Hello and welcome to the fourth edition of This Outfit Does Not Exist!
In this edition: Digital Fashion X sustainability - realigning values, optimising supply chains and increasing equity; Digital Fashion continues to gain traction, and six sobering sustainability stats
When you first talk about the link between Digital Fashion and sustainability people have a eureka moment. Their eyes glaze over, you watch them digest the proposition, chewing over the concept, before ecstatically proclaiming “ I get it! It’s sustainable because it doesn’t exist!”
But Digital Fashion’s sustainability proposition is so much more than its lack of materiality.
And assuming fashion automatically becomes sustainable when it moves to the Metaverse can be actively detrimental to its positive growth.
Intrigued? Confused? You’re in luck!
For the next 10 minutes this essay will immerse you in the issues eroding fashion’s sustainability proposition, and how Digital Fashion can remedy these.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Sustainability covers 3 verticals, otherwise known as the three P’s: Planet, Profit and People.
**Planet **accounts for the sustainable use of environmental resources. Asking us to ensure that we don’t worsen already tenuous environmental conditions, and instead make them better.
**Profit **refers to the ways in which money is made. Accounting for whether capital is distributed fairly in a way that generates equitable growth so all, not just a small percentage, benefit from business.
People focuses on how an industry impacts its most important stakeholders, both those who engage with it directly such as employees, shareholders and consumers, but equally their families and communities.
To briefly outline the problem:
Since the fashion industry became industrialised in the 19th century it’s been one of the worst offenders across this sustainability trifecta. Like Regina George, and the Mean Girls who emulate it, the industry has retained power by projecting exclusivity by ensuring a lack of access around who can buy it, make it, and financially benefit from it (not fetch!)
The Fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s CO2 emissions, 20% of its water waste and 92+ million tonnes of textiles waste annually.
Alongside the obvious environmental impacts of mass-production, manufacturing and shipping, this stems from:
A psychology of conspicuous consumption
In the words of Oscar Wilde “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to alter it every six months”. Try every 15 days. Fast fashion retailer Zara produces 24 collections a year (> 450 million items) meaning the consumer has just over two weeks to enjoy their purchase before it’s out-of-style. Shocked? Well if you think that’s bad, ultra-fast fashion supplier Shein puts this velocity to shame, offering 700-1,000 new styles daily; that’s 4 new garments before you’ve finished this newsletter.
The result of this production pace is tremendous churn within closets; it’s estimated that the average American woman wears the clothes in her wardrobe only 10 times over their lifecycle, but consumes 64 new items each year. At best last season’s discards are resold, at worst left in landfills to rot.
Inefficient demand forecasting
If the need for new wasn’t bad enough, the fashion industry has a poor track record of accurately predicting the right new things to make. While the technology around trend forecasting is increasingly used by fast and ultra-fast fashion retailers, the majority of luxury brands still start by producing, and then use marketing to stimulate demand. This doesn’t always work. An estimated 40% of clothes created in a given season are marked as overstock, and in some cases, in order to retain brand prestige, the remainder are burned.
A misaligned sales cycles - As the 2000’s rolled on January sales became Christmas sales, Christmas sales became Black Friday sales, and those trying to stay ahead of the curve started discounting in October. As a result, clothes are only sold at full price for a fraction of the time they’re stocked in stores, making it nigh impossible for designers to profit from their collections. What’s more, consumers accustomed to these cheaper prices query the value of the designer’s craft for the limited time items are sold at full-price, perceiving 80% off as ‘the new normal’. This divorce devalues high-fashion as a concept, undermining the time, creativity and craftsmanship, poured into production.
Society of the spectacle - fashion as a vessel for projecting wealth, exclusivity and fantasy is demonstrated nowhere better than in the bi-annual Fashion weeks occurring in London, Paris, Milan and New York. The environmental impact of getting the gliteratti to attend generates 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions, and that’s without taking the impact of staging these spectacles into account. Whilst there’s no data available to quantify the impact of Chanel shipping in an iceberg for F/W 2010, or re-creating a fully stocked supermarket for F/W 2014, it doesn’t take a climatologist to know these events aren’t carbon neutral. When it comes to selling, there are no costs that big fashion houses will spare; aside from of course the environmental ones.
