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.

A bad week for social media begs the question of where we look for authenticity. All-digital could be one answer.

This was not a good week for Facebook, although the historic outage – which took out Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other group services – was a much smaller component of that than it might once have been.

Service outages happen, and while they can be pesky situations to resolve, they don’t tend to cause lasting harm. Instead, that role was filled by a detailed investigation by the Wall Street Journal into the various ways that the social media giant has become – investigators argue – a tool for increasing divisiveness, disunity, and civil unrest.

And just as these stories were beginning to bed in, a high-level former employee of the company, Frances Haugen, emerged as a public whistleblower, levelling a suite of accusations against the company that can best be summarised as ‘Facebook profits from all of the criticisms levelled at it, and thus continues to perpetuate them’.

Or, to look at it another way, both journalists and former employees argue that it’s in Facebook’s best interests to keep its members engaged, and engagement doesn’t come from harmony.

Facebook has, obviously, worked to shoot down these criticisms, with a degree of success that depends on your perspective on corporate contrition, but nevertheless many brands and retailers who advertise through Facebook itself, or who use Instagram (as almost every company, including The Interline, does) will be re-evaluating whether those presences bring in the kind of engagement they actually desire.

At the same time, this week saw the announcement that Dapper Labs (the company behind NBA Top Shot, which The Interline has previously labelled as one of the most compelling applications of NFTs) has acquired Brud, which is a company best known for being behind the Lil Miquela virtual influencer.

On the face of it, the two stories have little in common – especially in light of the fact that this acquisition was apparently made on a technology basis, rather than for brand recognition. But from The Interline‘s perspective, these are two trends that are set to converge on a redirection of where consumers look for authenticity, and how brands promote themselves through social channels.

IMAGE COURTESY OF Lil Miquela / BRUD – FROM INSTAGRAM

Virtual influencers and digital models have existed for several years, but it’s no coincidence that the age of the NFT and the Metaverse (much more to come on that from The Interline and key partners this month) has prompted a re-evaluation of their importance. And similarly, it’s no coincidence that investments are being made in virtual personas at a time when the very foundations of Web 2.0 (the age of the personal internet, where every individual can share their opinion on a common forum) are being shaken.

Consider this: is a virtual model, untouched by controversy and politics, who can promote products on a decentralised platform more or less valuable than a traditional influencer who reaches consumers through a centralised channel that is now acquiring a deeply negative reputation?

Or to be more specific: who do you, as a brand, want speaking for you, and through what forum? Real, complicated people who are potentially being manipulated by a pervasive platform that sustains itself through disagreement? Or clean, digital models who have the chance to prevent Web 3.0 from inheriting all the problems of the previous iteration?

Like Frances Haugen says, it’s entirely possible to have social media that better serves humanity. But beyond the platforms themselves, it’s equally possible that part of building that future may be bringing in more in the way of non-human personalities.

As essential human rights continue to erode, a supply chain reckoning could be closer than ever.

If this week has been an extremely public reckoning for social media, it has also been a much quieter – but more devastating – one for the state of human rights in the global apparel supply chain.

It’s long been implicitly acknowledged that fashion’s supply chains operate on the principle of inequality. As our latest guest op-ed correctly identified this week, many business models hinge on the fact that workers in overseas production markets command wages that are drastically lower than those in consumption markets. And as we wrote about at length in our key collaboration with Coats Digital last month, much more attention is being paid in sustainability strategies to the environmental impact of production and consumption than the human toll taken by manufacturing.

But despite the fact that carbon emissions are simpler to manage and measure, a common assumption was that fashion – amongst other industries – was also making some degree of progress towards improving the lives of the average supply chain worker.

A new, detailed, study released this week suggests quite the opposite: things are getting worse.

Child labour, fair wages, forced labour, discrimination, people trafficking and more – all have become quantifiably more concerning in the space of just three years. And while it would be tempting to ascribe much of that slide to the pandemic (which certainly caused a raft of acute issues in the supply chain), in reality these figures show a steady, continued trend in a negative direction.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, not sustainable by any definition of the word. Just as regulations have tightened around the use of virgin plastics and other non-renewable (or petroleum-derived) materials, the same is destined to happen – sooner rather than later – for labour. Already, there is a discrepancy between how conscious consumers see overseas workers (as human beings) and how fashion, at an industry-wide level rather than an individual one, sees them, as a cost-effective resource.

But what can be done about it? This is the subject The Interline will be tackling in detail in November, with input from various partners, but the basics are already evident. Younger consumers will pay more for sustainable garments, but only up to a certain point. Brands are being held to account for their ethical values, but still need to maintain margins. And in Asia, Africa, and even closer to home, garment workers are caught in the middle – paying a price of their own through a steady erosion of human rights and basic workplace safety.

In this context, there are only two logical actions to be taken: to establish new ways to measure, manage, and improve the wellbeing of factory workers; and to adopt, or build, new technology ecosystems that can address the conditions that have allowed essential rights to continue to erode even as the industry makes bold statements regarding sustainability.

And the best from The Interline this week:

Since the publication of our last weekly analysis, we’ve released three exclusive features.

First came our premiere article from the latest new voice in your roster of contributors: Muchaneta Kapfunde. While this week’s news has certainly placed the emphasis firmly on the ethical side of sustainability, the environmental impact of many categories of products – but especially those that incorporate denim – has not been forgotten.

In this exclusive, Muchaneta considers how the denim industry evolved, whether it can shed its negative reputation, and to what degree technology can help.

Second, this week the wraps came off our collaboration with z-emotion, which sets out to explain how digital fashion became a dominant force so quickly, and how fashion brands that have already employed 3D to streamline the design and development of physical goods can make a smooth transition into selling digital ones.

This collaboration is especially timely in light of the first new story picked for this week’s analysis, since many brands are currently asking themselves how to create a smooth pathway from using 3D assets for in-house purposes (or for downstream customer engagement) to translating those same assets into digital products for interactive experiences and direct sale.

Finally, yesterday we published an exclusive op-ed from Beth Esponnette, Chief of Product and one of the Co-Founders of unspun.

This feature sees Beth look back at how the fashion industry came to adopt the unsustainable practices that have come to characterise it today, how the consumer market has become accustomed to high volumes of product and easy returns, and how the right applications of technology can help brands reduce over-production.

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