The Cost of Automation in the Fashion Industry


Fast fashion is the latest trend in America as consumers sift through the ever-changing racks at some of the largest retail stores today. Tons of carefully cut denim jeans, shirts, and shoes are all at shoppers’ fingertips for a low price. But clothing companies have found a new way to increase profits while they churn out the latest styles for customers: automation.

Automation is not a new endeavor. The automobile industry quickly took to robotics to replace humans at the assembly lines while retaining a few workers to act as operators and overseers of the machinery. The fashion industry had been spared from automation because there had not been a need to introduce it. For years, large retailers have outsourced their companies to developing nations to take advantage of low manufacturing costs and hire laborers at low wages. More often than not, the manufacturing facilities located in these developing nations end up as sweatshops, where employees are paid minimally and coerced to work long hours in poor conditions.

There is no argument;sweatshops are ethically wrong. However, it is important to note the complexities of the garment industry within developing nations in order to truly comprehend the dilemma of introducing automation.

According to the Wall Street Journal, apparel brands began to establish their factories in Bangladesh, where years of famine and military coups hurt the newly independent nation. The garment industry took root, with exports nearly tripling, bringing many out of poverty. It has been so successful that today, three million people are employed in clothing manufacturing. Nike,a successful brand, is one of the largest companies that outsourced to developing nations. According to Financial Times, it provides 1.02 million jobs in 42 countries. Despite accusations of tolerating sweatshops and low wages, Nike provides employment, which are the livelihoods of many.

For a long time, there was no threat of automation within the industry.While machines were in use, the meticulous work that fabric demanded required human hands to be involved. With the development of technology, robots called “Sewbots” can quickly cut fabric or sew together finished garments-a task previously handled by humans as the fabric is too soft to be properly sewn by machines. The International Labor Organization released a report in 2016, which estimated that within a few decades, 56% of employment in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam will be replaced with automation-especially within the garment industry.

Though that may seem far off, the industry has started to witness the change in practice.Back in Bangladesh, Nazma Akter, a union leader, reports that factory owners are less intimidated by worker objections with the increase in automation. Zara’s sweater supplier, The Mohammadi Group, has replaced 500 workers with machines in the past six years. As of 2017, their knitting process in the factory became fully automated. In addition,Adidas recently opened shoe production plants that favored fast machinery over living, breathing,cheap laborers.

So long as consumer demand rises, companies will continue to cut costs wherever possible to keep up with supplies and output.Although human workers in the garment industry will not be completely obsolete, at least not in the near future, workers are faced with eventual displacement. While we may think little about the trendy clothes that make its way in and out of our closets,it is worth noting that the cheap price tag comes at a high cost.