The Fashion Industry is a value destroyer. This means that the success of large brands come at the expense of their smaller counterparts. In a study of the fashion industry McKinsey found that 20 “super winners” (incl. Nike, LVMH, Kering and Hermes), benefitting from scale and growth, captured more than 100% of the industry’s total economic profit. And you thought off-the-shoulder tops were asymmetric…
There are a few reasons for this disparity:
For centuries fashion has defined itself as ‘high culture’ - something with tightly mediated standards for what constitutes ‘style’, set by world-worn gatekeepers. This condition is not unique to fashion, it manifests itself across the arts. However, there’s one key difference between fashion and fine art, ballet, opera and the rest; fashion not only tries to impose its standards on creators, but also on consumers; dictating, not only how a designer’s final creation looks, but the characteristics of its wearer.\
Over the past few years large brands have begun to address the issues outlined above.
In 2020 Chanel issued a $700 million sustainability bond on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange; Burberry committed to becoming "climate positive" by 2040 (after being caught burning $37 million worth of overstock the year before…); Dries Van Noten, alongside 700 others, signed an open letter against the inefficient sales cycles that plague the industry; and Kering is one of the brands benchmarked on the Black Index Council X Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community.
Despite these advancements, rewiring an industry from the ground up is a laborious task, and many of the “super winners” lack a vested interest in revising a system which has allowed them to reap extensive rewards for so many years.
Inevitably, as with most things, it takes an outsider to disrupt, and for fashion, these outsiders are the Digital Fashionistas.
Spanning blockchain enthusiasts, Fortnite nerds, self-taught 3D creators, and, of course, their avatars, the builders of Fashion 3.0 stem from communities which prioritise transparency, collaboration, and increasingly decentralisation over secrecy, exclusivity, and competition.
Whilst for both fashion followers, and their digital counterparts, clothing retains its form as a signaller - one showcasing a specific flex, expressing affiliation or demonstrating identity - those forming Fashion 3.0 reject the rules of a top-down, tightly audited, fashion system controlled by homogenous insiders.
Instead, Digital Fashion garments derive from user generated content, often from self-taught creators, which express varied identities, and are linked to in-game achievements (or logging onto RTFKT at just the right moment…)
These values seep in to populate what and how Digital Fashionista’s create. Leading Digital Fashion to be, you guessed it, more sustainable across the entire trifecta.
Let me break it down:
Let’s start with the obvious, Digital Clothes are more sustainable because they don’t exist.
Leading Digital Fashion house The Fabricant published a report with Imperial College London diving into the specifics of Digital Fashion’s sustainability proposition through the lens of a white t-shirt. It found the following:
Add on that 1) an estimated 35% of all materials in the fashion supply chain are discarded before they reach the consumer 2) digital design uses > 50% less paper than its physical counterparts 3) A physical t-shirt is likely to end up in a landfill before its 11th wear, and you have some pretty hefty sustainability stats.
But what does this mean in practice? Should we all clean out our wardrobes, buy a skin-tight green-screen bodysuit and OCULUS Quest 2 and resign ourselves to life in the ether?
Or not for a few years at least.
Unless you’re an influencer, who buys clothes for the sole purposes of content creation, in the current state of play, the value of Digital Fashion is not as a substitute for its physical counterparts, but rather as their complement; improving both consumer and producer behaviour in numerous ways.
Philosopher Denis Diderot realised that consumption breeds consumption, 100 years before the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ was defined in Thorstein Veblen’s ‘Theory of Leisure’, and 200 years before the Britney Spears best-seller ‘Gimme More’.
Diderot himself, was a victim of the phenomenon. He lived the majority of his life in poverty until, at the age of 52, a gift from Catherine The Great sparked a spending spree that almost ruined him.
The story goes, that upon stumbling across Diderot’s work The Empress of Russia, was so impressed that she built him a library. This library was so lavish, that Diderot felt embarrassed wearing his customary rags within it. He felt he needed to invest in a piece of finery, to wear whilst reading, to do the library justice.
This finery took the form of a scarlet robe. Once he donned the robe, Diderot felt worthy of setting foot in the library. However, in comparison to his other possessions, the robe was so glorious it made everything else he owned seem dirty and insignificant.
Diderot concluded that there was *“no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” *in what he owned, compelling him to buy more in order to achieve alignment.
