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.
– 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 🙂
EPA (2015) Clothing and Footwear waste, epa.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 Guardian, Theguardian.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 Chains, sustainable 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).