My Design-thinking class is working with a fashion firm who was once famous for employing an entire city to produce their garments. I mean, they had relationships with everyone from the folks who processed the wool, to the knitters and sewers, to the dye makers. You get the picture. In the mid-nineties, all of that changed. The firm started outsourcing production to Asia in order to keep up with their competitors who were doing the same. This firm that once had daily or weekly contact with all of the people along their product's value chain soon became just like every other fashion design firm - out of touch with the people who actually made their garments.
One of the questions we've been examining in class is "What is lost when a firm outsources production?" Of course there are obvious answers like the loss of jobs in the local economy. Or the loss of quality control - especially an increased difficulty in meeting compliance on environmental and labor standards. But other things were lost too, like the firm's ability to rapidly respond to the ever-changing interests of their consumers. Another thing that's lost is a sense of how and where and by whom is our stuff is made. And yet, we are trapped in this cycle of always wanting more.
Meanwhile, in other circles, excitement is growing about the ever-decreasing costs of rapid prototyping tools for laser cutting, 3D printing, and the printing of digital textiles. Additionally, there's this co-creation trend that you see on sites like CafePress that allow consumers - or prosumers (producer+consumers) - to design and manufacture their own stuff, like t-shirts. People want to make their own stuff and, more and more, they have the tools to do it.
Now, if you've been following Chris Anderson's "Atoms are the New Bits" or Bruce Sterling's "Spime Theory," then none of this is new to you. But I'm writing this here bc, well, it's been so much fun playing around with these concepts in class. These are exciting developments in technology and in behavior which, I hope, offer an opportunity to fix some of the things that are wrong with the globalized mass production machine we are engaged in at present.
How can designing our own t-shirts on the internet save the planet? Let me count the ways.
- SIMPLE TINKERING. I know what you're thinking - designing our own t-shirts WON'T save the world. And you're right. But as with any new technology, we hack the small stuff first just to get comfortable. So today we design our own t-shirts. Tomorrow we hack our own triple bottom line biz models.
- IT'S A KEEPER. If we design and manufacture our own stuff, we may feel more connected to that stuff and less likely to throw it away just bc something new comes along.
- JUST ONE. If we use rapid-prototyping tools to make our stuff, then we only need to make one, not ten-thousand.
- SIDE BUSINESS for GARMENT WORKERS. I don't think crappy jobs at Asian garment factories are going away soon, but what if there were better opportunities for those workers? What if we, as consumers, could tap into the creativity of the folks over in the factories in Asia? What if we could choose from some of their designs? And what if they could make a little dough every time we did choose their designs?
- LOCAL PRODUCTION. I now this seems antithetical to the previous point, but what if each city with a population of 100, 000 had their own rapid prototyping tools, right there in the heart of the city? Would the need for mass production abroad significantly decrease?