Garment factories are ramping up automation. What will it do to jobs?


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Jul 20, 2023

Garment factories are ramping up automation. What will it do to jobs?

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By Maliha Shoaib

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From mass-market to luxury fashion, brands and suppliers are automating more of their manufacturing processes to save time and improve quality. Where does that leave supply chain workers?

According to the latest Pulse report by Shimmy, a startup that offers gamified training to garment workers in Bangladesh, 80 per cent of factories in the country are planning to purchase automated machines in the next two years, up from 28 per cent in 2021. Each machine could displace one to six workers. Bangladesh’s garment industry accounts for more than 80 per cent of the country’s export revenue and employs over 4 million people. Shimmy predicts that the workforce will reduce by 5 per cent from the upcoming round of automation, amounting to more than 200,000 job losses over an 18-month period.

Pocket attachment, cutting and belt loop attachment are some of the most common areas that factories plan to automate. After purchasing advanced machines, 95 per cent of factories report additional output, which improves product quality, worker efficiency and ease of carrying out critical processes.

“An automatic thread cutter on a sewing machine might save a worker a bit of time, but it also removes the job of the helper who snips those threads, which is an entry-level job that leads to a position as a sewing machine operator or multi-machine operator or supervisor, so even those small things have the power to disrupt [the ecosystem] in large ways,” says Sarah Krasley, founder and CEO of Shimmy.

After the Covid lockdowns, clothing consumption jumped, which led to increased orders from factories. Factories hired and trained people quickly, but now a downturn in spending due to the economic climate has led factories to lay off workers and adopt automation to save money, says Krasley. The volatility in the supply chain has made it even more important to protect workers, offering them skills that will expand their job opportunities in a competitive market. For mass-produced clothing, this means training workers to use advanced technologies.

Workers at a garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.

By Laure Guilbault

By Madeleine Schulz

By Daniela Morosini

It’s not just a fast fashion problem. As the luxury market has consolidated and companies have listed on the stock exchange, pressure to increase revenues every year coupled with growing consumption has driven up production volumes.

Automation can help with speed as luxury starts to edge closer to the production capacities of the mass market sector, with lower priced entry-level goods like logo T-shirts. However, machine-made products are still not associated with the perception of luxury, and as such brands will continue to ask for small elements of handmade craftsmanship, experts agree.

Some of the biggest players in luxury including Prada and Louis Vuitton have already started to use technology such as robots, 3D printing and AI to create garments and footwear, says Samuele Shalloufeh, founder and CEO of Benario Consulting, an Italian luxury fabric and leather goods manufacturer, wholesaler, importer and facilitator. “[Technology] makes no mistakes, so it’s something that can perfect the garment.”

Consumer demand for handmade goods has been steadily shrinking over the years, and artisanal skills are declining as those skills haven’t been passed to new generations. However, many consumers still understand the value, says Shalloufeh. “I’ve worked in luxury for over 17 years, and even the biggest client I have wants the finishings to be handmade. When you say handmade it sounds more luxurious,” he says. “I don’t think [handmade] will go anywhere, because luxury consumers will spend more money on it than if they think something has been made with an AI system. AI is good for saving money, but mass-production isn’t special.”

With the rise of technology, a space will grow between the manufacturing processes used for the top luxury goods compared to those that are more accessible. “[The desire for handcrafted goods in ultra-luxury] doesn’t mean your mass market line or your ready-to-wear line won’t use machines to do stitching or other areas of production because they’re not at the price point that is going to require the exclusivity,” says Shawn Grain Carter, professor at Fashion Institute of Technology.

Benario Consulting’s Shalloufeh thinks a combination of technology and human beings will be the winning formula in luxury. “Humans on their own are not going to be perfect, and neither will AI. Together they’ll work perfectly if you know how to understand the [manufacturing] system,” he says.

As technological innovation continues to grow exponentially, social inequalities widen. Those with less access to lack digital literacy skills suffer because those skills have now become essential to most higher paid roles. “Workers in garment factories most of the time don’t have smartphones or basic levels of digital literacy, and it’s not an environment where experimentation is encouraged — in some cases it could result in job loss or punitive problems,” says Shimmy’s Krasley.

