Every week, The Interline analyses up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

As well as solidifying changes in consumer behaviour, the post-pandemic era could be a stress-test for brands’ and retailers’ readiness to attract and retain creative talent that’s not willing to compromise on ethics or I.T. environment.

With the fashion retail industry now firmly entering its post-pandemic phase, a lot of column inches have been dedicated to the changes that are becoming set in stone on the consumer side. And while there’s still a lot more to be said about the variance in recoveries country-by-country (and even city-by-city), and in how consumer behaviours may or may not evolve as physical retail begins to operate at full capacity again, this week underlined the equally tectonic changes that could be quietly taking place in the talent landscape – and the areas that brands and retailers may need to focus on in order to bring in the creative people they need.

First of all, it’s important to note that the overall jobs market for fashion is shifting in major ways beyond brand HQs. This week alone saw one of North America’s largest retailers pioneering a truly cashier-less store – a degree of automation that could very soon have a significant impact on the role of the sales associate – and new proof points for the potential of artificial intelligence and robotics to automate difficult inter-operational tasks in manufacturing, such as passing items between stations. To put it simply, automation could very soon be taking over a lot of roles at the two extreme ends of the fashion retail spectrum – making and selling.

In between those extremes, though, are the creative, commercial, and operational teams that plan, design, develop, and bring products to market. And while automation is not being applied to these areas in earnest yet, the post-pandemic period could still herald something of a tipping point in the relationship between brands and the talent they want to attract and retain.

This week saw the publication of the latest in Deloitte’s long-running series of surveys that capture the attitudes, values, and feelings of Generation Z and millennials. This is quite a large cohort, since it encompasses anyone born between the early 1980s and approximately 2021 – after which Gen Z becomes Generation Alpha. In essence, though, the survey is designed to reflect the attitudes of two stages of career and personal progression: older millennials (which make up a good percentage of The Interline’s contributor base) who are in their late 30s, and younger millennials and Gen Z, who are in their mid-to-late 20s.

Older millennials, despite being labelled as notoriously fickle and eager to move jobs, are more than likely approaching the stages of their careers where they are embedded within the organisations they work for. This is the creative and commercial talent pool that is likely to be trying to enact change from the inside – either spearheading or supporting technology initiatives that they believe will both further the company’s goals and improve the day to day lives of people around them.

From a brand or retailer’s perspective, older millennials are the staff that will require investment – in platforms and systems – to retain. As COVID starts to wane, these will be the people who feel the most acute pressures of heightened market demands if their working environments are not optimised to meet them. And as a consequence these will be the staff who may look to move companies in order to find the right technology support, and the right I.T. environment to enable rather than frustrate their creativity.

The younger millennial and Gen Z talent pool, though, has much more complex demands. According to the Deloitte survey, this demographic has a pessimistic outlook on how businesses are likely to manage the post-COVID rebound, with 60% believing that sustainability will be deprioritised as brands and retailers seize new opportunities for growth.

This matters for two reasons: first, more evidence is constantly emerging that younger shoppers’ commitments to sustainability are genuine, and that buying decisions are being made (or unmade) depending on the strength of a given brand’s sustainability credentials. Second, this same age group is also making similar value-driven decisions about the brands they are willing to work for; between 40% and 50%, depending on age bracket, have reported making decisions about the employers they will consider based on personal ethics and business values, rather than purely mercenary considerations like location and compensation.

To frame these statistics a little more specifically for fashion: our industry is among the most scrutinised when it comes to sustainability, which means that at least half of the future talent pool, across the full range of disciplines, will be determining which brands to work for based on their actions – not just their stances – on environmental and social issues.

The burden this will place on brands’ and retailers’ in-house and supply chain systems cannot be overstated. It’s one thing to declare a public commitment to using only recycled materials, or to paying a fair living wage to everyone involved in a given product’s value-chain; it’s another to make sure that anyone coming into the business is given the right tools to actually access and subsequently grow that visibility.

The most obvious manifestation of the post-COVID workplace is likely to be the demand for hybrid working arrangements (this, too, is mentioned in the Deloitte research), but while those changes could be profound if they last beyond the immediate post-pandemic period, the shift in the composition of the fashion talent pool is a guaranteed transformation.

On top of working to satisfy consumers and regulators, fashion now needs to take measurable steps towards systematising its sustainability commitments if brands and retailers want to be able to attract and retain the right talent.

And the best from The Interline this week:

This week we published an exclusive opinion piece from Ben Hanson, which argued that the same principles that underpin rapid global distribution of data could be applied to create a Content Distribution Network for fashion production.

Still to come in June: an exclusive interview, the first in a series of exclusive brand case studies, opinion pieces, and more.

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