Should I rent my clothes? How Sustainable is renting clothes?

credit: https://unsplash.com/@victor_g

In the last twenty years, the volume of clothes produced globally has sharply increased. In 2015, the amount of clothing and footwear waste generated in the USA was 10,2 million tons, an 811 per cent increase against the amount disposed of in 1960 (EPA, 2015). In 2016 in the UK consumers purchased 1,13 million tonnes of clothing, an increase of 200,000 tonnes against the 2012 levels (WRAP, 2017). Although recent data seem to indicate an improvement in the average time clothes are kept before being discarded or passed on (on average  3.3 years), the amount of clothing in active use in the UK in the same period was calculated as only 3.6 million tonnes of the 1,13 million tonnes purchased, showing how limited is the portion of wardrobe consumers actually use (WRAP, 2017). Within this context, new business models have emerged. Two are the ones that have caught my attention as I saw them as promising ways to achieve my objective of being a sustainable fashion shopper: “Clothes as a Service” and “Second-hand clothes”. I bought second-hand clothes in the past (sporadically) and volunteered at Oxfam, but never rented clothes in my life. In this post, I reflect on Clothes as a Service and the opportunity and risks associated with it. 

Clothes as a Service is a business model that sees renting clothes as an alternative to purchasing them. The business model has exploded in the USA with Rent the Runaway being the frontrunner and most prominent company in this area. With a $125 million investment round, Rent the Runway is now valued at over $1 billion, showing that investors see Clothes as a Service as a key business opportunity. But is it also a sustainability opportunity? It is not possible to give a straightforward answer as an in-depth LCA of this business model has not been carried out so far.  If we look at the journey of a garment that is rented, we immediately see that there are several stages that have a significant environmental impact (excluding the environmental impact already embedded in the garment from its sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing and delivery). Every item borrowed must be returned and cleaned, which means the shipping impact of leasing your wardrobe could be significant. 

credit: https://unsplash.com/@curology

–   TRASPORT Josué Velázquez-Martínez, executive director of MIT’s Supply Chain Management master’s program and Sustainable Logistics Initiative, estimated that an item ordered online and then returned can emit 20 kilograms of carbon each way, and spirals up to 50 kilograms for rush shipping (MIT, 2019). By comparison, according to a study commissioned by Levi’s,  the carbon emissions associated with the entire life cycle of a pair of jeans is 33.4 kilograms (Levi Strauss & Co, 2015). Because the initial assumptions of an LCA are key and varying them can lead to very different results, a direct comparison between the above figures cannot be made. Nonetheless, the initial assessment of the impact of shipping is relevant and rises concerns (especially if the business is in big countries such as USA). More research is needed and a direct comparison would give better and more reliable data. No need to say that I will keep an eye for a scientific publication on this topic!

–   PACKAGING The goods are shipped wrapped in plastic and in cardboard boxes that may or may not be recycled and even if recycled are single-use items. Returns are done using a plastic bag, which has a carbon footprint too. Rent the Runway is actually shipping in reusable garment bags and hangers, but each single item inside is still wrapped in a plastic dry-cleaning bag (!).

–   CLEANING If our weekly laundry is responsible for much of the water footprint of the clothes we own and can have a significant carbon footprint if laundry is done at high temperatures and using the tumble drier (Helbig, 2018), rent clothes undergo dry-cleaning that has other environmental pitfalls. First, it uses more energy, second it uses perchloroethylene, a solvent that’s carcinogenic and classified as a toxic air pollutant by the EPA or – as rent companies claim to use – hydrocarbon alternatives (“petroleum-based” solvents) that are still hazardous chemicals. Wet cleaning is an environmental-friendly alternative but it is rarer to find with only Le Tote claiming it is using it. 

The above picture does show that as much as Clothes as a Service is sold as a Green way to consume fashion, there is a significant environmental impact that is associated with this business model. The critical question at this stage is: Is it more sustainable than purchasing clothes? If yes, how much?

