It often happens to us social scientists that a personal leisure-time activity tips over into an ongoing research project. In my own case this happened a few years back when browsing the John Lewis womenswear website late at night, first for winter boots and then a few months later for summer sandals. As I was doing so I was struck by the fact that had I taken the time to go into the Oxford Street store I might have seen perhaps 30 styles of leather ankle boots on display – maybe none in my size. Online, however, I found more than 100 pairs, available in all sizes, even after filtering for colour. After ordering via click and collect I was then informed that my boots would be waiting for me at the Holloway Road Waitrose within 48 hours. In that moment, I was struck by the sheer volume of shoes now being manufactured, part of what Anna Tsing calls supply-chain capitalism, in one of the many production centres across the world.
This increase in scale seems to go hand-in-hand with the general shift to fashion online. In the recent past choice was limited, even if one was to spend whole days shopping in any number of high street department stores. The new system also raises the question of where and for how long these shoes were stored alongside hundreds of thousands of others, and the logistical operation required to transport them from a warehouse. At the warehouse, possibly in the North of England, they will be loaded on to a conveyor belt, with robotic help, and from there to parcelling and bar coding, and then loaded into trucks for delivery to a North London Waitrose. Then one would have to factor in the human being, part of the new algorithmic labour force processing the orders and, maybe somewhere else, another cohort processing the payments.
It was, then, good timing. Around the same time I was moving on to the last strand of a research project on new business models among small-scale fashion designers in London, Berlin and Milan. This allowed us to investigate the impact that online purchasing was having on working lives in the urban creative economy, opening up the research project to a far bigger stage. A young up-and-coming designer might well be working as a side-line to fund their own label for a few months, or even just a few days a week, inside the studios of huge fashion corporations like Zalando in Berlin or ASOS in London. Or they might find the cost of installing the software and subscribing to a platform so inflated that they have to consider closing their own small brick-and-mortar retail outlet, in doing so moving from the need to employ a boutique assistant to look after the shop, to hiring a fashion-tech engineer. For whatever reason, it was clear that these changes to the sector have transformed the whole field of fashion.
But, despite its recent prominence in the public space of new environmental radicalisms, fashion remains overlooked by both labour activists as well as scholars. Its ephemerality, its whimsy and associations with not just femininity but with a superficial part of pop culture means that its role in the political economy has been less visible, grabbing attention only in moments of great tragedy such as the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013. Most fashion journalism has historically been keen to stay close to the big fashion houses in order to get seats at the shows with criticism duly muted (and, in the academy, fashion scholars are most often trained in art history). The more recent channel for fashion news and analysis, the hugely successful online The Business of Fashion website, is led by a corporate agenda and only now and then dipping into more controversial issues, instead achieving status as an insider’s bible for knowing about which CEO is moving to which new massively salaried post. In the last year BoF has carried advertisements for new posts in fashion software engineering, reflecting in this new occupational category a whole world of changes in consumer culture.
These are exceptionally well-paid jobs in what is now referred to as fashion-tech, but looked at from a different optic fashion-tech affords a glimpse into the further and a decisive moment in the ‘degradation of labour’. One would need to be a male senior citizen who has long been reliant on his wife for purchasing his socks, shirts and trousers to not be aware of the profound shift, from what historically was a retail transaction taking place behind the counter to a mode of purchasing by means of click and collect. The so-called death of the high street in the UK and its attendant job losses, mostly of women’s job, has in recent years become a hot button issue in British politics. In the first month of 2020 alone 10,000 retail workers were made unemployed, and an estimated 85,000 throughout 2019
Four points are worth drawing attention to here. First is that alongside this decline in the number of jobs in fashion, those which remain have become more casualised, and with a less permanent labour force, than was the case in the past. Retail was once a respectable working-class job, largely for women but with fairly well marked out training prospects, and day release courses for albeit modest managerial posts. One need only drop into a local Uniqlo branch today, or to a concession area in one of the remaining department stores, to observe that the workforce is now quite different; graduates awaiting another career pathway, students, gap-year young people, 6th graders thinking of applying to fashion college, and so on. There are still jobs for less qualified school leavers in retail, but because it is cheaper to employ staff on temporary contracts, these are shrinking by the day meanwhile their elders face redundancy from one end of the high street to the other.
