|Whilst sustainability challenges are becoming increasingly urgent matters on global development agendas, societies have entered the ‘digital age’. Unsurprisingly, along the lines of the current zeitgeist technologies are often put forward as a solution to development issues. Nevertheless, in many cases it remains unclear to what extent digitalization can actually solve societies’ problems. Especially when it comes to the social consequences of technological interventions, a significant academic knowledge gap prevails.
In this research, the relationship between digitalization and social sustainability outcomes is explored by zooming in on the global fashion value chain. In recent years, technologies like 3D software, RFID tags, AVR, blockchain, and AI are changing the processes of the global fashion value chain. At the same time, the sector is notorious for its persistent substandard working conditions, especially for garment workers in the global south. Whilst social sustainability issues are a clear challenge for the sector, thus far there is little insight into how digitalization processes are affecting garment workers in the global south.
Based on theories of access, the main concern of this research is how digitalization affects the ability of garment workers in the global south to access their international workers’ rights. To understand this effect, first the modus operandi of the fashion value chain is set out. Second, the status-quo context of garment workers is elaborated on. Additionally, the main digitalization activities in the fashion value chain are outlined. Ultimately, through an analysis of existing data and supplementary in-depth interviews with industry actors, this research formulates four constructs through which digitalization of the fashion value chain affects garment workers: making fast fashion faster, transparency and traceability, automation and reshoring, and data privacy and ownership.
Although the results show that these constructs allow room for both positive and harmful outcomes for garment workers, based on current exploitative system dynamics disadvantageous outcomes for garment workers are most likely to dominate. However, this can be circumvented. For one through additional knowledge creation, and subsequently through informed decision making from industry actors and governments that is respectful to the value of garment workers in the global south.