Do you spend your days on Zoom calls, do all your shopping online, or spend your evenings building your dream world on The Sims? Like never before, a huge part of our lives are being played out online. It was only a matter of time before fashion brands started to dress our online personas.
And part of the excitement around the rapid growth of the digital fashion space — and why we’re looking into it here — is whether it could be harnessed to fix the fashion industry and make it more sustainable and ethical.
Digital fashion is a catch-all term for clothing that isn’t produced physically, from gaming skins and customized avatars, to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and augmented reality filters. In 2019, Moschino was one of the first big brands to embrace digital fashion, creating a capsule collection for The Sims, followed closely by Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with League of Legends. In December 2020, Balenciaga released its Fall 2021 collection with a videogame called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, In August, Dolce & Gabbana created a nine-piece NFT collection called Collezione Genesi that was sold alongside physical items at the brand’s Alta Moda show, while in January this year, Gap released its own collection of NFTs in collaboration with artist Brandon Sines. They join the likes of Adidas, Nike, Gucci and scores of other brands attempting to connect with consumers in an increasingly digital world.
There is huge potential for digital innovations to revolutionize the way we engage with clothing in the “real” world too, whether that’s streamlining supply chains, satisfying consumer desire for newness, or providing a solution to online shopping pain points. There’s no shortage of hype around it — some have even gone as far to suggest that it could eventually signal the downfall of fast fashion.
Could digital fashion really be harnessed to make the industry more sustainable?
NFTs and Their Emissions
Let’s start with NFTs, which are unique graphic tokens that are stored on blockchain technology. Blockchain technology is a ledger that records all transactions related to the work, starting with the original creator of the NFT. (For a much more in-depth explanation, check out the Verge’s comprehensive NFT guide.) Buying a fashion NFT is like buying a one-off couture garment that’s made for your measurements, only it’s a one-off digital link to a file that only you can use.
How you use your NFT varies case by case — you may be able to wear it in a digital metaverse space, within a game, or it may be more like a piece of art. With a little more development and investment, the possibilities could be endless, but for now, fashion NFTs are more like curiosities and experiments (and volatile investment assets) than useful products.
“It’s starting to extend its applicability, but part of the challenge for digital fashion is utility,” explains Rufus Parkinson, chief executive of digital fashion company Style Me. “It’s all very well to buy a fantastical dress or a pair of Gucci trainers, but then what do you do with it? I can post it online and say ‘I bought this’ but so what? That’s the piece we’re trying to solve.”
But even though fashion NFTs are just fripperies and pixels right now, they actually have a carbon footprint, believe it or not. That’s because of the type of blockchain system they’re built on. “Most NFTs are built on Ethereum, and that happens to be the worst one you can possibly build on,” says Alex de Vries, a data scientist and founder of Digiconomist, a platform where he tracks the environmental impact of Ethereum and its counterparts, Bitcoin and Dogecoin. “That’s usually where their carbon footprint comes from because they’re running on a system that is massively energy-intensive in the background.”
Ethereum uses a huge amount of energy — according to de Vries’ calculations, it has an annual carbon footprint comparable to Sweden. Ethereum’s creators have been talking about switching to a more environmentally-friendly system called Proof-of-Stake for a few years, which de Vries estimates would reduce the energy usage by 10,000 times, but the transition is yet to happen.
It’s as if these digital fashion factories are running on the 2022 equivalent of coal — the environmental damage is just less obvious. “It’s hard to see the impact on the world by just doing a transaction on these systems, it’s all fun and games and there’s no real consequence. But there is, it’s just harder to see,” de Vries says.
De Vries used a carbon calculator and concluded that the total carbon footprint of a collection of 216 NFTs created by the virtual fashion marketplace Digitalax was 45,000 kilograms of carbon emissions, which works out to be 208 per NFT — the equivalent of charging 25,300 smartphones.
There’s also the issue of inequality that NFTs breed, and we’re not just talking about the eye-popping speculation and million-dollar sales happening at art auctions. Notice how all the brands I listed as getting into the market are all huge? The barrier to entry for accessing marketplaces for NFTs can lock many small brands out. That’s ironic, given the potential for NFTs to help small-time creators protect their copyright and earn money from their digital creations. Turns out, an NFT’s worth often hinges on the kind of established desirability and scarcity model that luxury brands are masters in.
“How can we enable small designers to become metaverse capable creators?” asks Parkinson. “Currently that’s quite daunting unless you want to just create a dress and stick it on a marketplace. But no one will ever buy it, it’ll never be worth anything. So how do you allow them to curate their NFT in a space that’s actually worth something? There has to be some uniqueness.” In other words, benefits are accruing to the already-big creators.
Virtual Fashion and Overconsumption
AR skins and filters are becoming increasingly accessible thanks to companies like DressX, one of the first multi-brand digital fashion retailers in the world. DressX works by superimposing digital garments over photos and avatars, as well as using sophisticated AR filters to mold a digital garment to your body.
Currently, DressX’s target market is content creators. “When we started about one and a half years ago, the whole idea was to provide an alternative solution for the people shopping to create content,” says Olga Chernysheva, chief sustainability officer at DressX.
Considering the social stigma around outfit repetition (particularly for influencers and celebrities) which encourages a rapid churn of consumption, DressX’s ambition is to turn fast-fashion shoppers into digital fashion shoppers. “Instead of following the trends and buying a garment that you may only use once or twice, and will never wear again, try an AR solution,” says Chernysheva. “It’s much less polluting, you can try something straight away, it doesn’t take up space in your cupboard, and it costs less money.” Imagine a digital combination of a Pinterest board and Cher’s closet in “Clueless.”
