Fast fashion is cheap fashion, but the true cost of throwaway clothes has been well-documented in recent years. Every second across the world, the equivalent of a garbage truck of textiles is sent to landfill or burned. The fashion industry contributes more to climate change than the annual emissions of air travel and sea travel combined. More shockingly, washed clothes release vast quantities of plastic microfibers into the world’s oceans each year – equal to 50 billion plastic bottles.

According to McKinsey, global clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the average number of fashion items purchased per year went up by 60% in that time. In 2018 however, The Guardian reported that the quantity of consumers buying clothing once a month dropped 4% from the year before, while those purchasing every 2-3 months increased 3%. “The signals are (fashion is) on the same trajectory as plastics and forests and alternatives to meat,” commented Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at UK retailer Marks & Spencer, in the same article.

Still we have a long way to go. And while the solutions are obvious – consume less, recycle more (with brands like Patagonia leading the way) – what if you could buy a fashion look that had zero environmental impact?

That was the premise of Norwegian fashion brand Carlings, which launched a digital-only collection called Neo-Ex late last year, and just won multiple awards for the idea at this month’s Cannes Lions Festival*. That’s right, virtual clothes – no manufacturing, no shipping, with the electricity produced with green energy, and all income going directly to WaterAid. Carbon footprint – zilch.

The idea was that social media-obsessed Millennials and Gen Z’s could forgo a fashion purchase in favor of buying a digital outfit. That way both their fans on Instagram and the wider world would benefit. Strike a pose and save the planet – all at the same time.

In order to sport a Neo-Ex style, shoppers simply selected an item and uploaded a photo of themselves. Carlings’ “digital tailors” would then “alter” the product to fit the image perfectly, and then send it back to be uploaded and shared on social media.

Rather than pay $25 for a jacket on sale at H&M that was potentially “one and done”, consumers could spend about the same on a Godspeed racer jacket at Carlings. They came and they shopped – within a short time period, Carlings reported that the collection sold to fashion-lovers from more than 30 countries.

The question is: could this be the genesis of a new business model? Could digital-only fashion become a real revenue generator?

If the world of gaming is any guide, maybe. Players of online video game Fortnite, for example, regularly purchase skins (virtual outfits) for their avatars. Fans shelled out $4,500 for a blue party hat (of all things) in the game Runescape. So it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that in order to liven up your social feed, you might snap up a virtual outfit.

While the Carlings capsule collection was short-lived, the excitement it generated indicated that there may be potential in asking style hounds to pay for pixels. After all, digital-only fashion is about as pure as fast fashion can be (cheap, stylish, disposable), and if it reduces the environmental impact of the real article, that can only be positive.


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