Fast Fashion and Fast Software (Part II)

Now that Fast Fashion and Fast Software is gaining more traction, how will this approach affect our society as a whole?

Categories: Consumer and Retail

In my previous blog, I introduced the topics of Fast Fashion and Fast Software and explored both the benefits and drawbacks for each industry. Now that this approach is gaining more traction, how will it affect our society as a whole?

In Fast Fashion, concerns about consumerism fall into three camps—those concerned that we are producing too much stuff that needs to go somewhere today and long-term; the psychological, addictive effects of getting a cheap and regular fashion fixes; and finally, the erosion of quality. As the father of two daughters, I concede to the first concern: the clutter produced by the accumulation of plentiful, cheap clothing can indeed become an issue. A glance at my childrens’ rooms when they were young would be all the evidence required to validate this point. The concerns about quality and “addiction” are related to each other and also have merit.

However, most observers would have to admit that Fast Fashion can make chic, attractive and often well-designed clothes affordable to a greater and greater number of people. For many of these buyers, high quality of materials and construction is not a primary concern. Having the right piece for the right look at the right time, at a price that lets them continue to stay trendy and current, is what matters to a sizeable number of customers. These buyers believe clothing should be available, good-looking and fun—not a serious long-term investment. Fast Fashion therefore fulfils the desire of many to look stylish and trendy at a price they can afford while, at the same time, also bringing great success to its manufacturers. From this standpoint, Fast Fashion is a win-win.

Fast Software offers its equivalent of clothing clutter: the proliferation of mobile applications. At this writing, there are over 1.5 million distinct applications available for download in Apple’s AppStore[1], with over 1,300 new applications—not updates—being added per day. Android has even more, with about 1.6 million applications available on Google Play. While the typical smartphone user has dozens of applications—about 50—installed on their phone, some people install hundreds. The results are analogous to the clothes in my daughters’ bedroom. And not only are the applications themselves proliferating, so are the devices. One astonishing fact is that in a given period of time more new smart phone accounts are activated worldwide than babies are born—by a significant margin.

Smart phones can be as addictive to some as fashion is to its audience. The average person in the UK spends more time using a digital device than they do sleeping[2]. The average U.S. consumer spends 4.7 hours per day on their smart device[3]; 85% of it using apps[4]. That’s more time than they spend face-to-face with either their spouse or their children. The concerns regarding software and hardware consumerist culture are similar to those for the fashion industry. Will the constant production of smartphones and/or shirts and skirts negatively affect our environment when we toss them for the next big thing? How will the addiction to downloading the shiny new app or buying a trendy new shirt negatively affecting our society in the long run? Overall, what is our constant need to buy new things doing to ourselves and the planet? I can offer no answer for those questions, but whether it’s software or fashion, the parallels are striking.

The process of creation—design in particular—is a key driver for change in both the fashion and software industries. Since the invention of the sewing machine, the time it takes to sew an individual garment has not been the most serious bottleneck in getting a product to market. The bottleneck came in the form of designing the outfit, selecting and delivering the materials, and in other logistical factors such as distribution and delivery time. For apparel, change has come in the form of what we call a “flow” process. There is now a continuous supply of materials and new designs, and a continuous flow of outgoing goods.

The same is true in software. With the availability of open-source software, reusable components, design patterns, high-productivity languages and operating systems, and Cloud-based infrastructures, the time it takes to engineer and deploy a great product is shrinking. By using the time saved to design and deliver “lean” and evolving products to the end user—and, most importantly, to listen to and learn from their feedback—greater and greater innovation continues to occur at a faster and faster rate.

The availability of cheap, disposable and commoditized clothing has triggered something of a backlash in the form of internet-based “made to measure” clothing appealing to consumers who want something unique or with perceived higher quality. For a few hundred dollars, about ten times the cost of fast fashion, consumers can go on-line and order clothing made to their individual specifications, from blue jeans to tuxedos. While considerably more expensive than fast fashion, the product offered by these custom on-line services is still about ten times cheaper than handmade custom clothing from a traditional tailor. And what is the basis for such cost savings relative to traditional methods? In large part it is techniques and automation derived from the Fast Fashion industry, together with production in low-cost geographies.

Similarly, the development of custom software, even complex systems, today leverages many of the tools, processes and utilities used to develop applications under the Fast Software paradigm. Processes such as Lean and Agile, as well as high-productivity software toolsets, are key components in the development even of complex, high-quality systems such as medical devices. Coupled with low cost locations, these are driving down the cost of custom software development, as well as the overall costs to the customer. While the software requirements specification process is not as automated as that of an on-line custom tailor quite yet, extreme personalization of software via intelligent agents is not as far in the realm of science fiction as it once was.

Although there are legitimate concerns regarding addiction, environmental, and societal affects, the benefits of implementing lean manufacturing techniques in Software and Fashion include more choice, reduced cost and the opportunity to express our individual personalities through the clothes and technology we choose. Used wisely, both Fast Fashion and Fast Software support us in tailoring our virtual and physical environment to the way we want to work and live, at a price we can afford to pay. And that, on balance, is a good thing.

Dr. Jim Walsh is CTO at GlobalLogic, where he leads the company’s innovation efforts. With a Ph.D. in Physics and over 30 years of experience in the IT sector, Dr. Walsh is a recognized expert in cutting-edge technologies such as cloud and IoT.

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