Apparel: the downside in going digital

Apparel: the downside in going digital

Digitalisation of apparel supply chains may bring efficiencies for brands, but while greater innovation is welcome, many workers face ending up being the losers

More than 85000 people descended on Munich last week for the annual sportswear trade behemoth that is ISPO. Visiting from 120 different countries, delegate numbers jumped 6% over last year, as industry representatives seek out new solutions, products, ideas and innovations like never before.

A breakout session hosted by adidas titled “Digitalisation as a growth impulse for industry and trade” apparently symbolised much of the chatter in the exhibition halls. There was the predictable excitement about the latest gadgets on show (ski poles equipped with sensor technology among them), but there was also plenty of debate and conversation about what digitalisation of the apparel sector might mean for supply chain sustainability.

Jobs to go

Building efficiencies into processes and operations clearly presents a number of social wellbeing challenges, not least the fact that many workers will likely lose their jobs to robotics and artificial intelligence in the not-too-distant future.

The impact could be significant. According to the International Labour Organisation, 56% of workers across Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are at “high risk” of displacement due to technology over the next decade or two, with close to half a million sewing machine operators in Cambodia alone at serious risk of losing their jobs “very soon”.

And Cindy Berman, head of knowledge and learning, Ethical Trading Initiative, accepts that from a workers’ rights and jobs perspective, there is a “great deal that’s worrying about the growth of the digital economy”, particularly for work in labour-intensive manufacturing – the area where jobs are at perhaps most risk from automation in the medium to long-term.

Workers of the world connect

There is of course an upside – digitalisation presents many opportunities too.

The power of technology, such as Labourstart, for example, an online platform for workers, is that it can enable workers to connect with one another globally, to “show solidarity with their struggles and in huge numbers” and put pressure on companies and governments to remedy rights violations, she argues.

Moreover, against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty for brands and retailers the world over, digitalisation potentially brings supply and demand – forever a bugbear for inefficient apparel companies – closer together.

Technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification) can help to improve visibility along the chain, improving responsiveness and faster execution. Mobile communications, cloud computing and improved data analytics can help manufacturers streamline their processes – from administration and production to capacity management.

Only what is required

Rather than producing more and more garments that will reach their market months later (out of season, and out of fashion), manufacturers will be better placed to produce only what customers order and pay for, reducing waste and helping to support leaner and greener businesses across the sector.

The digital revolution in apparel is being underpinned by a need for transparency and traceability, perhaps an irreversible trend. And in the workplace, potential benefits include the ability for better oversight, monitoring and control of working conditions. Berman says: “Cameras could expose issues such as excessive working hours, poor health and safety conditions, the use of child labour, or observing physical and verbal abuse.”

But that, of course, relies on commitment and political will from the companies meeting in Munich, and their counterparts throughout the apparel sector, to use the technology for these purposes. As Berman argues: “Companies may be more interested in using digitalisation to drive productivity, cut costs and reduce reliance on a stable workforce that has embedded rights and protection – at least in the eyes of the law.”

After all, if there are no workers, there are no rights that need protecting.

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