As a global society, we spend a lot of time pondering about the future. Considerable energy is focused on postulating and predicting about how we might get around, what we might be eating, and how we might be working at a given point on the temporal horizon. It’s a worthy pursuit to be sure. After all, the entire world of business depends on staying “one step ahead” of pretty much everything. With that in mind, I don’t think any past futurist of fortune teller could have predicted that we would be where we are today in terms of technological and societal advancement. The Silicon Valley renaissance that began in the middle of the last decade has disrupted nearly every current arena of human endeavor. Rapid developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and data processing are opening doors to driverless cars, computerized service providers of every kind, and perhaps most significant to this discussion, fully-automated garment and textile factories whose personnel needs are a mere fraction of the average human-staffed production facility. As the garment manufacturing industry explores new geographic horizons for its production is places like Africa, it must also begin considering and preparing for the possibility of a sea-change in the way they do business brought on by a fast-approaching technological horizon.
First, let’s look at exactly where we are on the road to this brave new world. Admittedly, the global garment and textile industry has been slow to widely adopt automated manufacturing simply because the machinery needed to complete the tasks involved in the manufacturing process was either not available, or if it was, it was prohibitively expensive. Manufacturers are, after all, businesses first and foremost whose financial priority is to produce goods at the highest profit margins, and lowest costs, possible. Throughout the 20th century, this fact was the catalyst behind the creation of the international, interconnected supply chain that exists today. As consumers began demanding their clothes cheaper and faster, Western brands began migrating their manufacturing East to places like China, India, and Bangladesh, where wages were, at the time, significantly lower than those in the United States. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that deep down, many apparel brands and retailers would prefer their goods made as close to their final markets as possible, and if there was a way to bring their manufacturing closer to home while maintaining the price points, quantities, and speed-to-market that exist today, it would be adopted in a heartbeat. At the recent “SOURCING at MAGIC” event in Las Vegas, one of the panels discussed technology that could eventually allow t-shirts to be made in as little as 22 seconds each at a fraction of the cost of producing the same product with human labor. This concept has gained significant interest lately as incidents like the bankruptcy of the Hanjin shipping company and a push by U.S. President Donald Trump to incentivize U.S. manufacturing (and frankly discourage offshore production) have forced companies to re-evaluate the proposition of “re-shoring” their manufacturing.
While robotic manufacturing may be all fine and good for apparel brands and their consumers, the fact is that the consideration of automated manufacturing in the garment and textile sector is not merely one of economics and profits. Upwards of 40 million people in all corners of the world work in garment and textile manufacturing, to say nothing of the fact that many of those workers are also the sole earners in their families. Millions of these workers reside in what is known as the “Global South” which includes many of the world’s less developed countries and regions. In Bangladesh for instance, the over 3 million workers of that country’s garment industry are responsible for over 80% of the nation’s overall export income. That figure only represents the products of labor. Bangladesh’s small size and dense population means the country has little of its own agricultural activity and thus, has little capacity to grow and export cotton. The main “product” of Bangladesh is the labor of the millions who take raw textiles like cotton and transform them into finished garments every day, and in fact, much of this labor is concentrated in the final phase of production before shipping known as “Cut and Sew,” the very process that Western innovation is working to automate. Unlike in many Western countries with more diversified economies and more developed educational systems, countries like Bangladesh currently do not have the capacity to pivot over 3 million people into a new industry, which itself may not even have the ability to create the necessary jobs for that kind of transition. It’s easy to point fingers at the government and industry groups and accusing them of hindering economic diversification, but it’s also important to remember that Bangladesh is following the same “aid-to-trade” path that so many other nations have followed before it, even if it is in a time of unprecedented change.
This is simply an example of what may be in store for the global workforce as technology continues to advance, on that can easily be ported to several countries in Africa, which as we know, is being touted as the “new frontier” of sourcing. Over the past weeks, our newsletter has featured several stories about many African nations that are basing several of their economic growth initiatives, and by extension job creation initiatives, on the manufacture and export of garments and textiles. While it’s admittedly too early to tell whether automated garment manufacturing will be a friend or foe to the current, human-based system, it is decidedly not too early to recognize the rapid pace at which this technology is developing and to begin considering the possible consequences it could have on this industry.