Globally, the fashion industry is one of the worst pollution offenders, being responsible for at least 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank . While digital fashion has long been part of the conversation circling the sustainability crisis, it remains on the outskirts of options to inspire real change. The rise of fashion NFTs and digital garments has been swirling to great heights, appearing to have hit its peak in 2021, but remains an ill-fitting piece of the puzzle. There are no clear answers for how they will impact fashion sustainability.
Sustainable options in this arena have been loosely referenced–thrown about with conceptual buzzwords about how each new idea or groundbreaking piece will “change the world” and how we see fashion. The world of fashion is already shifting, to be sure.
But it leaves much to be desired for initiatives that can truly transform the industry’s unethical production practices.
What actually makes NFTs unsustainable and what drives the high cost of energy?
It comes down to the minting process. To be minted, NFTs have to secure a place on the blockchain.
The blockchain is a (typically public) digital ledger that maintains a record of transactions through cryptocurrency.
Each transaction requires a new block of code. Blockchain was invented so that transactions could be made without the permission of, for example, a bank.
Because nobody is in charge; it’s run by the people who use it. Every time there is a transaction on the blockchain, a new “block” is created. The block is unique and encrypted, so it cannot be copied or altered, and must be authorized by the users on the chain. The authorization request is sent out to every node, or participant, on that blockchain.
‘Proof of work’ requires the people who own the computers in the network to solve a complex mathematical problem, in order to be able to add a block to the chain. Solving the problem is known as mining, and ‘miners’ are usually rewarded for their work in cryptocurrency. Essentially, miners compete against each other to become the last one to crack the piece of code. The computers run trillions of guesses per second–and this kind of mining generates 38 million tons of CO2 per year.
Obviously, not every person can verify the thousands and thousands of transactions that happen every day, so blockchain networks have adopted “Proof of Stake” validation protocols. Since then, blockchain technologies have evolved to include “Smart Contracts” which automatically execute transactions when certain conditions have been met.
To be clear, NFTs require energy to confirm each blockchain transaction. Each time an NFT is resold on the blockchain, it requires that energy output again, and again, and again. Joanie Lemercier, a French artist, calculated that selling one NFT was the equivalent of powering her art studio for two years.
Minting a single NFT using the proof-of-work method uses the same amount of electricity as the average American household over almost nine days. A 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change found Bitcoin emissions alone could raise Earth’s temperature by two degrees.
The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index estimates that the bitcoin mining network consumes almost 70 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, ranking it as the 40th largest consumer of electricity by ‘country’.
In comparison, Ireland, which ranked as the 68th largest consumer of electricity, uses just over a third of Bitcoin’s consumption, or 25 TWh. One country uses one-third of what Bitcoin mining consumes in the same year-long period.
One NFT can Use Up Energy Three Times
There are typically three times where one NFT can use up energy. The first is when it is minted. A service that is on the blockchain (like Etherium’s OpenSea) uses proof-of-work. The second is when it is purchased. The minting happens at this point, which requires energy. The third is when it is re-sold or exchanged.
The proof-of-stake method is less energy-intensive, but still not an answer for net-zeroing energy costs. NFT marketplaces typically pursue “batch transactions” to save on energy, but it is still not enough.
How to Cut Down Energy Usage
Some options for change include the use of renewable energy. Solar is a popular one, but remains a costly option. Some areas even make it extra difficult to switch to solar energy and solar panels. Investing in renewable energy is another idea for offsetting the costs. This shift is already beginning to happen. Some organizations offer “carbon offset credits”, however, the market remains flawed.
It’s also possible to begin cracking down on mining operations. In 2021, Inner Mongolia banned crypto mining on the electric grid. Imposing carbon taxes on the machine producers can help cut down on carbon consumption. Banning and regulations in certain areas will likely just push the industry elsewhere unless they become globally adopted.
Platforms such as World of Waves (WoW) have been created solely to support non-profit organizations using NFTs. WoW has created a digital space, dedicated to protecting and preserving the oceans. It aims to support projects by helping them find new ways of fundraising through NFTs and blockchain for charities.
In this tweet by World of Waves, they partner with SEE Turtles organization to protect endangered sea turtles around the world.
It might not be a quick turnaround to make NFTs sustainable, but positive movement in that direction is better than empty promises.