A fast fashion mindset that drives a new industry trend of NFTs burning is at odds with a shift to slow capitalism and conscious consumption
Accountability in fashion – NFTs burning
The past several years have seen progress in the fashion sector’s movement towards greater responsibility. International policymakers and shifting public opinion has forced the entire industry to change their perspective on what is considered ethical production. Some may even go so far as to call ‘sustainability’. The buzz word of the decade with biomaterial science, corporate-wide fur bans and the gradual movement towards seasonless. Fashion, at least for the sake of its stakeholders, has been assuming greater environmental and social accountability. After all, 2017 saw several top brands’ reputations tarnished for the burning and slashing of products. Overproduction and its consequential waste has become one of the key problems of the industry. One such solution to address this has been the invention of the digital garment. Yet, a new growing trend of NFTs burning has the potential to negate the positive steps the industry has made thus far.
The process of NFTs burning
NFTs or non-fungible tokens, are units of unique data that can be bought and sold online stored on a blockchain. Burning NFTs is the act of eliminating this token or digital garment from the blockchain permanently. The concept is similar to physical burning; as brands in the metaverse will burn unsold items or even burn surpluses to drive up the price and increase brand value. It is based on the premise of scarcity, wherein the less there is of a good the higher the desire for it; hence fashion’s use of capsules and limited-edition collections.
Sportswear giant, Adidas, has launched a new digital collection titled ‘Into the Metaverse’ where you can burn your purchased NFT to claim its physical equivalent. You are then given the product and another token, which you can choose to burn again in a multi-stage process. It seeks to gamify the purchasing experience by giving shoppers a risk or reward gamble of deciding which product will be of highest value. Similarly, apparel brand Champion has recently partnered with the avatar platform Non-Fungible People to digitally purchase and trade goods.
Implications of digital burning for people and the planet
The problem with this is that the entire production and purchasing process of NFTs actually uses a massive amount of electricity. As of today, most platforms use Bitcoin or other digital currencies to trade which in a year requires more electricity than the annual consumption of Sweden. The creation of one NFT requires on average over two hundred kilograms of carbon. Some platforms even add the extra feature of proof of work to authenticate the value of the good, which additionally results in more carbon.
And finally, the process of burning. On Ethereum platform, this requires a gas fee, a transaction which then adds to this overall carbon footprint. The majority of consumers and brands are under the impression that NFTs are the singular solution to the fashion sector’s waste. These processes do use less energy across the board than physical goods – however that does not equate to waste-free. One of the leading fashion NFT companies, DressX, cites their digital garments’ footprint being ninety-seven per cent less than traditional production.
The false impression that digital has no footprint at all
The critical issue however, is this enduring fast fashion and consumption attitude that prevails even among the luxury industry in fashion. The emergence of pre-season and resort over the last fifteen years has resulted in five to six collections a year. All to keep up with constantly changing demand. Digital burning may not result in nearly as much damage as its counterpart, but if consumers are under the impression that digital has no footprint at all, then here lies the problem. A mindset of unlimited consumption in the metaverse could have serious repercussions.
Especially when the potential benefits are offset by the production of both physical and digital products. Furthermore, many of these platforms such as DressX are marketing themselves on purpose; towards these brands to satisfy the Instagram age of influencers with the infinite wardrobe. If the industry continues operating in the mindset of constant production and inventing scarcity to drive up value; then they are not addressing the real problem at hand. The 2021 IPCC Report’s conclusions showed that the planet is not in a position for ‘less damage’ to be sufficient. One of the key conclusions from the 2021 Copenhagen Fashion Summit in October was to redefine sustainable growth. And so the question stands whether this practice’s principles undermine this.
The origins of NFTs burning in the fashion industry
When did the practice of burning physical products begin in the first place? Why did it become such a commonplace practice? It’s not easy to pinpoint when exactly this practice started and how much it continues today. It has been directly linked to the rise of fast fashion; beginning in the nineties driving prices lower and lower. This has created a need for luxury brands – and even middle-market brands such as Adidas – to maintain a sense of exclusivity and desirability for their products in order to justify high prices to consumers.
When items go unsold these brands resort to product destruction to ensure they are not stolen or resold for lower prices. This would consequently affect brand value. One of the first major scandals in 2017 exposed H&M for burning approximately sixty tons worth of clothes. The Danish TV station that broke the news found evidence to indicate H&M had been burning products since 2013 and eventually the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Cartier were called out for similar practices.
Slashing and dumping leather goods
Burning isn’t the only method in use, with Coach called out last year for slashing and dumping leather goods. In 2020 in the home of couture, the French government banned the disposal and burning of clothes and other goods. It marked a ‘world first’, affecting conglomerates LVMH and Kering. It’s to note that the art world too has taken a role in this ‘throwaway culture’ seen through artists such as Damien Hirst. Last year he launched his project The Currency, composed of ten thousand of his spot drawings in both physical and NFT form.
From the release of the pieces in July 2021, buyers have been given a year to decide whether to keep the physical or the digital goods. The remaining unwanted physical and digital goods will then be destroyed in July 2022. Social activist artist, Banksy, has even played a role in destructive practices. In 2018, he sold his piece Girl with Balloon for 1.4 million dollars and shredded it right away via remote control in a social statement against the elitism of the fine art industry. Yet, the buyer of the original piece put it back on auction last year and it resold for $25.4 million. The consumer response of increased demand for goods they consider to be more exclusive is the precise motivation for brands to continue engaging in this practice.
A potential new industry standard
It was only three years ago that the international press was abuzz with the news of Burberry’s product burning and condemned the fashion industry for their long participation in this practice. Yet, in 2022 brands are not only participating in the practice of burning products. They are marketing it to customers as enhancing the buyer experience and an eco-friendly alternative. With more and more brands entering the metaverse, digital burning might just become the new industry status quo. Whilst the carbon footprint of the metaverse is currently secondary to that of physical industries, the more brands enter this market and trade on these platforms, the bigger that footprint gets.
NFTs Burning in the Fashion Industry
The deliberate destruction of products in order to increase product and brand value through the principle of scarcity. The practice began with the rise of fast fashion twenty years ago and has transitioned into the digital realm. Its continuance indicates a stagnant perspective within the industry with great environmental consequences.