The last couple of years have seen peaked interests in the ‘metaverse’, ‘NFTs’, ‘cryptocurrency’ and all that they encompass. Whilst new avenues give rise to fresh creativity, innovation, talent and perspectives, they pose important questions not only around the future of the fashion industry, but also the potential sustainability implications of such endeavours.
Buzz around the metaverse is largely generated by younger citizens and is not something the fashion industry can afford to overlook. A report from Business of Fashion found that approximately 70 percent of US general consumers (Gen-Z to Gen-X) rate their digital identity as important, 65 percent rate digital ownership as important and 50 percent are interested in purchasing a digital asset in the next 12 months.
With all that is new, comes important considerations about impact – both long and short term. In this ambiguous moment for the metaverse, we assess the current scope of sustainability challenges and opportunities.
Though subject to many interpretations – broadly (and simply) speaking the metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds offering opportunities for users to visit places, meet people and buy and sell digital goods. The metaverse holds direct links to the likes of the blockchain technology that it’s built upon, digital currencies known as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which present the opportunity to own digital assets.
Speaking to Forbes, Karinna Nobbs, Co-CEO, The Dematerialised, describes it on a more human-level as “…a persistent, live digital universe that affords individuals a sense of agency, social presence, and shared spatial awareness, along with the ability to participate in an extensive virtual economy with profound societal impact.”
Not dissimilar to the metaverse, is Web3, which you may be forgiven for confusing with the metaverse. Web3 is, essentially, the decentralised internet, read more from Forbes about the distinct differences between Web3 and the metaverse here.
Digital demand for fashion and luxury brands is expected to grow and result in extra sales for the industry that could reach $50 billion by 2030, according to Morgan Stanley.
So, what does this mean for the fashion industry? There are various metaverse opportunities being explored by the industry – including metaverse events (April of this year saw the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week), NFTs to authenticate products, games, virtual showrooms and stores, digital clothing worn by physical people in augmented realities, and digital clothing sold directly to consumers for their avatars or as NFTs.
Some of the many launches over the last few months include the Web3 community from Vogue Singapore entitled ‘Vogue’s New World’, Vogue’s oceanic metaverse, the ‘Gucci Garden’ launch on Roblox, Balenciaga’s Fortnite collaboration, ‘Nikeland’ (explored by over 21 million people), Tommy Hilifger’s Roblox show at NYFW, and Bulgari’s ‘Sunset in Jeju’ store. This latest fashion season was no exception for metaverse based activations.
Proponents believe that if executed assiduously, the Metaverse could mitigate some of the industry’s current impacts. It could limit travel emissions ordinarily needed for the likes of commuting to work or jetting across the world for runway shows and slow the current unabating production levels of physical garments.
In essence, a populated metaverse could pave the way for virtual showrooms, garments, launch events and runway shows all while cutting back on some of the waste and production methods used in conventional fashion.
Traditional physical fashion weeks are not only exclusive, but also, according to one report, contribute 241,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. The metaverse presents immersive opportunities with global access, beyond conventional online streaming. Despite this, there is the inescapable fact that the physicality of runway shows holds a uniqueness that goes amiss via the blue light of a screen. The metaverse must adapt if to be seen as equally appealing as physical shows.
Whilst algorithms reinforce the cultural urge to buy, our feeds are saturated with hauls, reviews, sponsored posts, gifted items and influencer collaborations. There is, evidently, an urgent need for change. Drapers reported almost 40% of people shop for fashion at least once a month, with almost 20% purchasing something every two weeks. A widespread reduction in consumption will require a unanimous mindset shift, so some believe that digital fashion could pacify this unquenchable desire for newness in a less damaging way. Promisingly, research from EY suggests that 21% of consumers intend to buy fewer physical items in the future because they expect to do more things digitally.
According to DRESSX, production of a digital garment could emit 97% less of CO2 than production of a physical garment, though without concrete data on both ends this could be hard to quantify. Nonetheless, emission reductions could be significant when ruling out the many processes behind a garment.
