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What Do the Technological Advances in Fashion Mean for Garment Workers?

As technological advances in fashion threaten to leave behind vulnerable garment workers, could the answer lie in our imagination?

Fashion styling and shopping app Drest. Photo: Courtesy

In April last year, a couple of months into total lockdown and as we were all getting accustomed to our Zoom meetings, online classes, and remote dance parties, I had the privilege of interviewing one of my heroes, Naomi Klein. Among other things, we spent quite a long time sharing our feelings about technology. Naomi said she heard Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, talking about this as a grand experiment: “So I think we should say: You’re right. It is. We’ve been living in Eric Schmidt’s grand experiment. And guess what? We hate it! You know, we’re not happy… Do you know anybody who’s enjoying spending this much time on screens, having this little contact with other humans? I think we should be grateful that we got this fast-forward vision of this Silicon Valley utopia. And we now know in our bones that we don’t want to go there.”

So here I am – one year on, still in lockdown, still working on Zoom, doing online classes, and at the beginning of another month of fashion weeks, where we will consume fashion digitally, virtually, and in ways we have never thought before (look at what The Fabricant has done in the realms of 3D fashion design and animation in the past few months…) – asking myself: do I like this future?

Drest. Photo: Courtesy

Before trying to give an answer, let’s unpack our technological fashionscape so far. Three or four years ago, everyone started to talk about how technology was the best friend of sustainability and how this epoch promised plenty of disruption. But I remember at the time thinking that whether or not this was welcome, it depended on how we steered a course through change.

Take increased automation, for example. Fashion is a human industry that relies on and needs people. Are we saying that we don’t want human involvement anymore? Or that we are happy to throw on the scrap heap approximately 70 million people currently in the supply chain, because we think we can produce more efficiently, even cheaper and even faster using technology? I hear too great an emphasis on disruptive technology targeted at the usual suspects. For example, how can the consumer consume products even faster, or how can we sell more; what technology will get this from runway into their hands before they have time to change their minds? How might brands deliver results and boost productivity?

What I am not hearing, though, is how all of this will impact the less visible people in the supply chain – the garment workers.

Rob Hopkins’ From What If to What Is. Photo: Courtesy

But then imagine the technology (and we don’t have to imagine too much because it’s starting to become a reality) if some of the spoils of the digital age were transferred to garment workers. Women with smartphones, able to monitor and report on their own safety conditions, to be in charge of their time and their piece rates. Imagine the enhanced transparency! Imagine if we use technology not just to monitor the sale of apparel, but also the story of its recapture, its disassembly, and reuse. This is where technology starts to become a force for progress. Imagine all the stories we could tell! As Rob Hopkins says in his beautiful book From What If to What Is, “In these times of deep division and deeper despair, if there is a consensus about anything in the world, it is that the future is going to be awful. There is an epidemic of loneliness, an epidemic of anxiety, a mental health crisis of vast proportions, a rise in extremist movements and governments, catastrophic climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity.” But there is plenty of evidence that things can change, and cultures can change, rapidly, dramatically, and unexpectedly – for the better. We do have the capability to effect dramatic change, Hopkins argues, but we’re failing because we’ve largely allowed our most critical tool to languish: human imagination. Imagination is central to empathy, to creating better lives, to envisioning and then enacting a positive future. Yet imagination is also demonstrably in decline at precisely the moment when we need it most.

Livia Firth with the founder of Drest, Lucy Yeomans. Photo: Getty

This is where the use of technology gets me excited – when it is used as a means to enhance imagination. With this in mind, for example, last year at Eco-Age we used technology to create a new narrative inside The Green Carpet Fashion Awards. We created the first event in the world to ever be produced and broadcast using four different kind of technologies – augmented reality, digital, holograms, and film. We used it to send out a strong message about using this period as a portal into a new era, where environmental and social justice underpins everything we do. And it was a huge success: we could involve talent all over the world without having them leave their locations, created films, and turned the iconic La Scala in Milan into the perfect magical world. Technology can also create much needed new business models for the fashion industry when it helps brands, for example, to move from selling clothes (unsustainable) to gaming – something that Lucy Yeomans, founder of fashion gaming platform Drest, understood a year ago. Let’s see what this year unfolds but technology as a tool to progress is something that makes me excited – otherwise it will be the emperor’s new clothes all over again.

Zendaya at the virtual 2020 Green Carpet Awards in a vintage Versace dress. Photo: Courtesy

Read Next: Livia Firth Highlights the Independent Designers Taking Matters of Sustainable Fashion in Their Own Hands

Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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