Virtual fashion also opens up a wider scope of possibilities for design when there are no real-world limitations. Many of DressX’s pieces are otherworldly, using metallic-finish “digital silks” and pearlescent “digital organza” to create striking sculptural looks without using materials, water, chemicals, or plastics, or creating any textile waste. “Go to the digital space, use those tools to express yourself, and be a more creative version of yourself — think beyond physicality,” she says.
DressX claims that the production of digital fashion uses 97% less carbon than the production of a physical garment. The team compared the footprint of a basic T-shirt (6.5 kilograms of CO2 emissions) to a digital version (250 grams of CO2 emissions) to come to this conclusion. While most companies and experts say cotton tees have a footprint closer to 2 kilograms of CO2 emissions, the difference between digital tops and physical tops is still dramatic. “The carbon footprint of a garment can easily be 10 kilograms of carbon, which is already quite a lot,” says de Vries. “But if you’re going to create a digital dress then the only thing you need to make is a computer and you need to run that computer. On the whole, you’re probably going to save energy.”
For brands, virtual fashion can be used to gauge consumer interest in a product and avoid overproducing pieces that might not sell well. In August 2021, DressX partnered with luxury retailer Farfetch on the “first carbon-neutral fashion campaign in the world.” The pre-order campaign dressed influencers in digital garments that could be ordered and produced on demand. “We saw cost reduction, environmental impact reduction, time reduction, and no waste because the influencers didn’t receive something they’d only wear once to take a photo and then put it in the cupboard,” says Chernysheva. “When the person ordered the physical item on Farfetch, they were notified that the garment would take a bit longer because it had to be produced. So we were able to avoid overproduction, which is another big issue.”
The question is: Could digital fashion really ever replace fast fashion? Parkinson thinks so. “A lot of consumers are stuck on the drug of fast fashion, changing their clothes and getting the latest thing,” he says. “Perhaps they won’t need to do that in the physical world because they can do it online for a lot less money and pretty much no damage to the environment. They’ll still buy offline but maybe they won’t buy so much.”
But only 23% of respondents to a DressX’s survey said that they bought a digital piece of fashion in lieu of buying a physical garment. And this assumes that the average consumer could care less about what they look like in real life among friends and at parties than they do online. At this early stage in the evolution of digital fashion, it’s all speculation.
Digital Fitting Rooms and Returns
Where virtual fashion has more real-world application is in virtual fitting rooms. Currently, 70% of returns are due to ill-fitting garments, says McKinsey. Style Me’s virtual fitting rooms allow you to create an avatar within an e-commerce platform by entering your measurements and customizing your hair and skin color too. The result is a far lower returns rate because shoppers can more easily visualize how a garment might fit their body.
“With the virtual fitting rooms, we cut returns by up to 50%,” says Parkinson. This helps brands reduce the ‘reverse logistics’ of getting garments back into their system. “You can have a much more streamlined supply chain in that respect.”
Style Me captures the data that customers input and shares it with brands. “They can start to look at body shapes, who is trying on what, what body sizes are getting returned more often, so they can start to do adjustments on their own sizing,” he says. With better data, brands can tailor designs to create clothing that is more likely to fit better and be worn longer by their customers.
If you’ve shopped online for glasses or makeup online recently, you might have been able to try them on via your device — it’s tech that eyewear brands like Warby Parker and makeup merchant Charlotte Tilbury have been using for a while now. Taking things to the next level are companies like Modern Mirror, creator of the Avant-Garde Fitting System, a real-time 3D body imaging system that creates a precise fit visualization for customers. Modern Mirror is used by luxury brands that are more likely to work with private clients, so it’s unlikely this tech will be available to the masses any time soon.
It’s also worth noting that Style Me and others boast that their tech leads to more sales. “From a retailer perspective, what we’re doing is driving conversions,” says Parkinson. “And on the back of that, we also increase basket size because people are exploring, creating outfits, mixing and matching clothing, putting a jacket over the shirt, driving up the AOV [average order value]. After that, you bring up retention because people are more likely to come back.”
It begs the question: could virtual fitting rooms actually encourage overconsumption, even if a customer is keeping more and returning less? Or is it shifting customers away from throwaway fashion to higher quality items that they will keep? More research is needed…
The Verdict on Digital Fashion and Sustainability
In the current climate, digital fashion seems to be split into two camps: the gimmicky investment opportunities versus the practical solutions. While it’s hard to say whether we’re in a bubble or the beginning, as brands race to be early adopters of the latest virtual application for fashion, it’s crucial that they — and we — do our due diligence to ensure they’re not causing more harm than good.
Perhaps sometime soon, digital fashion will open up endless possibilities for personal style expression online, allowing people to experiment with fashion in a far less wasteful way than they do now. “In the future, you and I won’t be doing this interview on Zoom, we’ll be hanging out in a space where you can wear the latest haute couture,” Parkinson told me.
But I’m not a dedicated gamer or fashion influencer. And considering the looming existential threat posed by the climate crisis, I personally would like to see more digital innovations that are scalable solutions to the real-world harm that fashion is causing to people and the planet, before I think about rocking virtual Balenciaga trainers on my Instagram.