In the past few months, digital fashion in the metaverse has become a frequent topic of discussion. Similar to life on Earth, clothing is expected to play a big role in how we represent ourselves in the metaverse. One conversation that has sparked particular interest is whether digital fashion in the metaverse could be a sustainable fashion alternative. With growing consumer demands for sustainable clothing, it is expected that new forms of fashion will be marketed with sustainability in mind. But whether or not digital fashion can be accurately classified as “sustainable” is still undecided.
This article will cover:
- What Is the Metaverse?
- What Is an NFT?
- What Is Digital Fashion, and What Are Fashion NFTs?
- Why is Digital Fashion Being Proposed as Sustainable Fashion?
- Sustainability Concerns with Digital Fashion and Blockchain
- Is Digital Fashion a Sustainable Fashion Alternative?
What Is the Metaverse?
The metaverse is essentially a network of 3D virtual worlds focussed on shared spaces and social connection—it is an alternative world accessed through virtual and augmented reality. The term “metaverse” was first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, to refer to a 3D virtual world wherein people controlled avatars. The term resurfaced when Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced in 2021 that his platform would rebrand as Meta Platforms Inc., or Meta for short. This rebranding came with a vision of bringing the internet to life through virtual reality worlds. Currently, Meta is working on building a VR social platform.
The metaverse is the answer to the constraints brought on by the 2D environment we currently experience by moving towards a democratized 3D world. Typically the metaverse refers to virtual reality (VR) technologies, characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you are not playing, as well as augmented reality (AR) which combines aspects of digital and physical worlds. Given that we will continue to operate and interact in the real world, the metaverse will not fully replace our reality. However, the metaverse offers an alternative digital environment where we can coexist to meet, work, and play.
What Is an NFT?
In the metaverse, we can have infinite amounts of anything. Not constrained by physical materials or labor, digital goods are essentially limitless. Just as in the real world, in the metaverse we will purchase and own clothes, art, and other commodities. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, create digital scarcity and exclusivity in an otherwise boundless marketplace. An NFT is a unique digital token that, through a series of block-chain technology computer transactions, gives someone ownership to a piece of virtual art, such as a dress, image, or a song; it is is an individual piece of crypto art that can take the form of pretty much anything digital. NFTs are often confused with cryptocurrency, but the two are not the same thing. Traditional crypto like Bitcoin are identical and can be exchanged with one another. On the contrary, NFTs are highly unique and individualized. NFTs are not exchanged but rather bought and sold in marketplaces using cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin. To simplify, think of an NFT as a certification of the authenticity of a digital item.
What Is Digital Fashion, and What Are Fashion NFTs?
Fashion is expected to play an important role in the metaverse. Digital fashion can take many forms, and it refers to any type of garment that is digitally coded. We have recently seen brands integrate digital fashion into their supply chains by having consumers try on digital versions before the garment is put into production. We have also seen brands use digital fashion so that designs can be digitally altered though Instagram AR filters.
Digital fashion and NFTs overlap to form fashion NFTs that are purchased to dress your avatar in digital spaces (no one wants to be naked in the metaverse!). Digital fashion in the metaverse exists for the same purpose fashion exists in the real world—to communicate who we are. Zuckerberg has explained that Meta users will have a digital wardrobe of apparel for different occasions, just like in our physical wardrobes. Some brands have begun innovating to create fashion NFTs that have benefits in both physical and digital spaces. One example is “STEPN,” a virtual sneaker NFT app where users can purchase digital sneakers and are subsequently rewarded with currency for physical movement that is tracked on the app. For instance, if you bought their digital walking sneakers, you would be rewarded every time you walk in the real world.