The second point is that there are no longer the same prospects for women made redundant in this sector to be offered similar job just a few streets away. Jobs in retail within an easy commute have dried up and are harder to come by. Instead there is only work with worse terms and conditions, closer to zero hours or in a retail outlet requiring little or no specialist knowledge, all of which accounts for a further degradation of labour. And for those who take work in a fashion fulfilment centre, the jobs are also de-skilled; packing, stacking, and bar coding in vast warehouses on the urban periphery. Delivery services have traditionally been and remain men’s work.
The third point is that this transition marks a shift away from the founding principles of post-Fordism. Taking root in the UK from the mid to late 1970s, the essence of post-Fordism was to increase profitability through getting rid of expensive warehouses and the wastage of over-stocks. Thanks to just-in-time fulfilment and advances in customised production, dresses could be made almost to order from in-store EPOS systems, and in short-runs, thus enhancing their value to high fashion consumers. The new ‘beyond post-Fordism’ model marks out a digital mode of production dominated at shop-floor level by logistical (degraded) labour, by time-space expansion and acceleration (from freight and cargo to white vans and bikes), and ironically (or not) a reversion to the warehouse and a reliance on some of the most entrenched Taylorist principles of time and motion, now in the form of digital surveillance (control by code) stretching right across the various labour forces from bottom to top.
Fourth and finally is the incursion of the state into this field of digital labour. Signs of this emerged a few years ago in press reports about the Doddle collection points springing up in busy urban areas. Job Centres were assigning welfare-reliant mothers with under school age children tasks that included taking parcels from their local Doddle on behalf of their working neighbours, and then having their own homes as after-work collection points, at a rate of approximately 50 pence or less per parcel. Things have since moved on and if at a political level in the UK with Universal Credit there has been a move away from welfare-to-work in favour of welfare-in-work, then it is not surprising that low skill and low pay jobs in fulfilment centres come to be linked with the payment of in-work benefits which are in turn subject to various forms of conditionality.
A New Political Economy?
This click and collect economy is associated at the fast fashion end with companies like ASOS, and Berlin’s Zalando, and at high end with Farfetch and with what was once Net-a-Porter – now YNAP. If ASOS led the way in capturing the hearts of teenage girls and students wanting a party dress on a budget ordered from a laptop in the college library, Zalando made its way, spectacularly, to the top of the Deutsche Börse a few years back on the basis of appealing to the non-shopping habits of German males. Zalando has since expanded to become a major platform for thousands of fashion and beauty brands, and has most recently moved into providing delivery services for rivals like Adidas. Hovering above this whole field of activity is of course Amazon, but for fashion there remain some crucial questions of style that the Amazon model has not been able to respond to.
In line with the Silicon Valley economy, many of these companies are not, in the main, profitable. Instead they are pegged to the futures markets of financialised capitalism. Net-a-Porter raised millions of dollars of venture capital funding and delivered high fashion items to well-off consumers in branded elegant black vehicles, in doing so incurring considerable losses, until former CEO Natalie Massenet was sidelined and subsequently moved on to build up the fortunes of rival Farfetch (recently reported to have raised $250m for investment). Zalando presents a less volatile financial picture, though recent reports indicate some concerns about its over-reaching strategy.
