The Question No One Is Asking About the Metaverse #313


Is the metaverse good for the world? Retailers must bake environmental and social awareness into their strategies from the start, argues Doug Stephens.

There may be no consumer technology prospect driving more discussion and investment right now than the metaverse, and for good reason. The metaverse — essentially a parallel reality consisting of connected and interoperable worlds, brought to life by technologies including augmented and virtual reality, with commercial activity underpinned by the blockchain — has the potential to alter, not only our consumer lives, but our entire way of living.

In a not-too-distant future, people may spend significant proportions of their time working, learning, playing and, of course, shopping in the metaverse, where virtual assets — from apparel to real estate — may take on both social and economic value that meets or even exceeds that of physical possessions […] But as with any significant technological advancement, there are three crucial questions that retailers and their backers need to ask before plunging into the metaverse.

Is it possible? […] Is it probable? […] And finally, is it preferable? This third and perhaps most critical question is one I have barely heard asked. While the metaverse may indeed be possible and probable, the question is will it ameliorate or exacerbate the problems that society currently faces, from poor mental health to the climate crisis?

This is not simply a moral question, but one that has serious business implications for retailers, already under increased scrutiny for their environmental and social impact, particularly if they view the metaverse as a bridge to younger generations of consumers who increasingly consider a brand’s position on environmental and social issues as they make purchasing decisions.

Today, experts not only note increased sleeplessness, loneliness, depression and suicide among teenagers, but are also able to draw correlations to increased use of social media, a virtual display-case for lifestyles that can result in heightened feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Now consider that, in the metaverse, you are likely to be judged not just by how you look in the real world, but by how your avatar is adorned, by your virtual sneakers or virtual cosmetics. Your address on a platform like Decentraland may matter as much as your real-world address. […]

And, while it’s dirty, it’s certainly no secret that the global retail industry is one of the planet’s heaviest polluters. The apparel industry alone generates 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. For this, the metaverse offers little real remedy, because the sheer power and cloud computing requirements to mount such a persistent, all-encompassing, collective reality will be astronomical. Studies of gaming platforms, for example, have estimated that if only 30 percent of video-gamers move to cloud-based gaming platforms by 2030, carbon emissions, resulting from the increase in required computing power, would increase by 30 percent. Now imagine the toll taken by an entire planet moving to a cloud-based metaverse. It’s likely that any possible environmental gains from things like lower reliance on daily commuting to work or lower consumption levels of physical apparel would be erased entirely.