The Sewbo as the solution the sweatshops: the pros and cons to this mode of thinking

A few weeks ago, I discussed the topic of 3d printing as a possible solution to sweatshop labour. On September 22nd, the MIT Technology Review published an article on Sewbo, a start-up that has invented a way to feed fabrics into  sewing machines to create clothing.


In spite of general adoption in other industries, automation has made little headway in clothing manufacturing. The industry’s lack of automation is due to the challenges robots encounter when attempting to manipulate limp, flexible fabrics.

As noted by the MIT review, “sewbo avoids these hurdles by temporarily stiffening fabrics, allowing off-the-shelf industrial robots to quickly build garments from rigid cloth, just as if they were working with sheet metal.” A water-soluble, thermoplastic stiffener is applied to the fabrics to transform clothing into a solid panel. The fabric panels can then be easily held in place by two small robotic arms, before being permanently sewn together. After sewing gets completed, the water-soluble stiffener is removed with a single rinse in hot water, leaving “a soft, fully assembled piece of clothing.” The stiffener is recycled from the hot water for reuse.

The process simply “requires an off-the-shelf sewing machine and a robotic arm,” which is manufactured by Universal Robots and costs about $35,000.

On the one hand, the creation and widespread use of the sewbo would quite literally put an end to sweatshop labour. There would be no more need for thousands of women, men and children to sew clothes for western consumers.

On the other hand, the sweatshop worker would be out of a job. Ideally, a company that wants to put an end to sweatshop labour needs to facilitate new jobs for workers who will suddenly be put out of work.

History confirms the need for the creation of new jobs to avoid technological unemployment, particularly in the textile industry. With the popular spread of mechanized looms during Britain’s Industrial Revolution, artisans weavers were left wanting for work. A worker’s need for employment and technology’s ability to drastically change an industry’s working conditions must be balanced delicately.

In addition, companies that are devoted to creating solutions for sweatshop labour also need to have a wider aim: that of dismantling the geopolitical forces that lead to unfair wages in factory jobs. This is truly the only way the practice of exploiting workers will ever be made a thing of the past. This is truly the only way to obliterate the exploitation of workers.

“I have visited sweatshops, factories, and crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it. The foundation of society is laid upon a basis of . . . individualism, conquest and exploitation . . . A social order such as this, built upon such wrong and basic principles, is bound to retard the development of all. The output of a cotton mill or a coal mine is considered of greater importance than the production of healthy, happy-hearted and free human beings. We, the people, are not free. Our democracy is but a name.”

Unfortunately, the world is a large, complicated place, with social and economic structures that are rooted in the West’s and Global North’s exploitation of the East and Global South. To truly end the plight of sweatshop workers is in all likelihood as complicated of an endeavour as dismantling slavery in the Americas during the 1800s. It is important to keep this grounded perspective in mind, so as to not get discouraged into inaction, when change does not immediately occur with our new decisions and innovations.

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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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