Every week, The Interline analyses one or more vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

In the shadow of COP26, sustainability remains vitally important, and fashion should take any road it can to get there.

This weekend will see the start of COP26, the latest in a series of landmark conferences convened to address the climate crisis. At a particularly fraught time in global politics, and at what many would argue is a way overdue point to take action on our changing environment, COP26 will gather leaders and policymakers from various world governments with a view to gauging what progress has been made towards the Paris Agreement on emissions targets, and to strengthen existing commitments.

Crucially, for a range of industries that includes fashion, business leaders are also being urged to appear at the conference, and to provide perspectives on how their companies and their sectors are addressing their own contributions to climate change.

If we can have the luxury of parking the clear, compelling, and humanity-wide imperative to act, this call to action comes at an especially difficult time for fashion. Bottlenecks and precipitous price rises in supply chains, shipping, and logistics are well-documented, but this week saw further confirmation that the dual destabilising forces of high prices and low suppliers are likely to continue well into next year.

At the same time, yesterday we saw the publication of new predictions from the National Retail Federation in the United States, suggesting that holiday sales this year could hit a new record of $800 billion – a 10% hike year-on-year.

These are, to put it mildly, not ideal trading conditions. There are very few industries that could successfully weather a sudden spike in demand that occurred simultaneously with historic disruptions to supply. Indeed, plenty of other industries are being tested by this same confluence of forces today, with supply chain complications being credited as one of the primary things holding the post-pandemic global recovery back.

But all the same, the urgency of the environmental and ethical crisis the world faces – and fashion’s role in it remains prominent, make no bones about it – is not waning. Our industry may not be in the best shape to act, but act it must.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing how and where to act. But given that time is not on anyone’s side, the logical assumption, as we wait to hear how nations and states intend to tackle what is perhaps the defining crisis of our lifetimes, is that fashion needs to take any and all roads available to it so it can reach its sustainability destination.

One of those potential routes could, of course, be selling digital products rather than physical ones – or a blend of both. This is an area that’s attracted a great deal of interest this year, not least because the staggering prices being paid for limited-edition NFTs make it particularly tempting, but also because everyone from the world’s biggest social network business to an innovative streetwear brand agrees that what we wear virtually could easily become as important as what we wear in person.

But even putting aside the climate concerns that have plagued blockchain-based, limited-quantity digital goods so far (and these could be on the way to being solved through proof of stake consensus systems rather than the energy-intensive proof of work mining model so familiar from Bitcoin) trialling a new business model is not going to solve fashion’s sustainability problem by itself – no matter how much money it makes.

Another potential route to the industry’s sustainability goals could be the continued interest – from shoppers and investors – in rental and subscription models, which are designed to keep the same sets of garments in circulation, and which could have a significant impact on over-production as a result. This model also captured headlines this week, with long-running business Rent The Runway going public.

The success of that IPO, especially coming after the devastation that COVID wreaked on any business model that relied on people physically touching things that other people had touched, seems, in The Interline‘s opinion, to be a testament to the ongoing belief that a good amount of consumers will eventually prefer to rent higher-price garments than to buy them. And while Rent The Runway also derives revenue from other models, the bulk of its income is still derived from the tens of thousands of users who pay the platform’s subscription fee. Heritage brands, too, are now looking to get in on the rental action, with the announcement this week that Jean Paul Gaultier will rent out famous past collections.

Similarly, the potential environmental benefit of a shift to a rental model could be significant. Shoppers would buy fewer new garments, and as a consequence fewer new garments would be made, cutting all the associated emissions and ethical issues created by the production of excess inventory.

But as is the case with digital fashion, rental could constitute real, positive action – just not on the scale the industry needs to approach its lofty sustainability targets. The rental business model is largely predicated on the idea that consumers will pay a fraction of what a luxury garment costs to wear it for a fixed period and then return it, but the luxury industry’s impact on the overall footprint of the fashion industry is a fraction of what mass market and fast fashion contributes.

Which leads to the other, more difficult option: to improve the way the fashion industry measures and manages the environmental and ethical impact of creating and delivering products en masse. And unfortunately that’s one route to sustainability that won’t be instantly solved by the introduction of a new or emerging technology.

Instead, it’s going to rely on the better application of existing ones: greater transparency through the gathering and analysis of objective supply chain data; reduced emissions through the implementation of new material processing methods and a reduction in reliance on last-minute air freight; fair wages through the adoption of universal standards in place of historical, regional averages. And much more.

The world is being asked to take a bold stance on sustainability, and to make use of every tool at its leaders’ disposal. Fashion is being asked the same questions, and while new business models, new revenue streams, and new technologies are part of the way the industry should respond, The Interline believes it’s vital that the less glamorous (and yes, the tougher) roads are also taken, because newness won’t get us to the sustainability destination we desperately need to reach by itself.

And the best from The Interline this week:

Since our last weekly analysis, The Interline has published two exclusive pieces from very different angles.

First, Jess Fleischer of make-to-order business Son Of A Tailor made an impassioned case for on-demand production as the solution to fashion’s sustainability problem.

In that feature, Fleischer argues that fashion cannot become a truly sustainable business while it relies on a model that mandates overproduction and markdowns in order to achieve margin.

Second, Muchaneta Kapfunde provided a look back at how, and why, the NFT craze captured the fashion industry in 2021, and what implications it has for the future.

Featuring perspectives from several key industry figures and NFT / Metaverse influencers, Muchaneta’s latest feature is timely – especially in light of the Facebook news referenced above – and vital, since it asks the question of now only how fashion can tap into a new revenue stream, but whether the industry should be reconfiguring itself to sell digital products alongside physical one.

And for another perspective on that same question, consider revisiting our milestone collaboration with z-emotion from earlier this month.

That collaboration dives deep into many of the same issues, looking at how digital design and development have largely been deployed in service of streamlining the creation of physical products, and how one of the most pressing challenges facing fashion is to figure out how to deploy the same processes and tools to create digital products as well.

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