Instead of supply chains, there are blockchains. Frenzied fashion weeks could increasingly give way to virtual fashion shows. Business travel for trade shows and summits could become less necessary, saving on flights and their costly emissions. Further, NFTs can validate a physical garment’s life cycle (hello circularity) and bring value in the form of climate education, charitable giveback schemes (like one from Los Angeles-based label Polite Worldwide). And there’s the all-important cut back on physical production.
Despite the potential, there’s no ready-made playbook yet as to how brands can navigate the metaverse sustainably and what it means in real life. There are, however, some general questions to consider in being more ethical, sustainable and transparent online.
The Metaverse and Circularity
Circularity expert Rachel Kibbe, founder of Circular Services Group and inventory solution start-up Kept Sku, believes fashion is — for the first time — embracing the future with all the metaverse talk, which could pull existing sustainability progress along with it.
Kibbe summed up the potential as “a more singular and source of truth for that garment” if physical garments beget digital value and digital value begets physical actions like reuse or resale. And, of course, a lower footprint if a brand goes direct to the metaverse, although the metrics of that are yet to be known.
She waved a civic success story in front as a comparison to how value is perceived.
“Bottle returns for plastic bottles have been extremely successful. The states that have bottle laws have been the most successful recycling programs ever.” (A November press release from New York Public Interest Research Group called the state’s bottle bill one of the most “successful” environmental programs, citing a 70 percent reduction in curbside litter.) Kibbe drew parallels: “If you think about that in terms of the metaverse, the metaverse is built on cryptocurrency, which is just another way of denominating value, so how can I give people value for taking the next rightful action with an item and have that traceable?”
With the explosion of NFTs in fashion, throwaway mints (to mint is to upload an NFT) are bound to happen as throwaway clothes occur. Oddly, like clothes you can send NFTs to a digital landfill or “burn address,” but it never really goes away. (It also costs money or what’s called a “gas fee” because guess what — it costs energy.)
As with anything, value is perceived but the potential for putting a drag on new production is huge at present.
The Metaverse and Tech Power ‘Bro’-Kers
It’s a permission-less space, but as WWD’s metaverse explainer shows, there’s a picture forming of both possibilities and dark overlords (or today’s tech power bro-kers) controlling too much of those possibilities. But the other side of it — the sustainability side — is a dematerialized reality where indie designers can truly flourish on open-sourced platforms and consumers aren’t just consumers but creators.
“Become a Web3 Fashion Designer and Launch Your Own Label” is emblazoned in sans-serif font on Digitalax’s website, a company building its version of a metaverse-enabled digital fashion economy and apparently equipped with all the tools to make it happen.
A browse through Digitalax’s website reveals physical fashion (Digitalax-branded merch like hoodies for $80), digital fashion (user-created products like bracelets, avatars and dresses ranging from $40 to $11,500) and a core NFT marketplace.
“They can now have the self-sovereign tools to coordinate and self-capitalize to build a sustainable brand, support sustainable suppliers and make environmentally friendly consumer choices,” Emma-Jane MacKinnon-Lee, founder of Digitalax, told WWD. “They can also align incentives with their buyers and build strong communities through a [decentralized autonomous organization], so that network effects empower the broader movement.”
“Tools” include the community support, guides and built frameworks, or what Digitalax calls fractional garment ownership. This method funnels components like a digital pattern, material or texture and open-sources them into libraries for anyone that has a Digitalax account (and a digital wallet to interact and mint NFTs). The original designer benefits from fractional garment ownership, earning royalties upon use.
This means sustainable fashion no longer has to be “undercapitalized” and everyone who believes in sustainability doesn’t have to be a “saintly altruist,” according to MacKinnon-Lee, meaning self-sacrificing profit for good. “You can do good and do well at the same time.” MacKinnon-Lee dropped out of the University of Sydney two years ago on that premise, swapping an aerospace engineering degree for crypto’s boundless potential.
But there are broader ethical questions being raised.
Pointing it back to the “old legacy players” that “push back and claw to try and stop the rest of us from overtaking them,” MacKinnon-Lee believes “until we decentralize the access to capital, information, community support, hardware in the market, then we can expect to keep unsustainable practices propagating,” while further adding the climate crisis can’t afford any naysayers.
It’s a tricky power balance, but “NFTs, web3, DAOs and the metaverse must be accelerated as much as possible by anyone serious about humanity’s future,” she contended.
The Metaverse and Blockchain
Many believe the metaverse is key to quickly unlocking the trillion-dollar circular fashion opportunity.
“The digitized and connected circular fashion industry is estimated to be worth more than $5 trillion,” said Lorenzo Albrighi, founder and co-chief executive officer of Lablaco, the tech firm that produces the virtual reality Circular Fashion Summit (CFS). The estimate Albrighi referenced is pulled from CFS’s “Year Zero” 2020 report.
