countries. Thus, this will lead to unprecedented levels of unemployment predominantly in countries already struggling to grow today. So next time, before you order from Shein, Zara or Aliexpress, remember, fast fashion is killing employment as we know it today.