A clear answer cannot be given as it depends on the scenarios that are compared. If we assume that a consumer is a fast-fashion compulsive shopper that buys very frequently and dispose of her/his clothes rapidly (and presumably has a large part of her wardrobe that it is not used), then the answer is that renting is very likely to be a more sustainable solution (the majority of clothes carbon footprint is embedded in the clothes themselves). But if the consumer is a fashion consumer of high-quality items that washes clothes only when they really need a wash (at low temperature and without a tumble drier), and keeps them for years, then I would say that rending is not more sustainable. In between we have all sort of possible options, making it very difficult to determine what behaviour is best for the planet.

Now coming back to me. Would it make sense for me to go to a Clothes as a Service model? The answer is: very sporadically. As explained in a previous post I do not buy fast fashion, and the clothes I buy remain with me for years (today I am wearing a pair of Bordeaux jeans that are 9 years old!). Still, I got to a point where my wardrobe is so minimalistic that I feel the need of few glamorous or luxury items to wear for special occasions (important meetings, business events, ceremonies) and in these occasions renting seems a great solution to me and I am prepared to give it a go in the next couple of months – so stay tuned!

Having now considered if Clothes as a Service can work to me, I still have two questions in my mind… 1) Am I the main target of this new companies? Or are they targetting the fast fashion consumer that is prepared to pay $119/month for an illimited number of clothes? 2) Is this model supporting the compulsive mindset that has led our society to consume our planet’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate?

OH! I forgot to add. No news on me mending and sewing my clothes despite the aupair that knows how to. Time is indicated as one of the barriers to sustainable behaviour, right? It is certainly valid in this specific case, but I am not giving up…just I need to find the right moment to work on this! Sustainability is a journey 🙂

Reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/16/ethical-living-dry-cleaning

https://www.elle.com/fashion/a29536207/rental-fashion-sustainability/

References:

EPA (2015) Clothing and Footwear wasteepa.gov. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/nondurable-goods-product-specific-data#ClothingandFootwear (Accessed: 13 October 2019).

Helbig,  koren (2018) Less laundry less often: how to lighten the washday load on the environment | Life and style | The GuardianTheguardian.com. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/31/less-laundry-less-often-how-to-lighten-the-washday-load-on-the-environment (Accessed: 8 November 2019).

Levi Strauss & Co (2015) Understanding the environmental impact of a pair of Levi’s ® 501 ® jeans. Available at: https://www.levistrauss.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Full-LCA-Results-Deck-FINAL.pdf (Accessed: 8 November 2019).

MIT (2019) MIT Sustainable Logistics Initiative – Building Sustainable Supply Chainssustainable logistics.mit.edu. Available at: https://sustainablelogistics.mit.edu/ (Accessed: 8 November 2019).

WRAP (2017) Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion. Available at: http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf#page=8 (Accessed: 13 October 2019).

5 thoughts on “Should I rent my clothes? How Sustainable is renting clothes?

  1. Jordan 11th Nov 2019 / 9:21 am

    Thanks so much for the update Simo. The ever-increasing number of innovative disruptors trying to create ‘X’ as a service and wrapping up as part of a green revolution is something I have an (un)healthy scepticism of. You’ve totally nailed all the points I think detract from it, specifically with fashion: packaging, transport and usage/cleaning. The emissions levels from transport alone are surely prohibitive until that industry decarbonises, especially in large, disparate countries like Australia (though 50% of the country lives in just three cities). I do think there’s a potentially important change that this could support, shifting people away from the mindset of needing to owning and accumulating lots of things.

