Is 3D Printing A Solution to Sweatshop Labour?

3D printers are still in their infancy, but they threaten corporate ways of greed slave labor.

Danit Peleg’s conceptual, 3D-printed collection (Courtesy Danit Peleg)

Danit Peleg’s conceptual, 3D-printed collection (Courtesy Danit Peleg)

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed in 2015, I passed by an article describing 3D printed clothing without much excitement. The week before, a story describing 3D printed makeup made its way onto my social media’s homepage. The week before that, 3D printed cars, pens, toys, buttons, and puzzles all became hot commodities to be sampled. The disinterested response in an oversaturated internet user like myself was certainly not for the technology’s lack of remarkableness. 3D printed organs recently made their way onto the scene, and with their arrival, the potential for advancements in the medical community is endless . However, in the 2010s, nearly every new upgrade in technology shouts at us like an iPhone ad, demanding our attention whenever we glance at a screen. A blasé response every now and again to a novel advent is to be expected.

3D printed plastic dress flows like fabric

3D printed plastic dress flows like fabric

On a warm September morning a few days ago, I stumbled upon an article by Bloomberg titled, “The Future of Fashion Is 3D Printing Clothes at Home.” This time, I chose to dive in and read up on fashion’s newest phenomenon. The reality of 3D printed clothing certainly has its unique set of drawbacks. Materialise, a Belgian software company that creates the technology for 3D printing to make virtually anything a computer can model, helped create several dresses in the Metropolitan Costume Institute’s Spring Exhibition. At the beginning of this process, the clothes were “stiff, almost like body armour,” according to Joris Debo, the creative director or Materialise. Changes were made to the dresses to make their “design more flexible.” However, even with their increase in flexibility, 3D printed fabrics still aren’t quite replicas of stretchable, soft materials like cotton or lycra. Thus, most fashion companies invest in 3D printers to create accessories, like jewellery and sunglasses. Nevertheless, technology is stepping closer and closer towards a new future, of printing dresses while on holiday, or downloading a sweater to wear during a cold Canadian winter.

The future of 3D printing at home

The future of 3D printing at home

For someone who is devoted to the idea of taking down sweatshops, the implication of the 3D printer is, of course, that clothing could be created without the use of exploited labour. To some degree, this would be true. An article of clothing printed at home would not require the weary hands of the world’s most vulnerable populations to sew it together. However, the 3D printing process itself may not be entirely separate from sweatshops. A 3D printer’s ties to, or separation from, sweatshop labour would depend on its manufacturer, and whether they choose to assemble their technology using adequately paid employees, or if they enlist the help of poorly waged workers to put together their products. At the moment, the fashion industry has compared the advent of the 3D printer to the arrival of the sewing machine. The convenience with which clothing could suddenly be created with the sewing machine’s inauguration in 1846 probably spurred similar utopian visions, of adequately treated and compensated garment labourers, saved by the arrival of new technology. However, contemporary times have indicated that the equitable treatment of a worker is contingent on policies created to protect their rights, rather than the insertion of a new product in their production line. There is no doubt that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the products available in the fashion industry absolutely. Whether this revolutionary change will involve modifying the garment industry’s labour policies is yet to be seen.

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About the Author

Sharon Kashani is a Masters of Arts in English Literature recipient from the University of Toronto. Upon applying for graduate school, Sharon was honoured to receive the major federal award for humanities doctoral programs in Canada, The Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS-SSHRC Masters Scholarship. Her SSHRC proposal, entitled Gender and Sexuality in Novelistic Works, described a project that aimed to chart the subversive tendencies of women writers through their depictions of sexuality and gender in novels. Most recently, Sharon has completed her Masters and is excited to now be writing for Trusted Clothes.

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