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Does Digital Truly Equal Sustainable?

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

The content in this article is part of The DPC Report 2022 published by The Interline on November 29, 2022. Click here to read the summary and download the entire report.

Working in 3D can shorten the development cycle of products dramatically. And digital-only fashion could sidestep the industry’s legacy of overproduction. But does digital working automatically equate to sustainable working? And is digital-only fashion creating a false perception of what comprehensive DPC should really mean?

3D model of an avatar wearing glossy grey pants

Much has been said about 3D or digital fashion and how beneficial it could be for fashion’s sustainability profile. This article, however, presents some counter-arguments and debates around why digital does not always equate to sustainability, and why digital products, digital fashion, and metaverse applications will not magically make the fashion industry's notorious practices sustainable by default.

First, there is no doubt that digital product creation is a catalyst in accelerating the process toward a sustainable fashion industry, but just the adoption of digital technologies alone will not solve the industry's mammoth problem with overproduction, waste, and questionable environmental and ethical practices. It remedies a segment of the value chain only, and the core benefits of digital product creation do not cover the full spectrum of sustainability.

By definition, sustainability and its values stand on three pillars: people, planet, and profit, or society, environment, and economy. They are interconnected, and one cannot sustain without the other. Each must prosper to make a system fully sustainable. The problem is that we often fall short of measuring sustainability against all three pillars. As a result, our insight is incomplete, barely scratches the surface, and portrays a false yet somewhat convincing image. We often fail to consider this very complex system's human and ethical aspects. To put this in perspective, technology could fully digitalise the inner workings of a business, but that business could still remain unsustainable. For example, the physical product may be of low quality and made of toxic materials, the workers may still be underpaid and employed in poor working conditions, and the final product produced in wasteful quantities.

Digital product creation may have shortened the development calendar for brands, and with visible results, but did it bring a measurable change to other elements across the chain? The answer is no, so who is benefiting from these noble technologies?

In parallel, the digital-only narrative is currently being sold as a version of, if not a solution to sustainable fashion, since it has no tangible products and therefore must be sustainable by definition. While these are relevant conversations in the wake of Web3, it is still early to decide when and how digital fashion can be positively meaningful for all the stakeholders who make this 1.5 trillion U.S. dollar industry, especially when the majority of those stakeholders are heavily invested in the design, production, and consumption of physical goods. What if intangible fashion is actually diverting our attention and much-needed resources from more pressing issues IRL? The truth is: digital-only fashion does not come without its challenges. Case in point: high energy consumption and carbon footprints in NFT and blockchain activities. Therefore, such provocative narratives like 'Haute Couture Is Moving From Paris To The Metaverse' and 'Digital Fashion Is The Future Of Fashion', are potentially creating a new void for, in a way, new pollution we don’t fully understand the consequences of - at the same time as drawing attention away from the areas of the supply chain where it’s sorely needed.

At the moment, though, digital-only, Snapchat filter-like clothing is what people think of when they hear about digital fashion. Not everyone has an understanding of the use of 3D technology for product design and development and the impact it has on the business, even though the same tools and processes are utilized in both cases. The lack of attention is easily attributable to social media, its enticing imagery, and the hype it has created. The glossy idea of digital fashion has quickly come to dominate the conversation.

This generalized definition of 'digital fashion,' along with the virality of social media has led Chief Strategy / Digital Officers of some brands to overlook the more foundational power of 3D technology, which otherwise could have been a core value proposition for the three pillars I began this article with.

3D is an investment

3D modeling (for fashion) is tedious work. It requires years of practice and solid knowledge of pattern making, draping, garment construction, and textiles, which is still a rare combination of skill sets to find. Digital craftsmanship is as unique as any other skill in the industry.

But due to a lack of practical knowledge, uninformed and therefore unrealistic expectations of 3D, from my experience, decision-makers often underestimate the required efforts. And the over-exposure of aesthetics-first digital fashion is perpetuating this misconception that digitising fashion will be a quick or easy process.

Another aspect is the software and hardware needed for digital product creation – these are state-of-the-art machines, and, needless to say, they do not come cheap. A high-performing computer system capable of real-time simulation and rendering can cost a fortune. And with consistent development in CG technology, you are expected to upgrade regularly, like any other personal gadget.

One of the biggest myths I have come across is that a digital product can be made relatively easily and quickly because intelligent computers and software do most of the work. And it is unlike any other skill in fashion, such as tailoring, where the value comes solely from the knowledge and experience of the tailor and not necessarily from the tools they may use. This is wildly untrue.