Eventually, after he’d maxxed out his credit card, Diderot came to the revelation that consumption catalyses a flywheel effect; each purchase breeds the need to buy more to further validate the new identity the first purchase set out to construct; aka ‘The Diderot Effect’
We’ve all been Diderots. And who could blame us? The desire to evolve is in our genes. As we age we experience shifts in our identity and the ways we conceptualise ourselves. And if nature wasn’t already stacked against us, we’re also fighting against the cultural praxis of the fashion industry, consistently told that the things we own aren’t ‘in style’ and don’t align with the way we should conceptualise ourselves every three months/ two weeks/ one and three quarter minutes.
This is where Digital Fashion comes in.
Converting our construction of identities to the digital world provides exciting opportunities to adjust our sense of self; without the environmental cost. From a creative perspective, the goods we can consume in the Metaverse aren’t tethered to the laws of physics, or gravity. Nor is the being they’re bought for. From an environmental standpoint Digital Fashion allows for a colossal redirection of resources which may otherwise end up in landfills every time our identity’s re-jigged. If you take the fact that the estimated 350 million players of online game Fortnite spend an average of $80 on clothing items for their in-game avatars, and assume these digital clothes are a substitute for their physical counterparts, that’s $28bn directed away from clothes, unsustainably produced, worn max 10 times, and most probably discarded. Viva-la Avatar!\
A select number of high-end art galleries offer clients the ability to take their pieces home before buying them. These works of art sit in a prospective buyer’s home, allowing their future family to ponder “is this something I can live with?” alongside the query “is this something I can’t live without?”. Two very distinct decisions.
Digital Fashion provides these same opportunities for considerate consumption.
We’ve all had that wave of remorse that hits walking out of a shop, where the sales assistant convinced you that you needed those putrid lime trousers. You manage to keep his voice in your head all the way down the street, but by the time you get home the trourers make you feel a little nauseous. By the next day you find yourself putting them back into the bag, and by the next week you’re checking Vestiaire to see if they’ve had a drop in commission rates…
Digital Fashion nips this in the bud.
At the first point of attack you have digital try-on. You can wear a garment via AR from the comfort of your home, without the pressure of a sales assistant glancing over your shoulder imploring you to buy.
Moving further into your ownership journey you have the opportunity to own the garment digitally (all the various methods of which are outlined here); providing all the flexing rights you’d get from its physical counterpart with far less of the commitment. You can sit with this asset in your virtual wardrobe, wear it on your socials, and carefully consider whether lime green is really your colour, before pulling it from the ether.
These psychological shifts, re-directing conspicuous consumption, mean that less clothes will be unnecessarily produced, and end up in landfills each year. But for the moment when we make the informed decision that it is the right time to physically buy, well Digital Fashion can optimise there as well.
Plugging Digital Fashion into the supply chain, allows efficiencies that span the design, creation and manufacturing process. These are outlined in depth in my second essay Design and Technology, but to touch on the key factors:
At the design phase, Digital Fashion has the ability to improve sustainability in:
Digital Fashion also allows designers to test the waters before producing. This can, and will take many forms, ranging from integrating AI-based trend forecasting as experimented with at FIT, leveraging start-ups like UNMADE for MTO production; or using Digital Fashion as a deposit scheme for its physical counterparts; discussed above.
Just as Digital Fashion can improve how garments are made, it can also help to improve equity for those making them, lowering barriers to create, showcase and sell:
Finally, people. As mentioned before, the values of the gaming community; those of transparency, collaboration and self-expression, lie at the core of Digital Fashion; countering each negative mode the fashion industry furthers in their own distinct ways.
The propositions explored above, outline Digital Fashion’s potential, to revolutionise Planet, Profit, and People in ways previously unseen.
However, I began with the warning that assuming Digital Fashion is automatically more sustainable than its physical alternatives damages this revolutionary potential. This is because, as with all innovations, without a clear focus on generating positive impact, the negative automatically seeps in.
The rise (and falls) of NFTs provide a cautionary example. Initially touted as a new, sustainable way to make and sell goods (because digital = sustainable duh), after just a few months it became clear that transacting on-chain locks in high environmental prices with every block. The Ethereum network alone currently consumes the equivalent energy to Ecuador or Libya and if nothing changes this will only grow.
Digital Fashion faces these same environmental challenges, in its reliance on vast quantities of computing power across the supply chain (designing, rendering, transferring, selling, wearing). As it moves to meet increasing demand, both phygitally and in-game, it is integral that the environmental expense of creating and utilising digital designs is bought down.
