The elusive world of fashion moves faster than the speed of light. From Zara’s 24 collections a year to SHEIN’s rising ecommerce empire, there’s no stopping brands from churning out more and more clothing––thousands for each occasion. At the forefront of this sustainability disaster is fast fashion, which has liberated ordinary consumers from the high price tag and exclusivity of luxury goods. Need a little black dress for a Saturday night out? Choose from six styles––all available in-store. Need a pair of white sneakers? Choose from over 250 styles––all in one shopping center.
Despite the massive influence of fast fashion over consumers, the industry is guilty of sustaining unethical labor practices and environmental degradation. Fashion is responsible for about 10% of the global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater and does more harm to the environment than the shipping and aviation industries. Change is imminent, with some of the biggest brands pledging to make changes within 20-30 years. But is that fast enough? And how can a growing tech empire nullify the issues of fashion sustainability?
Sustainability is No Longer Optional
Fast fashion has been integral in building a society of self-expression. It has made clothing cheap and easily accessible from all corners of the globe. Even impoverished countries get a share of fast fashion’s influence––70% of clothing donated to thrift stores end up in places like Africa and Southeast Asia, where they are resold for very little.
While brands like H&M and Zara have done a great job at bringing low-cost clothing to consumers, they are also faced with the dilemma of a market that needs constant change to stay interested. In a fast-paced world influenced by flash trends, consumers’ spending behavior changes just as quickly. While a print may be on-trend in the first week of the month, people may grow tired of it by week 4. That’s why brands are now releasing more collections than ever. FashionNova, an online shopping empire, reportedly releases 600-900 new styles per week.
However, that business model is quickly showing its age. The new generation of shoppers, most of whom come from the late millennial and Gen Z cohorts, are growing more aware of the ecological damage behind fast fashion and want transparency and change. Studies have shown that over 70% of millennials are willing to pay more for items produced sustainably.
Until recently, brands like Everlane used sustainability as a primary point of difference––to put themselves above the rest of the industry. Nowadays, sustainability is no longer an option. With a quickly degrading environment, depleting ozone layer, and climate change evident across the globe, lobbyists, shoppers, and sustainability organizations are cracking down on fast fashion and luxury houses alike.
How Technology Paves a Path Toward Sustainable Fashion
For the past few years, Stella McCartney has been actively shifting to sustainable manufacturing and overall business processes. They measure every raw material output and emissions from greenhouse gases to pollution and weigh all the factors against costs, benefits, and profit. The brand’s footprints are traceable throughout the supply chain––down to the source of materials, making them the poster figure for a circular and sustainable business model.
Supply Chain Tracking
Fashion companies can use blockchain technology to mirror Stella McCartney’s sustainability-forward practices. With innovations like VeChain, all aspects of the supply chain can be accounted for in an uneditable ledger, down to the temperature of goods as they are transported from one hub to another. Supply chains are complex processes that involve various people from multiple countries to stay connected and organized, hence why 35% of materials in the pipeline end up in waste. Keeping track of materials from supplier to final destination can reduce waste and help companies prevent huge financial losses.
3D Digital Try-On
Online shopping is quickly outpacing the brick-and-mortar experience––but at an environmental cost. Shipping services aside, one of the biggest downfalls of the ecommerce model is the return and exchange policy, which is bringing in even more waste to landfills. In the US, 2.2 million tonnes of returned clothing end up in landfills. In Australia, 30% of clothing purchased online are returned––and within that pool, 30% can no longer be sold, increasing the volume of landfill waste.
With the COVID-19-induced lockdowns, the fashion industry has seen a rise in digital try-on functionalities, primarily because the pandemic made it complicated to accommodate large-scale returns from both a business and health perspective. Style.me’s creative solution to this dilemma is an app where users can create avatars in the likeness of themselves to try on clothing. Meanwhile, optical stores also simplify the online buying process by allowing customers to upload pictures of themselves to virtually try on specs. These efforts are expected to reduce the product return rate, preventing landfill and shipping waste.
NFT-Based Virtual Fashion
With a growing interest in minimalism, the new generation of millennial and Gen Z shoppers are straying away from physical clutter. But being part of the tech boom, they’re also the cohorts most open to technological advancement, which is why they’re spearheading interest in NFTs. Non-fungible tokens offer immutable and irreplicable digital asset ownership, which can innovate the luxury fashion industry to take on a virtual shift. Brands like Hermes retain their luster through the exclusivity of their most coveted products, from the Birkin to the Kelly––many of which live in closets as pieces purely for collection.
Likewise, NFTs hold the same exclusivity but without straining the supply chain. Gucci has been experimenting with virtual drops usable in games like The Sims 4 and Roblox, proving that there is an interest in this niche. DIGITALAX has recently successfully rolled out digital NFT fashion auctions where anyone can purchase single-edition hyper-realistic, 3D pieces with Ether (ETH), bringing this new virtual fashion economy into a full circle.
Fast fashion has a place in the future––but only if they change their business models and bring in more tangible sustainability efforts at a faster pace. They will also have to adapt to the growing tech industry, which is claiming profit from fashion through virtual drops in the form of NFTs. It’s possible for slow fashion to take precedence in the physical world and for fast fashion to shift their interests to the virtual sphere. But only time––and consumer behavior––will surely tell.