    As to your questions though, it’s maybe more likely to reinforce the desire to make money on the one hand, and supporting a consumer mentality that can’t be quenched. I think of something like Airbnb, arguably set up to help people share underutilised resources, though in practice supporting short-term property investment mentality and providing challenges around community cohesion and access to housing. Am I naïve to think that existing, established players in fashion and textiles would have a better chance of making an impact through more careful design, and initiatives to collect unwanted clothes? I don’t buy clothes very often, and try pretty hard to make sure that whatever I’m getting aligns to my values and it’s been good to see the increase in transparency supporting this. Having said that, I compared outfits with my wife yesterday, everything I was wearing was a new item, whereas pretty much everything she was wearing was second-hand – so I might just jump off my high horse.

    Good luck with the mending! I do spend a bit getting my stuff repaired so that’s a skill I would one day like to develop – can’t see it happening soon though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chrysalis Earth 12th Nov 2019 / 1:34 am

    Hi Simona, I love reading your blog linking fashion and sustainability, as I guess we all can relate them so well as women who love both subjects!

    Ever since I know one of my friends have been living on renting clothes for a while, I have pondering on the same question whether the model of Clothes as a Service is more sustainable and suits me. My conclusion is same as you – very sporadically. Besides all the rational reasons, the emotional and energetic connection is also another factor for me. Clothes are a way of personal expression aesthetically. In most cases, I bought them as I enjoy them and would love to own them. Like good friends, I keep some of my favorites for years and even this lifetime. And many of my clothes have travelled and moved with me all over the world. With me having a very mobile lifestyle, I treasure the physical accompany of some of my belongings very much, regardless of fashion or price. Funny enough, for some clothes, even I don’t wear them anymore, I don’t really throw them away. Maybe they carry and evoke a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence within me. Also, I can’t imagine myself rent and wear clothes that touch skin directly, such as shirts, underline and jeans, even they are perfectly cleaned. For me, they are like beddings – too intimate and personal to share with strangers. I prefer a sense of familiarity in terms of texture and smell. I would love to, however, rent some other clothes like big coats, dresses, accessories and jewels occasionally for fun or other special reasons.

    Having said that, I have been consciously not buying clothes for at least three, four years so far. The more I pack and unpack, the more I move and travel, the more I realize that I don’t need that many stuff to be happy! Simplicity is my philosophy of life. And this year, I found something else very fun. I visited a very good friend that I haven’t seen for years. She decides to give me a lot of her beautiful clothes, as many of them don’t fit her any more (She used to work in the fashion industry and many brands gave her a lot of clothes!) She also told me to feel free to donate or sell them if I don’t want to keep them. For months, I love and have been wearing them. And I realize there is something I really like about this experience, more than having the clothes themselves. Whenever I wear her clothes, I think about my friend and treasure our friendship and time together so much that I think I would love to do this more with some other friends! So, I guess ‘sustainability’ can be beyond just the rationale.

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  3. coffee_sustainability 12th Nov 2019 / 8:07 am

    Hi Simona,

    Thank you for your interesting post as usual! This time, your post was very timely as I have noticed the Japanese rental-clothing brand got quite popular recently also. The brand is called “MECHAKARI”. (It means renting too much in Japanese). It is mainly targeted for busy businesswomen or mothers with small children who have no spare time for shopping for their clothes. Please take a look at these YouTube promotion videos. It’s simple enough and you don’t need a translation.

    Businesswomen version:

    Moms version:

    MECHAKARI’s website: https://mechakari.com/?utm_source=news.mechakari.com&utm_medium=topicpath&_ga=2.139178547.1219329272.1573473565-432557.1573473565

    MECHAKARI started from 2015 under Japanese clothing company “STRIPE INTERNATIONAL” as a venture to combine IT and rental clothing business. They got the idea for the business model from UBER and Airbnb. The system is simple:
    1. Subscribe monthly fee of US$58
    2. You can rent three items max at one time and exchange the selections as much as you want.
    3. Only the new item will be delivered.
    4. No need for cleaning to return.
    5. Pay US$ 3.5 delivery fee for shipping back the used items.
    6. If you rent the item over 60 days, that item will be automatically yours.

