Metaverse as a Magic Sustainability Bullet? Think Again, Say Experts

·5 min read

PARIS — Fewer physical clothing samples. No need to fly guests to a show. There’s no end to the benefits that the metaverse can bring, right?

Not necessarily, experts say.

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“We know fashion loves whatever’s new and shiny, and they just leap on it like magpies. And obviously that’s happening with the metaverse,” said Talia Hussain, a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Design Innovation at Loughborough University London with an expertise in sustainability and social impact.

In her opinion, the metaverse’s problems are threefold: the fact that technologies are not automatically sustainable; the assumption that consumers will switch to digital goods, especially in fashion, while reducing their consumption of physical ones, and the diversion of resources away from solving problems like workers’ rights, inclusivity or textile-to-textile circularity.

And that’s assuming people even know what they’re talking about as metaverse, Web3 and digital fashion are connected but distinct fields.

“We have this idea that they’re just ‘in the cloud’ and whatever [when] they’re really earthbound,” she added, pointing out that digital concepts are too often approached with the idea that they are free of any physical-world impact.

Case in point: the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies and the blockchains that underpin the ecosystem.

Bitcoin, for example, has long been singled out for its fossil fuel-powered energy, with a tally by the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance noting it used more than, say, Belgium’s yearly consumption.

Although efficiency gains have made data processing less energy intensive, only 25 percent of the energy going into Bitcoin mining is renewable and an analysis found that a single NFT transaction produced on average 48 kg of CO2, the equivalent of burning 18 liters of diesel, according to figures cited by EY global chief technology officer Nicola Morini Bianzino in a recent article on whether creating a virtual world would usher in a more sustainable one.

Efforts to move toward cleaner energy production may also be hampered by current global geopolitical uncertainties. The war in Ukraine and subsequent embargoes on Russian gas have even prompted some Western European countries to consider restarting coal-based power plants as energy prices skyrocket.

That said, the true impact of metaverse and Web3 activities remains difficult to assess. “I don’t know who can say today that they have a virtuous metaverse strategy,” said Arianee cofounder and chief executive officer Pierre-Nicolas Hurstel, pointing out that it would involve having found ways to truly measure the impact of a company’s activities; drawn up genuine mitigation and compensation strategies, and ensured that all partners are sources of positive energy.

One widespread assumption is that digital goods would come to replace physical consumption. But that view is misguided, with both Hussain and Hurstel stating it is akin to comparing apples and pears.

“When you go out on the streets, your T-shirt can’t be digital,” said the tech entrepreneur, adding that the real question was whether owning a digital object removed the need to possess its physical equivalent.

“I just see it as an additional consumption, rather than a displacement of consumption,” said the researcher, who does not understand how this belief took form as “there doesn’t seem to be a credible argument to say that people who have disposable income to spend on digital clothes will stop buying real clothes.”

“I think they’ll do both,” she continued.

A better way to approach it would be to consider whether the trade-off between physical and digital resulted in an overall decreased impact, such as, say, seeing an item increase its useable lifespan, Hurstel said.

Another way digital fashion remains unsustainable in its current form, especially when it comes to social equity, is that it is “actually copying the dysfunctional ways of physical fashion,” with fast-fashion practices very much present in this space, said Evelyn Mora, founder of Helsinki Fashion Week and a consultant on digital projects.

What’s more, they’re making them snowball as brands are keen to tap into the emerging hyperconnected generations.

That’s 300 million people who are active in the metaverse, meaning they have an active avatar in one of countless virtual worlds or at least one NFT, said Federico Bonelli, retail, fashion and luxury leader at EY in Western Europe. For NFTs alone, that’s a market worth $350 billion in 2021, and growing.

“So you need to be there, in a sense,” he continued, especially given this is an already aggregated community that spends on average 3.5 times more time there than on social media. No wonder brands are drawn like moths to a flame, especially those who need to secure brand elements for the next generation, capture attention, strengthen ties with consumers and lower customer acquisition costs.

“Those who genuinely like and care and are interested about fashion will look at this with horror. This is not about fashion. This is about locating customers,” said Hussain, who also pointed out that the metaverse was exclusionary for anyone without access to devices or older generations.

“A lot of brands make a lot of mistakes and people lose a lot of money just trying to be part of a hive,” Mora said, calling such projects “mindless activity” that were therefore both unsustainable and short-sighted.

Time, effort and funds are being sunk at a rapid pace into digital spaces, to little effect.

A loss of resources that neither the industry nor the planet can afford. “This is diverting resources from solving real problems,” Hussain said. “And instead of addressing them, you’re going to run into unreality.”

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