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NFTs in fashion: environmental apocalypse or a future path?

Bemused by crypto? So are some experts. We investigate how NFTs may improve or impact the world

Cryptocurrencies: what was just a niche area affiliated with solemn IT-majors, is now a billion-dollar industry. Now, fashion, with its love for the new, can’t afford to be left out.

Brands are getting more and more involved in the crypto-sphere, with major players like Adidas and Nike, but also alternative designers, like Rave Review, leading the change.

However, with many greenwashing claims already happening in the physical fashion realm, the question of NFTs’ environmental impact arises.

Brands that participate in the NFT trade claim that their products are carbon-efficient. Some – like The Dematerialised – even suggest that through the expansion of digital fashion, the negative environmental impact of the physical fashion industry will be reduced.

However – can cryptocurrencies really be sustainable? Welcome to the ethical side discussion around NFTs.

Crypto alphabet

NFT is a non fungible token. It is a piece of an information – a picture, a video, a gif – that is totally unique. While you can trade one Bitcoin for one Bitcoin, every NFT is unique. It has no equivalent and no value outside the market. NFTs exist in blockchains, which can be explained as accountant books that keep track of each transaction data, and which are co-created by multiple users. After a piece of data enters the blockchain, it cannot be changed – which facilitates authenticity checks.

So far, nothing about the impact of NFTs seems like a catastrophe. However, let’s discuss a couple of factors. First is the type of the blockchain. There are around 10,000 blockchains – which one to choose?

Anant Singh, Chief Security Officer at ODIN Protocol, a decentralised data sharing system, lists Ethereum, Solana, Avalanche and Cosmos Hub as the blockchains that are the most popular amongst NFT creators and traders. These are by no means the only options. The luxury NFT fashion marketplace The Dematerialised, for example, use LUKSO blockchain, yet Ethereum and Solana remain the most popular.

 

Ethereum’s energy problem

To create an NFT, you need a smart-contract – a program that operates on a blockchain – and a proof that your transaction is not a fraud. For that purpose, Ethereum uses a scheme called proof-of-work. This means that to prove the authenticity of a transaction, the computer in use needs to solve certain mathematical questions and generate enough data. In turn, this leads to the fact that the machines need to be running for quite a long time and thus their energy consumption is high.

How high? This year’s estimate from Science Focus stated that Ethereum annually uses more energy than the entire country of the Netherlands – around 100 terawatt-hours per year. Some miners and cryptocurrency enthusiasts claim that it doesn’t have to mean an ecological catastrophe, because one can use renewable energy. Yet, cryptocurrency miners and traders are located all around the world. Many of them work in countries that rely on non-renewable energy consumption.

Future solutions

Is there any hope? Well, cryptocurrencies are a fairly new topic. While the blockchain technology was created in 2011, NFTs first appeared in public consciousness during Christie’s famous Beeple auction, where a crypto-artwork was sold for $69 million. This relative novelty means that solutions to the NFTs environmental impact issues may yet arise.

One already emerged, and it is called “proof-of-stake”. It is an alternative to proof-of-work confirmation system. In the simplest words, proof-of-stake means that you bet a certain amount of money to prove that your transaction is genuine. If it is not, you lose your money. Ethereum stated that its goal is to turn to the proof-of-stake system as fast as it can – probably in the next few years. Ethereum estimate that this change will mean 99.95% energy reduction, as proof-of-stake is around 2000 times more times energy-efficient than the proof-of-work.

A greater freedom?

After energy consumption queries, a more creative question emerges: how can we use NFTs? Let’s sink a bit deeper into web3 – a project of Internet transformation into a decentralised space. Web3 has as many opponents, as supporters. The latter often claim that NFTs have many uses, as non-fungibility means a proof of authenticity; something true in the sea of false information.

“In the web2 we have a few big companies – Google, Amazon and Facebook. They control all data and they can do everything with your data. Without your knowledge. But in with web3 the data is for everyone,” says Raedek (real name withheld), an NFT advisor at Uniqly.io, a platform that links NFTs to physical garments. The idea of data protection is vital to Raedek. He claims that in the DeFi (decentralised finance) market, information is the new currency and many developers use their Twitter or Telegram handles – rather than names – to communicate. “You don’t need money. You just need knowledge,” he says, describing the industry.

 

Both he and Singh mention authenticity of NFTs as their greatest value. “NFTs will enable ownership in the web3 Metaverse economy,” says Singh. “If you sell art on the blockchain, you will have no doubt that this is the original art,” adds Raedek. For fashion, this may mean help fighting counterfeits. A few companies, like Jigen, are already creating digital ownership certificates.

Community of different voices

Singh suggests that in the future, NFTs will be similar to an exclusive club. This can help brands build more devoted communities. “A few of the purposes in the next few years will be exclusive access to online communities and events, exchangeable NFT game assets, and actionable dynamic NFTs that change shape or colour according to real-world events,” says Singh. 

How can this be beneficial to the society? “Aside from enabling a decentralised, more democratic art world full of global voices, there are many ways virtual work itself promotes diversity.” claims artist Maria Kozak. Kozak’s works were recently featured in Microsoft’s Spirit of Being exhibition. She often ponders upon the relation between human beings and technology. The fact that the NFTs market is so novel may mean that it will be a good place for emerging artists and ideally, a perfect opportunity for sharing ideas of inclusivity. Take Rave Review’s Crypto-Panties project as an example – through using artworks of traditionally marginalised women artists, the Swedish upcycling brand tries to promote feminist values.

True inclusivity or artificial scarcity?

However, do these kinds of artworks really need to be NFTs? “Aside from NFTs, which negatively impact the environment through energy inefficient crypto mining practices, there are numerous ways artists and activists are using virtual art to spread awareness and celebrate the beauty of our natural environment,” says Kozak. She claims that embodied digital experiences, like VR, are an “empathy machine”.

She says: “They allow the user a first-person view of what it might be like to be disabled, see the world from a wheelchair or through the eyes of a sub-Saharan tribe.” As an example, she cites Movers and Shakers, an artistic platform that focuses on the underrepresented side of history.

 

Many claim that humanity just needs to wait and see how web3 develops. However, without a critical and inclusive approach, the future might not be so bright.

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