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Lives through a lens 100 years: a history of the garment industry

28 Oct 2019

GENEVA – To mark the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) centenary year, Better Work (BW) has been delving into the agency’s archives to show how the clothing industry has evolved over the decades, from its origins, to the hurdles it has overcome and the strides it continues to make today.

Many of the sector’s present realities were already up for debate at the ILO Tripartite Technical Meeting for the Clothing Industry in 1964, when stakeholders from a number of countries met to discuss the most pressing issues of the era.

Back then, topics on the agenda included the decline in production leadership in Western countries, accelerated technological advancements and the emergence of new manufacturing hubs across developing countries.

The sprawling, global garment sector of 2019 is a relatively recent phenomenon. A look at its history reveals a complex evolution which, sooner or later, began to affect almost all countries worldwide.

The clothing industry, unlike the textile sector, was relatively small and unimportant at its inception around three centuries ago. Yet a new, cutting-edge invention transformed this picture. Storming the stage came the sewing machine, which changed the way clothes were made.

The emergence of cheap, ready-to-wear clothing – an entirely new concept  in the mid-nineteenth century – ensued. Meanwhile, socio-economic conditions in the West meant that large sections of the population could now afford not only sartorial essentials but accessories and far more.

Fast fashion and evolving trends

One hundred years ago, North America and Europe accounted for around 85 per cent of the world’s clothing production. Japan was the primary manufacturer in Asia, with some 77,000 sewing machines in its ready-made garment factories.

The global industry’s workforce rose to six million in the 1960s, mostly concentrated in Europe and North America. That number now exceeds 60 million and is largely Asia-based.

India, currently among the world’s largest centres for manufacturing and exporting, employs 12.9 million people in formal factory settings. In 1961, that figure stood at some 180 factories and around 16,000 workers.

China and Bangladesh are now the world’s first and second garment manufacturers, and other production heavyweights – formerly non-existent – like Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia have a big presence.

A major shift happened in the 1960s, when the importance of expanding international trade for developing countries became clear as many of the nations that previously bought their ready-to-wear clothes from the West or manufactured only for national customers began to hit the global stage as exporters. The low wages of employees in these countries offered major production cost advantages.

During the 1964 conference, ILO delegates in Geneva forecast that while the volume of exports from developing countries was still small, it would increase substantially in future years.

Today’s industry fulfils those predictions. The presence of female workers – who dominated the sector throughout – has also changed over the years.

At the time of the ILO Tripartite Meeting, the proportion of women workers was between 20 and 40 per cent in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the ratio of male and female workers was reversed in Africa and Asia as men were hired for economic and social reasons. In 1961, they made up 95 per cent of the workforce in India.

By the midtwentieth century, factories began to expand from their traditional small sizes and adopted mechanized production lines. Garments were transported on conveyor belts and their assemblage split up into short operations, each requiring the same working time. An article of clothing could enter and leave the production line in just one day, a technological advance that proved progressive beyond all indicators.

At this point, technical improvements and automation began to pose a dilemma for the ILO and its partners, who began to consider what the industry might look like in the future.

The Organization saw that every innovation, coupled with new working methods, was  having repercussions on the workforce. The transfer of some workers to other jobs, and in some cases their dismissals, would become inevitable.

As it became clear that automation would continue to find wider applications in the clothing industry, additional questions arose about how far this expansion  would go.

This is where the ILO and BW are investing; to train the workforce to keep pace with new technologies while consistently enhancing conditions for all those employed in an ever mobile trade.

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