Non-Fashionable Transmissions (NFTs): The Lack of Sustainability in Digital Fashion
As the fashion industry makes strides toward sustainability, they seem to be turning to channels that do little to staunch negative environmental impact.
Before the advent of fast fashion in the 1960s, it was common practice to take clothing and alter it to suit the times. This was particularly popular throughout the Great Depression, and into the era of wartime efficiency of the 40s, calling for a modification of ‘excessive clothing’.
Fabric was far more expensive, and it was
more likely that a garment would be altered
to suit styles from season to season than an
entirely new wardrobe ordered.
The speed at which styles were produced cycled
through in the 60s would set a trend
that would last to this day. This would
include the ultimate garment in expendable
fast fashion: the paper dress.
These dresses were touted as disposable.
When this trend initially kicked off, little thought was given to the increasing popularity of the trend, or its long-term impact outside of its financial promise.
If we consider the negative impacts of fast fashion in our current economy, we’re faced with three primary concerns: the high use of raw materials, environmental pollution, and excessively high consumption and waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 17,000 tons of clothing was produced in 2018, and a little over 11,000 tons were sent to a landfill—nearly 66%.
It’s for this reason that the fashion industry is currently grappling with sustainability issues.
Now, fashion is claiming to adopt a new technology that will ‘fix’ its sustainability woes, and it’s a trend that’s been sweeping the art and tech worlds as well: NFTs.
However, given the negative environmental impact that NFTs have, this trend is doing little to legitimately mitigate the harm that fast fashion can do to the environment.
If you’ve never heard of an NFT—don’t worry. Here’s a quick breakdown:
NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are part of a blockchain. They are not fungible—meaning that unlike a cryptocurrency, they can’t be traded for something else.
You could trade bitcoin or cryptocurrency for another currency, a good, or an asset of some kind, because it’s fungible.
You can’t trade an NFT for a currency or asset because it’s non-fungible.
NFTs can be an artwork, a meme, a gif, a video. They sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they live on a server. Their value, like the value of an artwork, can grow. For example, GucciGhost, a gif, sold for $3,600. The current owner is now selling it for $16,300—a 352% increase in value.
Hey look! Gucci Ghost!
Here’s something that’s critical: when you
buy an NFT, you’re not buying the copyright
to a work, or the work itself—you’re buying
the digital provenance, or the
papertrail of ownership.
That means that anyone else can download
Gucci Ghost (or any other NFT), screenshot
it, or share it. So, if you purchase an NFT of
Nyan Cat, you’re essentially purchasing the
receipt for Nyan Cat, not Nyan Cat itself.
The ownership that you purchase is what lives on the blockchain. It’s unalterable, and whoever buys it next will know that you own it forever (as long as the server doesn’t go down).
You may be wondering how this applies to fashion.
Have you heard of Fortnite? Most people have, even if they (like me) have never played it. Fortnite is an online video game. Within the game, people are able to buy skins, or outfits for your character.
Recently, Fortnite teamed up with the high-fashion brand, Balenciaga, to create a number of skins, like the ones pictured above. This did not kick off the fashion NFT trend, but it certainly signaled that fashion and NFTs were on their way to merging. The head of the brand Epic Games, Phil Rampulla, says that these outfits and this collaboration is about “the ultimate self-expression”, and isn’t that really what fashion is all about?
However, some fashion brands are working to take digital fashion and the concept of 'skins' into the real world. In their recent annual State of Fashion report, the Business of Fashion highlighted that among the industry’s trends, there is currently a heavy focus on both digital commerce and sustainability. Robert Triefus, an Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Gucci, cited the luxury brand’s interest in not only the metaverse, but on NFTs.
When questioned about the viability of NFTs for the high-luxury brand, Triefus said, “As we think about the Gucci community, we do think about adjacencies, or other communities and cultural groups that potentially intersect. Digital art has been a growing area of cultural intersection with fashion for a few years.”
One of the brands that emerged from this NFT and digital-centric boom is called The Fabricant. The company is a 3-D, digital-only fashion house. According to their website, “We waste nothing but data and exploit nothing but our imagination.” But that’s not particularly true.
The Fabricant sold this digital dress called Iridescence, making history by selling the first ‘digital-only dress’ in 2019. Like NFTs, these digital garments are transacted over a blockchain. While there is no physical waste, the environmental toll is higher than you may think.
Rather than focusing on practice revisions for the sake of sustainability, brands like Gucci, Balenciaga, and Fabricant are focusing on the latest technological booms that have caught consumers' eyes, regardless of the harmful environmental outcomes.
The paths to fashion’s sustainability are not through digital brand-building. While it may be attractive for business models, it’s mere window-dressing for sustainability. Consumers are paying increasingly more attention to the impacts of global warming, and supporting brands that are transparent regarding their impact, and the steps that they take to mitigate it. One of the companies that works to keep fast fashion out of landfills, ThredUp, has recently demonstrated customers’ interest in reducing their impact by reselling their clothing. ThredUp’s 2021 Resale Report includes the energy demand that goes into a resold piece of clothing.
While a new piece of clothing uses, on average, 38.8kWh, roughly the same amount as the bidding process of an NFT, a used piece of clothing uses only 4.8kWh. If the entire NFT process expends 322kWh for one piece of art, that potentially expends the same as 70 pieces of resold clothing.
In the interview that Robert Triefus gave to Business of Fashion, he cited the fact that the average consumer's ability to understand that an NFT will "require a lot more time to understand what they can represent in terms of customer experience or value-add."
But the increasing use of services like ThredUp, services that allow people to resell clothing that they no longer use, points to the willingness to return to an old call to efficiency—to make do and mend.
Fast fashion is on a trend to increase in popularity through 2030. The global climate crisis continues to shift, and is only debilitating as a result of factors like atmospheric carbon dioxide. As long as fast fashion hones in on the 'hottest thing', and as long as that hottest thing involves a blockchain, then NFTs will continue to disjoint fashion's movement toward sustainability.