After a summer hiatus, The Interline returns to analysing one or more vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news every week. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
What Labor Day means in a market where labour is either in short supply, or endures systemic inequality.
For our non-US readers, Labor Day 2021 occurred this Monday. And as a holiday designed to honour the organisation and unionisation of workforces, it came at a remarkable time.
As of today there are at least a quarter million fewer people employed in retail than there were in February 2020, and more than 600,000 retail workers gave up their posts in June of this year alone.
There is, to put it simply, a talent crisis in consumption markets. But while you might expect the bulk of those now-empty jobs to be public-facing, in light of the long-dragging COVID shutdowns of physical retail, the reality is that retailers are struggling to hire warehouse workers and other essential behind-the-scenes staff.
The reasons behind this historic moment in the domestic jobs market are multi-faceted, with many people re-evaluating their priorities post-pandemic, and with furlough schemes and direct deposits reframing the relationship between governments, private enterprises, and individuals. Whatever the causes at the root, though, this historic inability to fill jobs has occupied a lot of column inches – alongside too many “future of work” articles, occupied with the dynamics of remote work in developed countries, to count.
What hasn’t grabbed many headlines since the early days of the pandemic is the state of supply chain labour. When order payments were being withheld – and wages left unpaid – last spring, people were fairly united in condemning brands for reneging on contracts with their manufacturing partners, but since then the heat has been turned down on the scrutiny of the safety nets (or lack thereof) for the world’s garment workers.
But if the scale of empty jobs is significant in the US, it’s downright staggering overseas. Around 1.6 million garment workers lost their jobs in just seven Asian countries, with the average manufacturing worker who is still employed having lost two months’ wages or more, since factory owners claim they are being forced to tighten their belts.
Many of these jobs are likely to return as the fashion and textile industries pick up their pre-pandemic pace over the next twelve months, but this week provides pause for two reasons.
First, while many of the people who would previously have filled warehouse and distribution jobs in consumption markets are making a conscious choice to seek something else, most garment and textile workers overseas who are unemployed are there involuntarily. While factory roles are typically low-paying, they are often the only roles available, and while the perception is that these roles are also low-skilled, the reality is that valuable expertise is being lost in production markets just as it is closer to home.
Second, just as incentives are being designed to bring people back into retail, the same approach should be applied to bringing back the overseas workers who find themselves out of work today. And chief among these incentives would be for brands and retailers to make concrete commitments to paying their production labourers a fair (and ideally living) wage.
This is something that The Interline and Coats Digital dived into deeply this week, and while the timing is accidental, the alignment between the messages and the guidance contained in that feature and the dual realities of the future of work is strong.
Stepping stones: wearable technology where the technology is a secondary consideration.
At the end of July, The Interline wrote that the Web 3.0 era (chiefly the creator economy and MetaVerse components) could usher in a new age of wearables, in light of then-speculation that Facebook and Ray-Ban would soon unveil new smart glasses.
This week, those glasses were unveiled. And where previous wearables have been mostly quite conspicuous (Apple Watch excepted) in their integration of technology and fashion, these new devices have prioritised form over function – perhaps too far.
While Facebook’s ambition to become the defining MetaVerse company is well-documented, this initial foray into wearables is not an augmented reality device that will allow wearers to discover a data layer on top of reality, but rather a pair of quite routine-looking Wayfarers that incorporate a camera, microphone, touchpad, and speakers.
This is not to downplay what a feat of engineering these glasses are. Packing what appears to be a reasonable camera (for its size) and all the other functionality the Ray-Ban Stories include into a package that isn’t significantly larger or heavier than pre-existing frames is a significant achievement. But nevertheless, Facebook describes these as “first-generation smart glasses” for a reason: they are essentially convergence devices that take functions consumers already have in other devices – making calls, taking video, listening to music – and package them in a new format. And while the Ray-Ban stories seem to be falling significantly short of the capabilities of discrete devices like wireless earbuds and smartphones, the convenience of being able to shoot, listen, and speak without fishing a separate device out of one’s pocket could outweigh that.
Crucially for the fashion industry, this week’s unveiling suggests that, while the eventual goal for Facebook remains one or more wearable means of accessing the MetaVerse, there is a more immediate objective: making wearables that non-technical people want to wear. And if that means dialling back the smart elements, and using less-than-cutting-edge components, to prime the market, that may be just the sacrifice the segment needs to make to shed its reputation.
Similarly, this will be the kind of phased approach that fashion brands will need if they’re to integrate technology into their existing workflows, or to establish (or deepen) relationships with partners who will do the same.
And the best from The Interline this week:
As mentioned above, this week saw the publication of our latest in-depth exclusive (the third instalment in our series of supply-chain-focused collaborations with Coats Digital), which examined why people are still under-represented in sustainability strategies. And while other news published this week demonstrates the sustainability gains that are being made in the secondary market, brands that produce new goods are still wrestling with ways to build out their sustainability strategies to take account of people as well as planet.
If this week’s analysis has resonated with you, and your business is interested in assessing precisely what it means to benchmark supply chain labour and to make measurable progress towards more equitable compensation, the guidance contained in that feature could be a good starting point.
Other articles you may have missed during The Interline’s summer break include:
- Our previous collaboration with Coats Digital, which looks at why truly transparent supply chains must start on the factory floor.
- Our exclusive interview with smart manufacturing figurehead Joachim Hensch, who oversaw Hugo Boss’s large-scale digital production project in Turkey.
- Our detailed collaboration with PlatformE, which made the case for demand-driven production being perfectly suited to meeting the needs of the creator economy and “prosumers”.
- Our collaboration with NetVirta, which examined the looming precision problem in fit technology, and what can be done about it.