Until the programs are smart enough to automate and create digital products from measurements and other predefined data, the need for digital craftsmanship led by, in a way, digital tailors and digital patternmakers, who are real people with valuable skill sets, will persist.

The digital product talent pool

The high development cost of digital products is evident. But so is the talent. As I mentioned in the previous section, digital craftsmanship is a unique, yet highly sought-after combination of skills. That means one thing - hiring and training are of paramount importance.

As the skills are hard to find (and sometimes afford), brands have started outsourcing 3D models in bulk from low-income countries and the place of manufacturing - for the same reasons physical garments are not feasible to produce locally and are rather outsourced. Often these are the same factories that manufacture physical clothes. So, if a brand or supplier has questionable practices, this also translates into digital product creation.

Outsourcing digital products (or any other digital service) is also more accessible as it comes with fewer nuances and regulations to adhere to. And one may only wonder if digital fashion is now following in the footsteps of fast fashion.

'Digital' - another word for further greenwashing?

As I have established, sustainability has to do with practices and values. Technology, in turn, has to do with tools. Therefore, technology is not sustainable by itself - it is how we use it. But we all know this is not how 'digital' is branded. While digital design and 3D simulation have been viable for longer, the fashion industry wasn't discussing 3D, digital, or virtual as being intertwined in every aspect of the business until five years ago. Yet suddenly, DPC has become a conversation starter, an anchor, and even a sustainability measure. I, therefore, find it problematic when brands use the word 'sustainability' loosely and especially when they measure it against time and money saving only in digital product creation. I believe there should be clearer lines between sustainability practices and technology - the latter, as I said, is not sustainable on its own and does not improve the processes at the core.

Similarly, it isn't easy to believe that the metaverse is not just another commercial opportunity to create a new market and appeal to younger demographics. As exciting as the virtual world may be, it does not present itself as a solution to any existing issues the industry faces. Or to put it another way, turning our attention to a new world is not going to help address the problems in the world we have.

Can the future of DPC put sustainability at its core?

In partnership with software companies, brands have already started onboarding manufacturers of raw materials that go into physical products. This means digitizing and creating digital twins of not only fabrics but also interlinings, labels, zippers, and other trims. I think it is safe to say that in the future, all the components of a product will be conceived digitally first, much like how the product itself is developed today before bringing it to the market. And if we move forward in the value chain, brands can use digital products for e-commerce, virtual showrooms, AR-based digital fitting, and of course, they can be consumed as digital-only goods in the metaverse. In some cases, it is already taking place, but we are far from an industry-wide adoption.

By tracing its steps back and forth in the value chain, digital product creation would broaden its scope and purpose and position itself as an end-to-end solution - a way of creating, defining, and making extensive up and downstream use of a single digital asset. Much like us through social media, every material and product could, in the near future, will have a virtual identity. And in this light, one can also argue that we need to have a similar conversation focused on the ethics of and stricter legislation for digital product creation. We must treat digital products with the same integrity as physical ones, whether created as a digital twin of a physical product or for digital-only consumption.

For example, traceability can apply to both - physical and digital products, and the lifecycle of a digital twin and its physical counterpart may not be different or even separable. There could be ways to trace back to the origin of a digital product, much like what digital passports, QR codes, or RFID technology do for physical products. Digital products could also bear mandatory labels with information such as size, composition, care instructions, and place of origin.

The mindset that 3D or digital products can be made quickly and cheaply is often justified because, for many brands, 3D is a tool for in-between processes and for making small decisions only. It does not bear the same gravity as the final retail product does. If brands look at digital product creation as an end-to-end solution, it will maximize its value and justify a fair cost and time for development. Unlike physical products, which are sold once and entail only one transaction between the brand and the consumer, digital products can be leveraged at different stages in the value chain for more bang for your buck.

Key takeaways

The potential of 3D technology and digital products for fashion is now widely accepted. There is no doubt that more businesses will adopt digital product creation, and more consumers will purchase both physical and digital products in the future. But this new digital economy cannot be allowed to perpetuate fashion's existing practices and systems.

Digital is currently being heralded as the savior of the fashion industry and the path to sustainability. I am not claiming it is not true, but it will make a positive impact on the industry only if digitisation is done right, from the grassroots level up. As the world faces a looming recession and the existential threat of climate change, it cannot be another missed opportunity for the fashion industry to make meaningful advancements toward a world where sustainability, transparency, and social justice are not merely theoretical concepts.

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