Is renting your clothes better or worse for the environment? We ask the experts
independent– Over the course of the pandemic, the clothing rental market has seen a major uptick in interest from people looking to become more sustainable consumers, resulting in a surge of platforms offering the opportunity to rent instead of buy garments.
It has been hailed as a solution to fashion’s big problem with sustainability and fast fashion, with public figures such as Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie Symonds renting her wedding dress and other outfits for the G7 summit in Cornwall, and big-name brands like Ralph Lauren and Harrods announcing their own in-house rental ranges.
One platform, By Rotation, claimed that between being founded at the end of 2019 and March 2020 its users had topped 25,000 and the number of items listed by lenders had grown 120 per cent. As it offers a way of customers adding newness and novelty to their wardrobes, without the guilt of continuing to buy items and then throw them away to landfill.
But, despite renting’s supposed value as a more sustainable solution, a new study has thrown a wrench into the workings of the fashion rental market after it suggested that renting clothes is actually worse for the environment than throwing them away.
Published in the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research, the study assessed the environmental impact of five different ways of owning and getting rid of clothing. These included traditional ownership, reducing frequency of buying new clothes, renting, resale and recycling .
The researchers concluded that renting clothes involved hidden environmental costs in delivery and packaging, and therefore had the highest impact on the climate above all other methods. This is because renting clothes means transporting the garments to and from the warehouse and the renter.
Additionally, most garments that are intended to be reused by another customer need to be dry cleaned, which is also harmful to the environment. Dry cleaning uses polluting solvents that can contaminate water supplies and soils.
Is renting really bad for the environment?
Fashion rental platforms were quick to defend their company’s sustainability practices in light of the study. Georgie Hyatt, co-founder and CEO of Rotaro, told The Independent said the company was aware of the carbon footprint created from delivery and logistics and has “always taken every step possible to mitigate” it.
She said: “We are a fashion rental platform that works only directly with brands, no peer-to-peer element, and this was done purposefully to control the entire rental product journey and customer experience.”
According to Hyatt, Rotaro currently partners with DPD, which is committed to becoming carbon neutral. The platform aims to launch its own fleet of “hyper-local London electric vehicles” by the end of this year to reduce its carbon footprint.
Other measures taken by the platform to maximise sustainability include using Oxwash, a laundry service that offers an eco-friendly alternative to dry cleaning.
Victoria Prew, co-founder and CEO of the Hurr Collective added that the study only examined one specific rental model, which involves a service that holds its own inventory of clothing to be rented out to consumers.
“The complexity of operations cannot be applied to rental across the board,” said Prew, whose platform uses a peer-to-peer model that “encourages local collection and in-app communication” to eliminate unnecessary shipping.
Prew’s view was echoed by Eshita Kabra Davies, founder of By Rotation – a clothing rental app that also uses the peer-to-peer model. Hurr and By Rotation launched in 2019, both claiming to have tens of thousands of users on their platforms.
Kabra Davies said she felt the report unfairly penalised the fashion rental industry, particularly platforms like hers that depend on users arranging their own meet-ups to deliver and collect clothes, as well as wash them themselves.
“It’s like borrowing clothes from your friend or your mum, all our users are the average woman on the street lending their clothes to one another,” she told The Independent.
“We don’t get involved at all. Users meet up with one another, they go out themselves and rotate within the same neighbourhood, they hand-wash the clothes or wash them in their own laundry piles.
“It’s a very democratic approach to fashion and because By Rotation doesn’t place any importance in handing out our own branded packaging or anything like that, our carbon footprint is really, really small.”
What do the experts say?
But Karine Laudort, a fashion industry expert and commentator, said that while fashion rental might be a “short-term fix” for customers looking to expand their wardrobe in a more sustainable way, it still contributes to the industry’s polluting habits. She added that rental “will always be most costly in the long term as the consumer will end up spending more than if they had taken the time to shop consciously”.
“On principle, a ‘circular economy’ model could be beneficial only if fashion companies were willing and ready to undergo a complete overhaul in terms of manufacturing and logistics, and that is where the issue lies,” explained Laudort.
“So in an ideal world, the focus should be in educating people in buying less and to be better informed before purchasing fashion items. Investing in long term and more consciously. As for the companies, the same should apply, produce more consciously and reducing their carbon footprint whenever manufacturing products and throughout the supply chain.”
Gergana Damyanova, who founded London-based fashion brand Blonde Gone Rogue that focuses on sustainability and an ethical supply chain, agrees that encouraging consumers to buy fewer clothes and make what they do have last longer is the best solution to fashion’s environmental crisis.
She told The Independent that her company looked into the possibility of renting out their clothing, but decided against it as it meant shortening the lifespan of the garments – even if they used green dry cleaning partners or carbon neutral delivery.
“Rather than feeding the need to buy something new all the time, the fashion industry needs to focus on promoting longevity. It could do with a big messaging campaign to encourage people to keep something for longer instead of pushing them towards new all the time,” said Damyanova.
“What’s happened in the past year in terms of people thinking about sustainability and ethics has really accelerated the need for the industry to catch up and pivot.”