One of the most exciting aspects of digital fashion is that it is limitless. It is not constrained by geographic boundaries, labor supply, or material needs. For instance, in digital fashion, we could have a dress made out of water or fire, or pants that change colors. Digital fashion also encourages unique personal style. There has been a wide variety of research that examines the “peacock element” of digital spaces that suggest people are more willing to step outside their comfort zone and take risks in the metaverse than they are in their daily lives. People who may feel more reserved with their fashion choices in the real world, might feel empowered to be more extroverted with their style in the metaverse. Further, digital fashion poses an opportunity for unlimited creativity, and it offers greater gender, sex, and size inclusivity and lessened financial, geographic, and social barriers to fashion. Another exciting advantage of digital clothing is the ability to have relationships with archival vintage pieces. Perhaps, I could never wear a vintage Yves Saint Laurent gown in real life, but I could wear a digital version of it in the metaverse. Since we don’t have to worry about societal norms or real world material constraints, the accessibility and democratic capabilities of digital fashion are much greater than that of physical garments.
Recently, luxury brands, such as Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Nike, have broke into the world of digital fashion. Dolce and Gabbana was the first luxury brand to incorporate NFTs into their business model. In collaboration with Fortnite, Balenciaga released limited edition Balenciaga pieces for Fortnite avatars. In 2021, Gucci collaborated with Roblox, a Metaverse and gaming platform, with a virtual two week installation of The Gucci Garden. Visitors of The Gucci Garden could view, try on, and purchase digital Gucci items as well as move through multiple themed rooms that paid homage to past Gucci campaigns.
Luxury brands are racing to stay on top of the metaverse ethos. In March 2022, the metaverse held its first Fashion Week in Decentraland, one of the most popular 3D virtual world platforms. The four day event recruited fans and major fashion brands including Etro, Estée Lauder and Dolce and Gabbana. The entire experience was block-chain based, created on digital land sold as NFTs and including fashion which was also bought and worn as NFTs. There were runway shows, virtual stores, and virtual event venues. The event garnered lots of industry attention, but ended up getting some mixed reviews.
Why is Digital Fashion Being Proposed as Sustainable Fashion?
Digital fashion has been hailed as the next sustainable fashion alternative. With more consumers demanding brand sustainability efforts than ever before, marketers have begun to brand digital fashion as an alternative to overproduction and overconsumption in the physical world; digital goods consume fewer materials and produce less textile waste than physical goods. Digital goods can be made perfectly to your size, and they will never deteriorate in quality. This made-to-fit model eliminates the need for mending and returning. It also eliminates emissions due to transportation, material extraction, and sourcing. When Helsinki Fashion Week went purely digital in 2021, it was reported that the carbon footprint per visitor dropped from 137kg to 0.66kg.
Another potential benefit of digital clothing is the potential to move the focus of our shopping away from fast fashion. In a future more embedded in the metaverse, we could focus on buying sustainable basics and staple pieces in the real world and get our fix for trend pieces, fancy clothes, outrageous prints, and niche accessories through digital clothing. This could reduce the production of “real clothes” to focus purely on slow, sustainable fashion, while still maintaining extravagant style via the metaverse. Digital fashion could also be useful for content creators, internet influencers, and other social media driven individuals by providing an alternative to buying new fast fashion items. These individuals will now have a more sustainable option for creating their content. If self-expression and style can be conveyed digitally, the physical fashion industry could move from being one of our biggest polluters and climate crisis drivers to a more sustainable, minimalist economy.
Fashion NFTs can also authenticate a product's life cycle in the physical world. As NFTs are made on a blockchain platform, this high security code makes their certification almost indestructible and timeless. Attaching this certification to physical products can bolster the trustworthiness behind claims of item authenticity and sustainability. For example, if there was an NFT attached to a physical garment, the owner could trace the history of the garment through its past owners all the way to its material sourcing and production location. This could become a valuable tool for concerns around sustainability transparency.
Sustainability Concerns with Digital Fashion and Blockchain
Although proponents argue that digital fashion will reduce the fashion industry’s consumption and waste, critics contend that the carbon footprint of blockchain technology is currently too staggering to accurately make a claim for sustainability. Most NFTs are sold in marketplaces that use cryptocurrencies, like Ethereum. Ethereum is built on a system called “proof-of-work” that is incredibly energy-intensive. Since there is no third party, such as a bank, to oversee transactions, proof-of-work acts as a security system for cryptocurrencies. To keep financial records secure, the system relies on solving complex puzzles using energy-guzzling, physical machines. Solving the puzzles allows users to add a new “block” of verified transactions to a decentralized ledger called the blockchain. The user then gets new tokens or transaction fees as a reward. The process is incredibly energy inefficient on purpose; the idea is that using up inordinate amounts of electricity makes it less profitable for someone to impair the ledger. The massive amount of energy helps to secure the network by discouraging individuals from tampering and making it increasingly more difficult to hack the complex system. NFTs generally use cheap electricity to maximize profit. This makes the majority of NFTs, including digital fashion, which rely on proof-of-work systems, extremely unsustainable.
