Livia Firth speaks at the WEF on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Fashion, June 2016

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If I gave you a round up of the latest news concerning environmental disasters and human rights abuses in the world’s fashion supply chain just in the last few weeks – we would surely agree that the disruption promised by The Fourth Industrial Revolution is desperately needed.

Well yes…. And no!

Because Industry 4:0 as we might also call this epoch promises plenty of disruption.  But whether or not this is welcome depends on how we steer a course through change.

Should this be a question of making decisions predicated on social justice and ethics? I would say loud and clear yes!

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For the last 10 years I’ve been particularly invested in the reality experienced by approx. 70 million real people currently entrapped in the fashion supply chain to meet our insatiable consumption appetite (fed by a multi billion profit making fast fashion model which now is presumed as being the norm).

Some of the biggest names in fashion have used their dominant position to leverage poverty wages. Between 2001 and 2011, wages for garment workers in most of the world’s leading apparel-exporting countries, including Bangladesh, fell in real terms.

So my first question is – what does the Fourth Industrial Revolution hold for these 70 million people – the garment workers and predominantly young women?

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During the early part of the First Industrial Revolution (they probably didn’t call it Industry 1:0 by the way!)  – clothing was of course front and central.

When James Hargreaves, a Lancashire weaver, invented the Spinning Jenny in the 18th Century, he made production faster.

The Spinning Jenny was really the first innovation to demonstrate mechanical advantage.

Now I’m not saying Mr Hargreaves could have forecast Zara’s super responsive logistics network, but in a way he sewed the seeds of fast fashion.

The rest, as we say, is history.

Fashion got quicker and quicker, production automated and outsourced. But through subsequent industrial revolutions we have never managed to fix the essential problem….

From slavery in the cotton fields to the first mills employing women and children in horrendous conditions, apparel production has never been able to balance production with human rights.

We always think we can make the right decisions, but we have never yet – in human industrial history – done so.  People and Planet are always an afterthought.

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The Rana Plaza catastrophy of 2013 killed 1134 garment workers – predominantly young women – so my second question on the Fourth Industrial Revolution is how will it respect and protect the humans in this supply chain?

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One of the most simplistic predictions around Industry 4:0 is that increased automation simply removes troublesome humans from the equation.

Against the backdrop of an exploding global population, the fear is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution could spell a social crisis on a scale we haven’t yet witnessed.

The dystopian nightmare which we are all pretending we are not a part of.

I’ve read projections that this sector will lose 70-80% of jobs in their current form as the next industrial revolution takes hold.

But this IS a human industry – this is an industry that relies on and needs people.

Are we saying that we don’t want human involvement anymore?

Are we now saying that we are happy to throw on the scrap heap these 70 million people currently in the supply chain because we think we can produce more efficiently, even cheaper and even faster using technology?

Ultimately the real point is – whether more jobs in the supply chain will get automated or not – nothing should be incompatible with workers rights, with protecting that human capital.

And today we have a choice to make.

Since the bar is currently low – my third question of Industry 4:0 is how do we make sure it is actually a force for progress?

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The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in many ways a maturation of the third, digital Revolution.

And we should remember that we should not be passive – but active citizens.

We should be the designers, the architects and the instigators of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It can’t just happen to us! It must be a collaborative process too.  We must make the choices today to ensure that the eradication of human capital from our supply chains is not our future.

Also today, thanks to the Sustainable Development Goals, we have a 17 points plan laying out social and natural capital goals. This is important! The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not exempt from these although currently no one is talking about it.

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Predicting the future is a famously perilous business.

But when I follow the debate I hear too great an emphasis on disruptive technology targeted at the usual suspects – how can the consumer consume this product even faster? How can we sell them more stuff? What technology will get this from catwalk into our sweaty hands before we have time to change our minds?  Or how might brands deliver results and boost productivity?

But I’m hearing almost nothing on how it will impact the less visible people in the supply chain – the garment workers, these 70 million breathing and living human beings.

Dare I remind you that a Fourth Industrial Revolution that promotes unsustainable consumption or discard human rights is not any type of revolution that makes sense.

So, you’ve guessed it, my fourth question is for the real people in the supply chain: what do you want from the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

And how do we ensure women are not left behind.

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At Eco-Age we love real disruption.

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 smart phones, 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. We are already seeing this in other areas. In the Spring I travelled to Brazil’s main cattle state to see how rancheros are using satellite technology to eradicate deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon through leather production.

There is so much potential if Industry 4:0 is activated throughout the supply chain (not just driven and manipulated by those who currently have the most power).

Imagine the potential for working with artisanal producers, who are often by the way, custodians of biodiversity. Imagine if we use technology not just to monitor the sale of apparel, but also the story of its recapture, its disassembly and reuse.

After all the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be also compatible with the protection of natural capital, bio diversity, and a productive Circular Economy.

Rather than a question, I’m ending with a request.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a unique opportunity for the human race to break the mold.

For fashion, a full-spectrum industry with a number of serious issues, this is especially important.

Let’s not miss this great opportunity for a revolution which actually serves the interests of humanity as a whole.

This is, I believe, the time to look outwards and to think big and expansively and make the right choices so that our children can actually thank us instead of wondering why we let the apocalypse just happen.

Collective action is the most powerful of all – and the Forth Industrial Revolution is its most formidable ally.

Thank you.