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Our wardrobes have evolved to become tools of expression. Fashion styles allow us to associate ourselves with cultural beliefs and express our unique personalities. With technology pushing into the fashion space, and the rapid transition into virtual reality, the ways in which we approach and wear clothes are shifting.
The rise of digital fashion has enabled people to tailor unique styles virtually, be it through Augmented Reality, digital filters, or NFT garments. Digital fashion is now a prevalent topic of discussion, especially with its potential to reduce waste and environmental damage common in textile fashion. The waste legacy of fashion is criticised for its high pollution and greenhouse gas emission rates. In 2018, the fashion industry was responsible for 4% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the equivalent of the annual emissions of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.
Creatives working in digital fashion are strongly critical and vocal about sustainability issues within the industry, so how can digital fashion challenge climate-destructive practices and create more responsible digital products in the future? This week, we met with Beata Wilczek, a cross-disciplinary academic and the Head of Impact at The Dematerialised, a digital fashion marketplace, to discuss the new directions and sustainability shifts taking place in the digital fashion space.
Hey Beata, nice to meet you. We’re excited to have you here today to speak about sustainability and digital fashion. Could you tell our readers a little bit about your background and your current line of work?
Pleasure to meet you too. I work in fashion and tech as a researcher, educator and strategist. I specialise in building projects for digital, diverse and sustainable fashion futures. For over a decade I have worked as an educator and held many creative positions in fashion and arts. My academic background is versatile as I hold two MAs, one in Social Psychology and a second in Curating from CSM. During the pandemic, I launched Unfolding Strategies, a consultancy and education lab for the fashion industry, as I felt that all knowledge about sustainability and digital cultures circulating inside universities would benefit and transform the industry.
I joined The Dematerialised (DMAT) as a Head of Impact in November 2022, to develop and implement the sustainability and social impact strategy. It has been a great journey so far as I have had an opportunity to build something that has never been done yet, bridging fashion, tech, and Web3. Blockchain energy consumption, transparent products and inclusion in the metaverse are quite new and important topics, especially in the context of fashion. I believe that at DMAT we are creating new standards and blueprints for the next decade.
Do you think fashion has changed in recent years?
I think fashion is facing rapid changes on many levels. AR, AI, and blockchain are the key technologies expanding our definition of fashion. They allow us to reimagine how fashion is being designed, produced, and experienced. This massive shift happens very rarely, historically speaking. We need to utilise this opportunity and make sure it goes in the best possible direction. Digital fashion can make fashion more inclusive and decentralised. It can also support sustainable development and a shift towards a circular economy. That is why I joined The Dematerialised, to see what are the possibilities and how we, a tech company, can deliver on sustainability and social impact in fashion.
Can you recall your first encounter with digital fashion and sustainability?
In the summer of 2019, I was a visiting professor in Digital Design at the University of Virginia, USA. I was leading a summer program for American students in Berlin and we were discussing all things digital. One of them was the emerging digital fashion. I invited Yoonha Kim, a design anthropologist from Humboldt University, to give a talk about her research in digital fashion and discussed the Fabricant x ID magazine video, that just came out. The video portrayed digital fashion as fundamentally inclusive and sustainable. I was intrigued and at the same critical because I believed that such bold statements need to be examined. Since then I have been actively researching and examining digital fashion, from a systemic perspective. I have organised many courses and workshops, where the sustainable potential of digital fashion stood as the main focus.
What do you think changes in terms of approaching sustainability from textile fashion to digital fashion?
The fashion industry can benefit from digital fashion in 4 ways. First, is virtual sampling, where traditional samples are replaced with 3D, making the process more efficient and less wasteful.
Second is traceability and authentication, which is possible with blockchain. The third is production on demand, which might help resolve the problem of overproduction. Finally, it is introducing new, digital-only products, such as skins or NFTs. But with these new developments, digital sustainability becomes crucial. If a company starts to introduce new digital products this should also be embraced and reflected in the CSR* or ESG** reporting.
In summary, digitization can bring efficiency in production and diversify brands portfolios, but also raises new questions and needs to be looked at holistically. Both industry and consumers need to learn and understand all these new developments. It is also particularly important that we address cultural and social sustainability, against cultural appropriation and workers' exploitation in digital fashion.
Having an NFT digital garment must also pose certain environmental challenges. How do you address this in your sustainability strategy?
Every garment, digital or not, poses environmental challenges. At DMAT we ensure that our NFTs run on PoS blockchains, Lukso and Ethereum. Not all blockchains are created equal, and not all NFTs have the same impact. It is crucial to differentiate between PoW and PoS, as their environmental effects are radically different.
Can you tell us more about how embedding transparency into your products serves your sustainable vision?
In September 2022, we launched REAL, a transparency standard which tackles a core question about who makes our digital fashion assets. This feature exists in DMAT's product descriptions. It provides information about the place, time, labour, carbon, and file size of the NFT product.
We did it as we aim to grow our product responsibly. I firmly believe that transparency is fundamental to driving systemic change. Digital fashion and NFTs create a possibility to make labour visible, against the exploitation of vulnerable communities. Digital fashion needs to learn from past industry mistakes. Starting with transparency puts the values we stand by in motion and turns them into actions.
How do you keep track of your sustainability goals?
We see it as a work in progress and review them every year. This year we have set 10 goals that we are actively pursuing. Some have already been completed, which is a great success. We will be sharing our progress on the DMAT's website with our community. It is a collective effort as we rely on feedback from our community and industry experts. Especially, fellows working in blockchain development, sustainable consumption, and transparency in fashion.
Do you think there is enough awareness within the industry about the carbon footprint generated through digital products? And where do you see room for improvement?
With NFTs and digital fashion, there's particularly vital debate about these topics, but there's very little information, research, and data. I anticipate that in future there will be policies that regulate the disclosure of carbon footprint the same way as we have nutrition labels on food. And I hope this will also spark more conversations about streaming music and binge-watching. Those less novel digital products and activities need to be discussed widely too. Digital fashion and NFTs are just a part of a bigger discussion on digital sustainability and consumer awareness.
My last question is, what are the interesting resources/initiatives/projects under your radar for someone interested to learn more about sustainability in digital fashion?
Great question. I would suggest following what we do, on Instagram or Discord, to find out more about REAL and upcoming projects. You can also listen to my podcast Fashion Knowledge. I started this podcast because there were very few resources on the topic and so many great voices and perspectives to be shared.
I would also like to say to anyone interested, sceptical, or critical of this space, that they should join us, do projects, and do research because there's a need for that. I hope that we will go past the moment where we are hyper-excited or hyper-scared of it and we'll start thinking about how can we work with it. What can digital fashion do for us? And then how can we do it fairly and responsibly.
Yes, there is great potential to advance sustainability by using new technologies in fashion. Creatives are pushing back, many are moving in a direction to advocate working for and producing more inclusive, green, and responsible products. To accomplish this, there is much more research, discourse, and engagement to be done regarding climate-related practices across the creative industry. We aim to create possibilities within the industry to initiate these critical conversations about building digital products that align with our commitment to the planet. If you are with us on our mission to advance sustainability in the world of digital design, share your views, ask questions, or pass on your own learnings, then reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Corporate Social Responsibility
**Environmental, Social, and Governance