Supply chain efficiency
Whilst many would agree that we will never forgo physical clothing; The Fabricant has stated that brands can dramatically reduce their carbon footprint during the design and development stages by up to 30% if they use digital samples rather than physical ones. Moreover, metaverse technologies are beneficial for proving garment traceability and responsible trade.
Discarding returns is common practice from brands – according to the BBC, some 5 billion pounds of waste are generated annually through returns. When shopping new it is imperative to ensure correct sizing to avoid the need for returns. This presents huge opportunities for virtual try on experiences in the metaverse, in turn reducing the transportation miles, packaging and stocking of the wrong sizes.
Digitalisation isn’t a fail-safe answer. The often-invisible infrastructure of the technology sector is more polluting than some may think.
The blockchain technology that the metaverse is built upon is traditionally very energy intensive, though not yet entirely understood. Much like the physical fashion industry, there’s a lack of data on the metaverse – everything is dependent on multiple variables on both the development end and user end. How these factors affect energy consumption, and, by extension, carbon emissions will depend in large part on data centre efficiency and power sources.
EY broke down some key statistics about energy outputs and found that an average Ethereum transaction consumes 60% more energy than 100,000 credit card transactions, while an average Bitcoin transaction consumes 14 times more energy. Moreover, only about 25% of the energy going into bitcoin mining is renewable. One analysis found that the average single NFT transaction produced 48 kg of CO2, the equivalent of burning 18 litres of diesel.
The metaverse runs the risk of increased energy use from cloud computing services. If the metaverse continues to expand on its current trajectory, it will inevitably consume significantly more electricity to run.
To make the most of these virtual worlds, the experiences demand hardware beyond the capacities of a standard mobile phone or laptop. Therefore, new device requirements may be necessary in order to actively participate in the metaverse. In turn, there could well be an influx of ‘dated’ technology going to waste and energy intensive demand for new state of the art devices (which thereafter will no doubt “need” replacing every few years).
Whilst metaverse technologies may prove beneficial for traceability and transparency, an increase in digital fashion must be mindful of the livelihoods of the many millions of garment workers currently across supply chains. Those dependent on traditional processes which may be implicated by a digital takeover must be upskilled or fairly compensated accordingly.
Could we see the same disposable culture that we have with fashion with NFTs? Whilst they cannot be deleted, they can end up in ‘digital landfills’, costing money and energy. The digital realm should therefore be mindful and incentivise the principles of the circular economy, not dissimilar to the physical world.
At Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition 2022, Global Fashion Agenda hosted the panel discussion ‘Metaverse Impact and Decentralised Futures’. The discussion touched on poignant points around accessibility to the metaverse, with Marjorie Hernandez, Co-founder and CEO of LUKSO and THE DEMATERIALISED sharing: “There are still three billion people in the world that have not entered the internet. Products have to be demonetised and democratised. We have to onboard everybody.” Evelyn Mora, CEO & Founder of Digital Village, added: “It’s a massive challenge, truly in the roots of our societies. Metaverse is a luxury product right now. If we want to truly become sustainable utilising tech, we have to think big and have short term goals.” This is indeed a crucial consideration for any organisation delving into the metaverse.
The full conversation can be watched in the Summit on-demand library here.
We know that greenwashing is a prolific in the fashion industry, but is it finding a new form in the metaverse?
Metawashing has been used to describe the practice of ascribing the term ‘metaverse’ to products and services, even when only very loosely associated with the idea. Metawashing can also refer to the marketing of metaverse related products as sustainable whilst continuing with business-as-usual, unsustainable operations elsewhere. If the metaverse is approached solely as a marketing opportunity and additional sales avenue, with little to no focus on overproduction and unethical practices in the physical world, then the sustainability element bears no significance. Failing to address the issues rife within physical clothing production means that metaverse marketing is simply another form of greenwashing.
As the metaverse is in its infancy, we have the unique opportunity to shape it to be both environmentally and socially responsible. If this goes remiss, we simply find ourselves with another platform for overconsumption and unethical practices benefitting big corporations. Going forward those participating must take into account the aforementioned complexities.