A 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change found that Bitcoin emissions alone could raise Earth’s temperature by two degrees. The study reported that the daily carbon footprint of Bitcoin is the equivalent of watching 57,000 hours of YouTube videos. And, its daily electricity usage is equivalent to the amount of power an average American household uses over the course of 25 days. The environmental impact of NFTs is similar, if not greater, as it uses energy-intensive computer transactions to authenticate and sell. Since NFTs are a fairly new market, we still need more reputable data and research on their environmental impact. As interest in NFTs increases, their associated environmental impact will increase, too.
Another technological system called “proof-of-stake” has been proposed as a better alternative to the energy-intensive proof-of-work technology. Instead of having to pay for huge amounts of electricity to enter the game, with proof-of-stake, individuals instead have to lock up some of their own cryptocurrency tokens in the network to “prove” they’ve got a “stake” in keeping the ledger accurate. This system gets rid of the need for computers to solve complex puzzles which in turn rids emissions. However, this form of a centralized blockchain moves away from what crypto is supposed to do, which is create a decentralized network where anyone can make transactions without the oversight of institutions.
Using clean energy has also been proposed as a sustainable alternative. If more cryptocurrency machines run on clean energy, emissions will surely go down, but the system will still remain extremely energy-intensive. Relying on clean energy to solve energy-related issues with blockchain could eat up renewable energy that could instead go towards more urgent measures on earth.
So…Is Digital Fashion a Sustainable Fashion Alternative?
Making claims that digital fashion is inherently more sustainable than physical fashion is grossly oversimplified. Although digital fashion has many sustainable qualities, such as decreased resource use, the energy-intensive blockchain technology it relies upon may prove it to be completely unsustainable. Most cryptocurrency is built on a proof-of-work system that is incredibly energy hungry. and the environmental impact of digital fashion must account for the fact that energy-intensive computer transactions are necessary for this process. The greenhouse gas emissions tied to digital fashion and NFTs are largely underestimated. Many people propose a proof-of-stake system as a less harmful alternative since it would eliminate the need for computers to solve complex puzzles. In order for digital fashion to become sustainable, the technology it is being run on has to be modified to reduce its energy related emissions, and it must transition renewable or clean energy sources. Digital fashion is, at best, a way to reduce waste from the fashion industry by providing a means to limit fast fashion and conspicuous consumption. At worst, it could become another for-profit marketing scheme for brands to perpetuate consumption and continue worsening the environmental impact of fashion. Therefore, the fashion industry should tread carefully as they navigate the intricacies of the metaverse.
There is currently a technological barrier surrounding the metaverse. It is hard to fully understand and analyze the complexities of this new digital world. Since the technology at hand is not widely understood or fully mainstream, metaverse proponents are currently playing the upper hand and can greatly impact consumer awareness. If tech marketers are telling everyone that the metaverse is sustainable, most consumers take the claim at face-value and believe it. Due to the lack of widespread technical understanding, it is difficult for the average consumer to refute sustainability claims about the metaverse. This phenomenon
is similar to how marketers use greenwashing in mainstream consumer product industries. This current power imbalance is concerning, but hopefully increasing awareness around the metaverse will shift the dynamic to be more balanced. The energy-intensive nature of the metaverse must be more publicly discussed and solved before we put our hopes in digital fashion to be the next sustainable fashion alternative.
Digital fashion is an exciting opportunity for the industry to alleviate boundaries between fashion and technology and to innovate for new modes of production and execution. To reconcile the energy emissions associated with fashion NFTs, it is suggested that industry leaders come together to form digital sustainability alliances to share knowledge, best practices, and industry standards going forward.