From a labour perspective, we still have a lot more to learn about day to day working practices not just at the packing, bar-coding and delivery service levels but across this new ecology of work. Design graduates are typically drafted in alongside those qualified in media arts, photography and graphics. For senior roles Zalando has headhunted UK designers across the whole range of fashion and textile specialisms for several years now. At a lower level of job specification, our own recent AHRC funded research project found that many of these jobs were part-time, casual and done on a temporary basis, rather like the fashion retail jobs that are so rapidly disappearing. In Berlin we came across fashion design graduates doing packaging jobs, perhaps moving upwards to write three or four words of descriptive copy for the thousands of dresses or shoes on offer. Zalando also acts as a kind for magnet for many app designers and sustainable fashion producers in Berlin. In this respect we see the extent to which fashion is an integral part of the knowledge economy with the most growth in technology, engineering and logistical/algorithmic labour. Smaller fashion-tech companies including those providing platforms for emerging or independent designers find it a struggle to survive without regular injections of investment capital (one participant in our study, Not Just A Label, recently departed their London HQ to find a cheaper space to operate from in LA). Likewise independent labels confront huge obstacles with online sales, especially with the cost of working with platforms (Farfetch takes 30% commission on all sales) and then with returns. Overall, for such a large industry, relatively little research on the nature of work and employment has been conducted. It will take new generations of young scholars trained in both the social sciences and in critical fashion studies to set about this task. Otherwise we are reliant on BoF, alongside occasional pieces in the Financial Times and more orthodox research carried out by management studies academics.
What we’re seeing then is a pervasive levelling down of work by means of the state-endorsed degradation of labour in the fulfilment centres dotted across the country. In these kinds of jobs there are few chances for further training and for promotion or indeed for day release to improve qualifications. Flexible jobs with unpredictable hours may work for women with domestic and child care responsibilities but they in effect remove chances for getting to evening classes. This produces a female incarceration effect when it comes to the new world of low paid work. These warehouses are often sited in areas with high unemployment. It is hard to pin down what this might mean for working class women with few qualifications and who are unable to travel to out of town fulfilment centres. For now, we might surmise a move into the endlessly expanding low paid social care sector or to the check-out tills of the supermarket chains. For the younger graduates there is more competition for the dwindling number of upmarket retail jobs. And for the cohort of small-scale independent graduate fashion designers who took part in our three-city study (London, Berlin and Milan) what we found was risk-spreading by means of multi-job holding. Even in Berlin, where there remains some degree of public subsidy for fashion micro-entrepreneurs in the form of reduced rent for good quality shop and studio spaces, relying on a single source of income from fashion design work is unrealistic. In London the pathways for independent fashion revealed any number of seemingly customised solutions, from the widespread need for collaborations with well established companies to sub-letting, re -mortgaging, teaching jobs, moving to Margate or indeed to Lisbon, all the while being squeezed by the need to be able to deal with the speeded up rhythms of fashion-tech.
This all adds up to a fundamental re-calibration of work and that can be seen, even when we narrow our gazes to this specific fashion field, as a seemingly inexorable process of labour reform. Ned Rossiter, writing about digital labour, draws attention to the spatial dynamics wherein human labour finds itself re-located to ports, terminals and portacabins. ‘Logistics govern life, labour and things’. A feminist account, focusing on what this means for a largely female labour force in a traditionally feminised sector like fashion would need to consider the impact of coding and of the dominance of software engineering for a workforce that stretches from the machinists working in a traditional factory environment in Vietnam, to the designers now re-labelled as creative directors for whom click and collect requires a complete re-configuring of the fashion imagination. A radicalised labour politics would likewise need to work transversally for better working conditions and opportunities to upskill and gain better qualifications at the lower end of the production process and for those pushed out of retail jobs. For the younger generation of creative graduates the challenge might well be in how to campaign for organised labour across the portfolio career. Underpinning all of this is not just the return to the factory floor in the guise of the algorithmic warehouse, but also a new massification of labour with significantly reduced prospects for the post-Fordist capacity to develop a social brain or ‘general intellect’, as Lazzarato and others associated with the post-operaismo Marxism envisaged. The degradation of labour by means of ‘control by code’ closes down, or at least curtails dramatically, the prospects for new forms of organisation and resistance to emerge.
Angela McRobbie is Prof. of Communications Goldsmiths University of London. This article is based on a short lecture delivered at the Technische Universität Berlin conference January 30th 2020 titled Digital Economy and Spatial Refiguration.