How Does Real Sustainability for Fashion Work in the Virtual World?

How does sustainability, as an issue to preserve the planet’s limited material resources, work in a virtual metaverse without a physical Earth to speak of?

The scenario itself can bend the mind, but the recent Fairchild Media Sustainability Forum tackled the topic in the panel “Solving Circular Fashion in the Metaverse.” Moderated by Natasha Franck, chief executive officer of Eon, the session began by defining what this virtual world is.

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“It’s a little bit like saying, ‘What’s the internet?’ in the ’90s,” said Lorenzo Albrighi, co-CEO and founder of Lablaco and Circular Fashion Summit. “We may have some ideas, but we’ll see how that actually ends up, right?”

Ultimately, he settled on describing it as a “3D internet” where the computer mouse or taps on smartphones will be replaced with new hardware, gestures and experiences.

Instead of websites, users will visit virtual destinations with their avatars, and the notion of online social interactions will change, too, said Neha Singh, CEO and founder of Obsess. Today’s social media works asynchronously, with people sharing, liking and commenting at different times. In the metaverse, the interactions are synchronous or in real time, which could alter the nature of how people connect.

“[It’s] the next inevitable version of the internet,” she explained. “Because our hardware is improving, our network speeds are improving and the way we interact with the internet is going to change.”

The panelists agreed that, because the metaverse is still evolving, it will likely morph in ways that are impossible to predict.

But for fashion brands, some sustainability benefits are already in view with virtual fashion and stores. For instance, there’s no physical waste and excess inventory with digital clothes for avatars. It also makes business sense.

“Moving production from physical products to virtual products is going to be a big part of the future,” said Singh, who added that Roblox alone has 50 million daily active users and they spend 2.6 hours a day on the game platform. “One in five users is actually changing something about their avatar accessory or fashion item daily. So there’s a huge appetite for this.”

Virtual stores are another important trend. Some brands have started looking to them to replace brick-and-mortar locations, Singh added, and showrooms are using 3D digital samples instead of real-world ones. From there, they can go into production based on actual orders, avoiding overruns.

On the events side, hosting virtual conferences and fashion shows can also reduce the carbon footprint as participants don’t have to travel, Albrighi pointed out. As for blockchain partners, brands have more platform choices now, as greener alternatives have been emerging.

But Livia Firth, creative director and founder of Eco-Age, seemed skeptical that such blockchains could really work in a sustainable way. And, she said, there’s no authority to hold them accountable.

“This new technological revolution is not exempt from governance, but no one is currently talking about it or even thinking about it,” she stated. “And so, at Eco-age, we decided to roll up our sleeves and lead on this conversation.”

Natasha Franck and Neha Singh

Natasha Franck and Neha Singh

In January, Eco-Age launched Eco-Verse, a dedicated division to advise companies on NFT and metaverse strategies that adhere to environmental and ethical standards. Take basic access, for example. It’s hardly fair if only consumers with disposable income can afford the devices necessary, and as the tech becomes more dependent on 5G, the connectivity requirement will be troubling, too, as coverage isn’t available everywhere or to everyone.

The other cornerstone of Eco-Verse, of course, is sustainability — from the impact of hardware production to make the gear and the energy that goes into the massive server farms powering these platforms.

Firth believes there’s a “brainwashing” in effect to give the metaverse a positive glow, and she advocates for a deeper dive into the issues and the data than mere surface-level numbers. She’s not the only skeptic, which means tech platforms could face a reckoning on these issues and more at some point.

But for now, the fashion business continues to test and learn, exploring ways virtual tools can solve material problems. Sometimes, this involves blending it with other technologies.

Sustainable, made-to-order apparel brand Katla placed QR codes on clothes as a novel way to distribute NFTs through physical garments, with proceeds going to charitable causes.

According to CEO Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, who cofounded Moda Operandi before founding Katla, the brand partnered with token distribution firm on its NFT collection with Icelandic artist Hendrikka Waage. The company chose Ivy for its green cred as a low-impact and energy-efficient platform.

The project works on different levels: First, bringing QR codes and NFTs to the garments can extend their longevity. “The second part, obviously, is the ability to build into smart contracts [for] these charitable causes,” said Magnúsdóttir. “We started with a giveaway for the first NFT launch, but these NFTs will eventually become tradable.”

She elaborated that these smart contracts can build in support for important causes as they’re resold. The brand, whose Hendrikka Waage collection benefited Care’s Ukraine Crisis Fund, plans to dedicate a portion of future NFTs to ocean regeneration efforts.

As companies look to bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds, it’s clear sustainability could become an important part of the equation. While that’s not a guarantee — because, as the panelists said, the metaverse can evolve in unpredictable ways — its relative immaturity presents an intriguing opportunity.

Industries and sectors that become too big, complex or foundational are notoriously difficult to reverse engineer, even when their harms come to light. But as a nascent movement, virtual worlds can grow up shaped by real-world priorities from the get go.

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