This same consciousness needs to be employed when considering profit. Whilst technologies like fractional garment ownership come a long way in assuring equity, as big brands like Gucci, Burberry and D&G move into the space, economic opportunities for independent creators can be curtailed as these giants leverage their economies of scale to undercut incumbents on price.
Gucci’s recent AR sneaker serves to show how one goliath can warp pricing for an entire industry. In March this year Gucci released an AR shoe, worn through the app WannaTry and priced at a mere $12. Whilst this sparked a fair quantity of Digital Fashion press in the mainstream media, the $12 price tag undercut every single other Digital Shoe out there. After all, how could any Digital Fashion brand dare to charge more than $12 for a Digital Shoe when Gucci, an established luxury brand selling their physical sneakers for $600+, sold theirs for only $12.
While Gucci has the money to view a Digital Shoe’s production as a marketing activity; the same luxury cannot be afforded to other Digital Designers marketing similar goods. For these creators the Digital Shoess serve as primary sources of income, the products of weeks of work. What’s more, where Gucci has the scale to price at $12 and break even through attracting tens-of-thousands of buyers, the majority of Digital Fashion platforms are still nascent. They’ll sell 100 of their shoe (if they’re lucky), and if these need to be priced under $12, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to stay afloat.
Finally, people. Whilst I’ve touted Digital Fashion as a route to low-cost global exposure, those who are most in need of an equitable industry, may remain excluded in the digital realm. 53% of households globally do not have a computer, or the hours to invest to mastering CLO. This lack of access, and digital literacy, could mean that Digital Fashion finds its beneficiaries limited to those with income if significant efforts aren’t made to lower the barriers to participation.
What’s more, it’s important to remember that digital innovations that disrupt the status quo also come at the expense of those who have built careers within the establishment. Across the entire industry, from show bookers to garment workers there are those who could easily be displaced by digital if they are not taught to move with it. Going back to my point around Digital literacy, this directly intersects with the most vulnerable.
Whilst the issues above seem daunting, what’s heartening to note is that as long as the Digital Fashion community stays true to its values, efforts will be taken to ensure Digital Fashion is a sustainability driver. Examples of ‘doing digital right’ have already been seen from The Fabricant, who upskilled all of Tommy Hilfiger’s physical designers when they digitised in 2018; Evelyn Mora, in her work at Helsinki fashion week and her development of Digital Village; Karinna Nobbs and her Dematerialised carbon offsetting, and even the ETH network itself, shifting slowly to a proof-of stake protocol.
This Outfit Does Not Exist became The Fabricant’s first PolymXth: writing and speaking about The Wardrobe of The Metaverse. Join our weekly Clubhouse chats and subscribe to my monthly newsletter to keep up to date!\
A limited edition Gucci Dionysus handbag originally sold in game Roblox for $5.50 was resold for $4,115 on the secondary market\
Auroboros became the first ever Digital Fashion House to show their designs at London Fashion week, accompanying their virtual presentation with a SNAP AR activation of their VenusTrap dress. Through Snapexplore the dress was worn over 1.5 million times, bringing Digital Fashion to the global masses\
Burberry has launched its first collection of NFTs with Mythical Games, D&G have said they will be producing Virtual Fashion, and Virgil Abloh has indicated his desire to move into the Digital Fashion space
The four major fashion weeks emit more CO2 than the total emissions of a small country such as Saint Kitts and Nevis\
Three-fifths of all clothing items will end up in an incinerator or landfill within a year after being produced.\
Less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into something more. That’s a loss of 100 billion USD worth of materials every year.\
About 2,000 different chemicals are used in textile processing — yet only 16 are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.\
While up to 91% of luxury brands have committed to goals such as sourcing sustainable materials, protecting biodiversity and using renewable energy, only 35% publicly encourage suppliers to allow trade unions to form
This Outfit Does Not Exist, is a platform bringing Digital Fashion to life through explanation and exhibition. The newsletter will dive into the industry’s developments, the start-ups that shape them, and their capacity to disrupt the wider world of physical goods.
Each newsletter will explore a theme: from digital design & distribution, to marketing in the Metaverse. I’ll also showcase the most brilliant feats of digital design via Instagram.
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— Dani, This Outfit Does Not Exist