By Russ Jowell
What “The Matrix” may tell us about the coming year in the garment industry
One of my favorite movies growing up was “The Matrix.” For those who haven’t seen it, it’s basically an examination of the idea that the “real world” around us is merely part of a projected virtual reality created by a race of vastly superior robots meant to keep us humans distracted as they use us as batteries. But the overall plot of the movie is not what is important. What is important is a scene where the protagonist “Neo,” played by Keanu Reeves, learns that a red pill he just accepted from master hacker “Morpheus,” played by Laurence Fishburne, is essentially a mini homing device that can track him anywhere within the virtual digital world he is about to enter.
The actual exchange goes like this:
MORPHEUS (to Neo): “The pill you took is part of a tracing program. It’s designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signals so we can pinpoint your location.”
NEO (confused): “What does that mean?”
CYPHER (one of Morpheus’ technical associates): It means buckle your seat belt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye.
At some point over the next year, I think we as fashion pros are all going to be wish we had taken the red pill, because unlike Neo who was presented with a “Red Pill, Blue Pill” option of entering the brave new world before him, on January 1, we as a fashion industry were forced out of our proverbial “Kansas” and led straight to a brave and curious new world the likes of which we have never seen before. What I’d like to do today is look at two overarching forces that I believe will push us down this proverbial “rabbit hole” and what it all means for your business, global trade, and the world at large.
A new President in the White House:
Whether you like him or loathe him, whether you support his policies or not, I think we can all agree that newly-minted President Donald Trump made some bold promises on the campaign trail and so far, has been wickedly efficient in at least attempting to implement many of these promises. He now leads the government of the world’s largest consumer market, and his decisions are already having a global impact. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, enough, I do think that one of his hallmark campaign promises will come to fruition for the fashion industry, though I don’t think he deserves credit for it. I’m speaking of the return of American manufacturing. Trump took a decidedly “America First” tone during his campaign and has already begun forging a path toward this goal by pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and pushing for greater taxation of imports, among numerous other actions. In light of this, I’m convinced that the impetus of the American fashion manufacturing resurgence happened way before Trump even considered making a run for the White House. Fashion consumers have become increasingly savvy lately to the concepts of outsourcing and “fast fashion,” and perhaps more importantly, they have become aware that these concepts were born out of consumer demand and that the same consumer power can force companies away from fast fashion. I think in 2017, we’re going to see an increase in the “slow fashion” movement where consumers seek out smaller, more boutique companies for less-frequent apparel purchases instead of the classic “fast fashion” model driven by the global “legacy” retailers. While there will never come a time when all U.S. fashion demand is satisfied within our borders, rising prices in China, instability in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan, and last year’s bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping (which many major brands used to get their products to market from Asia), will prompt many companies to move their production closer to market in places like Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The bottom line is that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about “Made in America” this year, whether it’s America the country or America the continent.
A new worker in the factory:
While we may be seeing a resurgence of American manufacturing, what we won’t be seeing is a return of the classic American manufacturing worker. A litany of irreversible societal shifts has all but assured that museum images depicting rows of seamstress toiling away in a New York or Chicago garment factory will not be coming back to life anytime soon. So where will we get the labor to support this new era? For the answer, we go back to “The Matrix” and Agent Smith who near the end of the movie declares “never send a human to do a machine’s job.” Robotics, AI, and automation were undoubtedly the business buzzwords of 2016, and will continue to influence decisions in 2017. If “cheap to market” was the fashion industry mantra of the 20th century, then “near to market” will be the fashion industry mantra of the 21st century. For all of the reasons stated in the prior section, a whole host of companies pushed to move production closer to consumers last year. Take Adidas, which opened its first fully-robotic “Speedfactory” in Germany with plans for others in the United States. There’s also Georgia-based SoftWear Automation, whose bionic seamstresses can cut and sew plain tee-shirts with minimal human intervention. More recently, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a major grant to advance robotic manufacturing technology for several industries including apparel. This phenomenon is not merely a Western one either. Prosperity has no doubt come of age in China, and the young, agile workers who formerly flocked to the Eastern garment factories in pursuit of economic opportunity are learning that there are more highly-skilled, less mundane, and more upwardly-mobile jobs that they can take outside of a garment factory, leaving many factory operators with no choice but to turn to robots for their manufacturing.
What does it all mean?
A new President in the White House and a new kind of worker in the factory. Two developments that are already having a major impact on the global fashion industry and will continue to push us further down the rabbit hole. The slogan of a major university in the U.S. states that “What Starts Here Changes The World.” While we’ve focused mainly on changes and advancements in the United States, as you might expect, when the world’s largest consumer market shifts, the rumbles are felt all across the world. For instance, a country like Bangladesh is going to have to contend with the fact that the very industry their economy is built on, human garment factory labor, may very well be obsolete in the next decade. And those countries and companies banking on the success of the TPP will now have to head back to their strategic drawing boards. Indeed, 2017 promises to be both a simultaneously fascinating and nerve-wracking year for our industry.
Russ Jowell is a blogger and award-winning podcaster focused on ethical fashion and empowering consumers at all levels to make more sustainable purchasing decisions.