Over the past several years, clothing rental has become increasingly popular.
From well-known brands like Rent the Runway that have built their entire businesses on renting to designers like Tommy Hilfiger, more and more retailers are offering clothing rental services and marketing it as the more “sustainable” way to shop. But is that true? The short answer: no. The long answer: it depends.
Fashion’s Sustainability Problem
Fashion, as we know it, is unsustainable. Clothing trends are only in for a short period of time, which often severely limits an item’s lifespan. And the advent of fast fashion by means of cheaper, plastic-based textiles and human labor exploitation supercharged this trend-based approach and fueled even more environmental damage. In 2018 alone U.S. landfills received 11.3M tons of textiles aka clothing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Even high fashion — heralded as more sustainable thanks to higher-quality materials that produce longer-lasting outfits — has competing fall/winter and spring/summer seasonality. So, entire new collections are needed from leading designers at least twice a year, if not more, in order to stay relevant.
From this lens, fashion is inherently bad for the planet. But, there are ways to mitigate your environmental impact and still embrace a love of clothing. Renting clothes, however, isn’t the answer rental retailers want you to think it is.
Is Renting Clothing Sustainable?
As a concept, renting clothes seems like it would be a good alternative to purchasing new clothes. But, the truth is it’s complicated.
So first, let’s talk science.
The most reputable scientific study on the environmental impact of clothing was published in the Finnish scientific journal, Environmental Research Letters, in 2021. The study analyzed and compared the environmental impact of five different clothing ownership habits: renting, reselling, recycling, extended-use, and then basic clothing purchasing habits where the textiles end up as waste.
The biggest finding? Renting clothes had the highest environmental impact out of all the clothing habits.
Yes, the highest. How is that even possible? It comes down to the hidden environmental costs you don’t necessarily consider when weighing what would be the most environmentally-friendly option.
For starters, renting requires transportation — a lot of it. And since many rental subscriptions are exclusively offered online and allow you to receive at least one order per month, that means a ton of C02 emissions. Rent the Runway‘s most expensive membership plan allows up to four shipments per month — that’s a delivery every week. Not to mention that you still have to mail the clothing back to them, which requires even more trips for the UPS or FedEx truck.
It also means a lot more dry cleaning on the retailer’s end. (And, in case you didn’t already know, dry cleaning is catastrophic for the environment.)
However, renting clothing doesn’t necessarily have to have the largest environmental impact. It all just depends on our habits.
For example, if you were to rent a high-quality pair of jeans that are made to last, wear them more than 10 times, and pick them up and drop them off directly with the retailer while riding your bike rather than shipping them (which is not always an option), then this would theoretically be just as sustainable as buying that same pair of jeans new.
Noting the potential negative press the 2021 scientific study could generate, Rent the Runway ordered their own analysis and independent survey of the environmental impact of renting clothes. Unsurprisingly, this new study found evidence to back up Rent the Runway’s claims that renting clothing is eco-friendly. The study determined that renting clothes conserved water, energy, and carbon emissions when compared to buying new clothes. It also claimed that Rent the Runway has eliminated the production (or consumption) of 1.3M new garments since 2010.
The new study was run by three third-party sustainability consultancies but it’s hard not to be skeptical of pro-rental results when it was commissioned by a company whose entire business is built on renting. The lack of transparency in the data and information the study is based on led some to contest the findings. And while using Rent the Runway may have resulted in customers purchasing new clothes less often, that doesn’t mitigate the environmental impact the rental clothing lifecycle produces.
How to Love Fashion and the Planet
Like in most circumstances, the best way to approach sustainability from a fashion lens is to buy less and buy higher-quality, longer-lasting clothing. You can also scour your local thrift, vintage, and resale shops. But even then, you should still focus on purchasing the highest quality items that you know will last. Buying a Forever21 top at a thrift store instead of new from the store doesn’t make it good for the planet, and neither does renting your whole wardrobe instead of investing in key pieces sparingly.