Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have surged onto the technological and artistic scene over the past year or so, but what are they? Essentially a form of cryptocurrency yet a unique form, non-fungible means that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. For example, a bitcoin is fungible if you trade one for another bitcoin, you will have exactly the same thing. NFTs being non-fungible means that they are one of a kind, you own the original and whilst the digital file can be copied many times the ownership cannot be duplicated. NFTs can really be anything digital such as music, drawings, films but a lot of the current excitement is around using the technology to sell digital art.
The market for NFTs is currently booming with hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on single digital images. The idea being that as society and technology progresses into the next digital age that art collection would follow, being able to own and digital image the same way one might with an exclusive piece of fine art. Recently, the fashion industry has also taken to the NFT craze with major fashion houses and smaller independent designers developing NFTs in the form of digital garments. Although a very new concept there is the potential for many interesting possibilities with digital fashion, there are however questions over the sustainability of NFTs and certainly cryptocurrency in general.
Cryptocurrencies require large amounts of energy which has seen many face backlash recently. Held and created digitally cryptocurrencies such as NFTs are created, or “mined”, by computers solving mathematical code and puzzles. By solving these puzzles, data miners create a verified transaction, or block, that is then stored on the blockchain, in return for a cryptocurrency transaction. The process requires a lot of verifications, and a lot of computers working on them. All these computers are constantly working to mine cryptocurrencies, using huge amounts of energy. Bitcoin, perhaps the most well-known cryptocurrency has a notoriously high carbon footprint. The University of Cambridge, which measures Bitcoin’s electrical consumption, estimates that mining Bitcoin uses the same amount of electricity every year as the United Arab Emirates. Ethereum however, which is the blockchain most NFTs are attached to also has a worrying carbon footprint, using the same amount of energy annually as Portugal. If brands are to use NFTs then they must consider their sustainability policies, until technology can allow for less energy intensive blockchain computing, designers will need to figure out how to minimise their environmental footprint. If the fashion industry sees digital fashion and NFTs as a sustainable alternative, sustainable blockchains and currencies must be prioritised.
If there is a way to mine crypto in a more sustainable way, then it would open up interesting avenues for the fashion industry and may actually be environmentally beneficial. Take, for example, garments made only to be worn once on a catwalk, could we one day see fashion shows digitalised saving the need for wasted textiles. Fashion pieces seen as art could be collected as such, but digitally in the form of NFTs. Marketers have begun to brand digital fashion as an alternative to overproducing and consuming in the physical world. Brands have been exploring ways of using fashion NFTs in more sustainable ways. Givenchy’s creative director Matthew Williams worked with Chito to create the NFTs which can be used as online avatars or profile pictures. Proceeds raised from the NFT auction will go to Givenchy’s charity partner, The Ocean Clean-up, a non-profit developing technology to eliminate plastic pollution. Brands like Burberry have also opted against using the unsustainable Ethereum blockchain in favour of private EOSIO blockchain protocol using a Proof of Authority model that is far less energy-intensive. Currently, the proof of work mechanism is widely used in blockchain to mine and make transactions, Bitcoin and Ethereum use this. This is the most energy intensive option. The second leading option is proof of authority which is more energy efficient as it doesn’t require the high-powered computing that proof of work does. Clearly, as is the case with many new breakthroughs, there is plenty of room for improvement. There are also endless possibilities of innovation to follow, the relationship between fashion and the digital world is definitely something to keep an eye on.