Eco-Verse: in conversation with Livia and Simon

This week, Eco-Age’s CEO Simon and creative director Livia discuss all things metaverse, including the environmental and social implications of a dystopian world and Eco-Age’s new Eco-Verse division.

Livia: Simon, I am so confused by all the virtual things bombarding us daily…

Simon: I feel you, and probably the first step is to simplify it by understanding that ‘metaverse’, ‘NFTs’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘digital fashion’ are all separate things. And even only within digital fashion there is so much greenwashing right now!

Livia: This is why it is fundamental that we keep an eye on facts. And the facts are that – at this point in history when we know the only truly sustainable solution is degrowth and brands will have to find alternative business models to keep profitable – digital is possibly a good way to diversify, and focus on entertainment for example.

In this respect, I remember Marco Bizzarri giving a lecture at the London College of Fashion in 2017 when one student asked him how he would have reconciled Gucci’s sustainability agenda with the company’s need to keep producing new clothes season after season. He shrugged and said that while he didn’t have an answer yet, surely the only way would have been for Gucci to become more of a content producer and diversify his business model. Fast forward few years, and Gucci has been one of the first brands to have a virtual world, digital products and gaming too. It is called the Gucci Good Game. Marco was right – and looking at it from this lens, it is a genius move. If you can still keep your company profitable while not producing more physical clothes (with all the consequences that this implies) surely this is a win.

But then two factors emerge: are digital clothes going to replace real clothes? Probably not. And then, most importantly, the environmental impact of technology is huge. It takes so much energy and no one can measure that impact yet as there is no life cycle analysis for the virtual world. And while you spend so much time trying to figure this out, they bombard you with another thing: NFTs! Could those even be sustainable?

Simon: We don’t yet know if an NFT can be “sustainable”. Let’s start with the definition of sustainability. It incorporates both the environmental issue and social justice issue – planet and people – so we don’t know whether an NFT can be sustainable because nobody yet has done full credible research into both these impacts.

We do know that to make an NFT one needs a blockchain. We know that by far the largest blockchains powering the majority of NFT transactions are the Bitcoin and the Ethereum blockchains, and because they use ‘proof of work’ they utilise the same energy consumption as some nations (Bitcoin as Argentina; Ethereum as Belgium), and the majority of this energy comes from fossil fuels. This by the way is the current state – in the NFT market valued at $20 million in 2020 Q3 then $10 billion in 2021 Q3. Considering this hyper growth, what will this be in 2022? Or 2023? If Bitcoin is Argentina now, then is entire of Europe next year? Africa? Asia? It’s true, amongst this are renewable energies, and there is Ethereum 2.0 on the horizon, but until these incredible increases in sales volumes are compounding into horrific environmental damage. Imagine the almost uncontrollable tidal wave of damage to the planet, our eco-systems, the global temperature, and the knock-on effect onto the global south, the people. Is this sustainable? No. Is this terrifying? YES ABSOLUTELY. This is why Eco-Age created Eco-Verse division.

Are there more sustainable ways for NFTs? Yes, first by ensuring the blockchain used is made with proof of stake. An example is Cardano, whom Eco-Age worked with to create the very first NFT ‘awards’ for young entrepreneurs at The Renaissance Awards. Charles Hoskinson, Cardano founder, claims for Cardano to be 1.6 million times more energy efficient than Bitcoin. Also, let’s ask ourselves why we are making NFTs – the purpose. To make a fast buck (which never ends well)? The artistic fashion collective EBIT™Enjoy Being In Transition™ – recently did a project on the Lukso blockchain (again, proof of stake) which sold out $50,000 in 24 minutes, by blending purpose (mental health awareness, 10% sales to, digital streetwear (as NFTs) and exclusive sound in an immersive XR experience named Yellow Trip Road. I envision a world where NFTs are not harming the planet, have a purpose in terms of social good, and which the community and the profits are treated equitably and ethically. To me that’s achievable, but we all need to be educated on the how.

Image: Via Meta/BBC. Mark Zuckerberg created a basic virtual world using Builder Bot, commanding the AI to add features such as an island, trees and a beach

Livia: Yes, digital consumption is what we need to be educated on for sure. And sorry if I go back to fashion, you know we always use fashion as a lens to look at the wider issues! For me this is exactly where the issue arise – currently digital consumption happens on games. People – particularly kids – have been gaming for ever and have, for example, chosen outfits or shields for their avatars for a long time. But now there are new businesses like DressX – I recently read an article on CNN regarding the limited data about the reduced impact of digital fashion, quoting DressX as having published a 2020 sustainability report which states that digital garments emit 97% less carbon than physical ones. But how did they measure this? As we know by now, data can be manipulated, and reporting can be stirred according to what the business wants you to see. (As an example of this manipulation, see the “Make the Label Count” campaign which we launched last year to make sure the EU Parliament uses the right methodology when addressing the PEF Label).

Simon: Digital consumption happens on the web. The web (algorithm) catches you. The web can be 2.0 or 3.0. But, never forget, the web only benefits the spider who weaves it. Now, there is a love/hate relationship with social media and digital consumption, particularly when it comes to the capitalist exploitation and our mental health. With 3.0, there is an opportunity for a more decentralised, equitable place of solidarity but not if the gold rush of mega companies build it all first, with their thirst for profit (a dystopia) above the societal solidarity need for a fair and just and purposeful place (a utopia).

Then – going back to our lens, going back to fashion, what is best in the long term? Is it better to buy a digital item rather than a real one? Currently, it’s hard to say better or worse, it’s different, and difficult to compare. The price can be comparable, definitely how we utilise them. But providing the environmental impact is not negative (i.e. using proof of stake), then a digital fashion product could be better than a physical one for obvious reasons (zero pollution, zero landfill). However, there are also social aspects to consider in determining the better/worse debate. We need physical clothes, fact. The majority of the world lives paycheck to paycheck, or worse in poverty. They cannot cope with the current peer pressure of today’s extreme capitalist consumerism. It comes down to macro-economics and disposable income. The wealthy will have no problem. But for the others, who struggle even now – what sacrifices in their disposable income must they make in order to create room to be happy, or even exist in the virtual world (as well as physical)? Must they compromise on their rent or home? Their health and nutrition? Because, unless the “metaverse” is equitable then this is the scenario we will create – a dystopian one, similar to ‘Ready Player One’ where the majority live physically in stacked up box apartments in order to be able to have this second parallel virtual life. So while digital fashion could be argued to be better on the environment than buying physical fashion, the question of social justice and economic inclusivity are other moral and ethical factors which could make digital creations a very harmful injection into our current status quo.

Livia: Exactly, and since we are still going to get dressed in real life every single day, my answer would be, a sustainable outfit is currently millions of times better than a digital creation. Regarding the effects on the business of fashion, remember that this is an industry that relies on humans – there are millions of people in global supply chains. We first need to look after them and fight the right battles for them. Our avatars, for the moment, can keep playing games…

Want to learn more? Read Livia’s article on why, after 12 years of working in sustainability we are launching the Eco-Verse.