By Laure Guilbault

By Madeleine Schulz

By Daniela Morosini

Experts say there’s still a long way to go before some workers can gain a basic level of understanding of Web2 technologies like email, video calls, messaging services and social media — so, they’re way off beginning to tackle advanced technologies such as automation and AI. There are several barriers to upskilling that brands should be aware of, according to Anna Piper, Sheffield Hallam University senior lecturer in fashion management and communication, and Luciana Jabur, who runs (Hand)Made to Market, which generates marketable ideas to create jobs for Guatemalan indigenous weavers. Their joint research into how social enterprises can help to upskill Guatemalan artisans to work with digital technologies found that digital infrastructure such as wifi is limited, there’s power scarcity in homes, and there are 25 indigenous languages in Guatemala that can make it hard to provide training for all workers on a large scale.

Still, as new technologies continue to emerge, it’s important for factories to keep up to date and upskill their workers accordingly in order to have a competitive advantage.

This applies to the beauty industry, too. “We are focused on upskilling our talent and have found that getting employees actively involved from the onset when implementing new technology has been absolutely essential in our change management approach,” Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) head of North America distribution Ken Pickett says. At ELC, upskilling takes the form of live education sessions, training videos, shadowing, hands-on training and sending talent across to different sites to learn a new technology system first-hand. Engagement and education have helped long-term employees who were initially resistant to change to adapt, gaining more independence and autonomy over their work, says Pickett.

Inequalities also show up in gender discrimination. “Men are getting promoted for training for advanced machines at much greater rates than women. If there isn’t something to help women feel interested and confident, we’re going to be in big trouble because women will drop out of the workforce,” says Krasley. Around 80 per cent of garment workers worldwide are women, according to Fashion Revolution.

Around 80 per cent of garment workers worldwide are women.

By Laure Guilbault

By Madeleine Schulz

By Daniela Morosini

Zalando has been working with Shimmy since 2022 to upskill workers in its supply chain in Bangladesh, and has trained around 3,000 employees in digital literacy, efficiency training, gender equality, financial literacy, workplace communication and health and wellbeing. The company says 96 per cent of participants reported that the training was helpful for their current and future roles. “We want to take the responsibility we share for the people working in our supply chains seriously and support them to upskill themselves within the production process, but also with soft skills that they can benefit from at work, and in their future careers,” says a representative from the ethical sourcing team.

The programme was designed to put the needs of supply chain workers first, the representative adds. “We devised the upskilling project in close cooperation with suppliers, and also conducted a survey among their employees to include their ‘on the ground’ needs that helped us a lot in understanding and solving possible challenges.”

For Fashion Institute of Technology’s Grain Carter, the displacement of workers is less about technology and more about environmental damage. “Brands need to think about sustainability, we cannot afford to displace workers by polluting their rivers so they develop health issues and can’t work,” she says. “We can play an important role in using technology to make lives better for people. Instead of discarding [workers], we can upgrade their skills and upgrade their salaries because they have those skills.”

She argues technology is a neutral tool: companies that want to uplift workers can use it to help upskill them, but companies that have always exploited workers by chasing the lowest prices will use technology to reinforce that. “If you want to source goods internationally and you go with counties that have cheap labour, you have two choices: you get what you pay for, or you invest in those communities and train people with technology so we have a competitive advantage,” says Grain Carter, adding that it’s also an advantage to train domestically to get ahead of long international lead times.

Teaching supply chain workers in the Global South long-lasting skills can make them more self-sufficient and less reliant on working for factories that produce for Western brands and consumers. (Hand)Made to Market’s Jabur says this could be a step towards decolonisation.

While upskilling is in its infancy at the moment, experts say that it may shift from a nice-to-have to a must-have in the near future. “I see [upskilling] becoming part of ESG scorecards at some point,” says Shimmy’s Krasley. “The same way you need to be responsible for downstream impacts if you choose a really harmful chemical in your dyeing process, if you push automation in your supply chain you need to be responsible for the job losses that occur.”

Comments, questions or feedback? Email us at [email protected].

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