While circularity (and metaverse speak) seems far off and complicated, it doesn’t have to be. For one, Lablaco’s recent work at CFS gave a taste of “circular” garments being worn across realities or the value proposition Kibbe was talking about.
In partnership with 3D fashion software CLO, Lablaco created a series of metaverse-native “exclusive phy-gital drops” that borrowed those concepts. The IoT-connected products were made with sustainable materials provided by the CFS innovation partners — including Kering, Isko Evolved by Nature and Spinnova, among others. The drops were complete with digital product twins made in CLO, fiber traceability by Fibretrace and an exclusive retail partnership with K11 in Hong Kong.
Asked whether there are any guidelines for sustainably minded brands entering the metaverse, Albrighi said an important aspect to consider is having the right partners, specifically when building on blockchains. Blockchains are basically digital ledgers or platforms for keeping information (like a pricey footwear NFT) safe.
“Not all blockchains are made equal.” Because of the energy needed to verify information, “some are extremely impactful on the environment, while others are instead more sustainable,” he added. Research from University College London in November (which has been assessing the energy consumptions of leading proof-of-stake networks since 2015) concluded the same. Of the six leading PoS blockchains analyzed, Hedera Hashgraph showed the lowest overall energy consumption while Ethereum 2.0, another popular choice, the worst.
As Albrighi underlined, “How companies use this new blue ocean of data must be addressed ethically and keeping privacy and security at the very top of the priority list.”
Then comes accessibility.
The Metaverse and NFTs
In December, Eco Age launched a first-of-its-kind award at its Renaissance Awards: NFTs.
Italian Renaissance masterpieces dating back to the 16th century (including “The Birth of Venus” by Giorgio Vasari, 1558) that etch the interior of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio were reimagined for Eco-Age’s unique NFT artworks. Thirteen young leaders in climate and social justice — among them the Intersectional Environmentalist cofounders Diandra Marizet and Leah Thomas — received the NFT art prizes.
The prizes were created with blockchain partner Cardano and consumer brand Method (known for its eco-cleaning products) and will eventually leverage the Tokhun.io marketplace to create both the digital assets and the smart contract-based royalties.
As of yet the NFTs aren’t on the marketplace because it is up to the discretion of the prize-winners to list or not. So then, when and where is the NFT hype warranted?
Like greenwashing, WWD asked Eco-Age founder Livia Firth if there’s such a thing as “metaversing” (or whatever the equivalent is) where fashion companies paint themselves in this tech-savvy light.
“Huge, huge, huge,” she said. “In fact, we’re going to launch something pretty groundbreaking at the beginning of the year talking about the metaverse because we are very worried because it’s a regulation-free zone, and we need to be very vigilant.”
Despite the unknowns, she is excited for the quick transformation ahead and believes brands need “to ensure we are vigilant stewards of ethics, in particular, and sustainability, at the beginning of this new technological epoch.”
The Metaverse and Inclusivity
At the onset of the pandemic, the Institute of Digital Fashion emerged from the joint brainpower of cofounders Cattytay (founder of the Digi-Gxl network of women, trans and nonbinary 3D artists) and Leanne-Elliott Young (creator of creative hub CommuneEast) embarking on “an emblem for change in a broken system” by centering diverse talent and perspectives so that AR, VR and NFTs are community driven.
Since then, IoDF drummed up work with the likes of designer August Getty and Condé Nast, navigating the metaverse with ethics in mind — beginning with representation. In the case of Los Angeles-based designer August Getty, IoDF brought to life a digital atelier in an online world called Tinitus to show his couture line.
In 2021, IoDF produced a 74-page report on digital representation with 6,000 survey respondents finding digital avatar representation was jarringly “Eurocentric and limited.” The report determined that “people want the choice to present their IRL personas, their disabilities, their culture, their actual body shapes and the choice to create fantasy versions of themselves that are as expansive and limitless as the capabilities of the technology they engage with.”
Among the key findings, 96 percent of respondents said software companies (and fashion brands for that matter) “should conduct research when creating digital avatars that represent communities they are not from.”
“Diversity and inclusion wasn’t something that was traditionally considered within digital representation. We want to think about how we can, not just work with brands and digital solutions, but actually make a markable change for the industry,” Young said. In one such stride, IoDF in June unveiled Catty 8.1, a gender-nonconforming digital double of IoDF’s creative director and cofounder Cattytay. The team worked alongside Daz 3D, a 3D rendering software, as part of a Pride avatar bundle.
As IoDF’s mission stands, thinking “sustainability” in the metaverse must also mean inclusivity.
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