    Recently, the subscription of MECHAKARI passed 12,000 members and the business become finally profitable. Then MECHAKARI launched an even more aggressive marketing strategy: offering only $0.4/month, yes less than $1, for three months as a trial campaign to increase membership!

    It was this point when I paid attention to this service. How $0.4/month can be as sustainable as a business? It does not even match their initial shipping cost for the first rental items. Then I read a bit about their business model and now understood.

    Basically, “STRIPE INTERNATIONAL” has a few brands under the company that can offer various clothing items to customers. “MECHAKARI” was launched as an IT business to increase its potential but unreached customers. After several marketing research, it was clear that there is a certain segment of Japanese female who can’t afford their time for shopping. The representative targets were businesswomen and mothers of small children. For them, choosing the clothes over the phone screen and renting them without cleaning was an innovative idea to survive their busy schedule. After the first usage, the returned clothes will be cleaned by the cleaning company owned by MECHAKARI, and will be sent to the second-hand clothing market of another big IT fashion company. Their brands are famous enough to resell the used clothes on the internet. The business model is not aiming to create a big profit by selling clothes. Rather, their goal is to offer “personalization service” targeting individuals using AI. Just like Netflix and Spotify, it reads your selection, aiming to recommend the matching selections of clothes automatically in a few times. In this case, “STRIPE INTERNATIONAL” was successful for cultivating a new customer segment that can’t utilize their brand shops. Such segments do not conflict with their other target customers either. Overall, the new business brought win-win situation, according to their press conference. Okay, I got it.

    However, this business model leaves all your sustainable questions unanswered. The GHG emissions by delivery during the LCA might be the highest of all other scenarios. But most of all, I am scared of the business idea itself. Japanese women sacrifice their life too much for their work, and young mothers are screaming not having enough daycare service to continue their work. Our birth rate was just over 1.4 in 2018. Our Gross Happiness Index is one of the lowest among the developed countries with the highest suicide rate. Offering service to support women not to go shopping but still looking fashionable, saving their time for not washing their clothes might sound a brilliant idea, but what kind of society is waiting after such services took over our lifestyle? Are we going to enjoy our life with the same standard of mental health in such a society? Will people understand the concept of sustainability? Most of all, don’t we all look the same if we wear the clothes chosen by AI?

    I think I choose to go a minimum-shopping lifestyle as stated before instead.

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  4. mstcohort9 13th Nov 2019 / 2:45 am

    Hi Simona, thanks so much for your detailed analysis (and thanks to those who commented!). It shows the importance of exploring our assumptions when we seek to define what sustainable behaviour means. Rent the Runway has its benefits, especially for high-end fashion but it is clearly not a solution for regular wear.
    Second-hand/vintage/charity shop clothes are probably the way to go…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 4littlelucas 13th Nov 2019 / 7:49 pm

    Hello all – thank you for sharing this blog and all the comments.

    Really interesting concept, something I have heard of but not come across directly. I certainly agree re reducing ‘fast fashion’ – some of the impacts are horrific. Personally, I have been reducing my own clothes buying. Similar to you, focusing on a few key items from time-to-time and sticking with a wardrobe for a pretty long time. Although in all honesty, this is probably also linked to the fact I am not really a fan of clothes shopping (which is generally really boring) 🙂

    So asking myself the question – would I rent clothes? Well yes I would consider it…for occasions it probably makes sense. E.g. weddings, etc. But there are many factors such as lead time, weather, trying on, accidental damage, etc to also consider. In any case, something I would be open to exploring…

    I am already a fan of clothing which is made using circular methods. Despite my dislike of shopping, I recently visited a shop filled with dresses made with the off-cuts of waste material and old clothes. Some of the designs and patterns were a bit out there – but the clothes were fun and interesting. The shop was also packed full of people – encouraging to see!

    Thanks again for writing the blog, all the best. Happy renting.

    Liked by 1 person

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