Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer

The outrageous extravagances of fast fashion have been exposed and consumers have taken note. They are changing their habits, opting for brands that follow sustainable practices, or opting not to buy new clothes in the first place.

One option for a more sustainable relationship with clothes is to rent clothes instead of buying new ones, the argument being that renting can lead to fewer garments being produced, lowering resource usage and general environmental impact.

The rental has taken off in recent years. According to Statista, the revenue from the rental apparel market worldwide is expected to increase to approximately seven billion U.S. dollars by 2025.

However, a study from Finland has cast doubt on whether renting your clothes instead of buying them is a more sustainable option. In fact, the study concluded that buying and throwing away a pair of jeans might be better for the planet than renting a pair, a suggestion that runs counterintuitive.

The question is, how sustainable is renting, and what factors would cause it not to be so?

Clothing Rack

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The case for renting clothes rather than buying new ones

The second-hand fashion platform, Rent the Runway, where fashion lovers can rent, subscribe, or buy designer garments and accessories, has data to prove that renting rather than buying brings about significant environmental savings. According to the company’s research done in collaboration with consultants Green Story and SgT, its rental model has led to 1.3 million fewer new garments being produced since 2010, which translates to savings of 67million gallons of water, 98.6million kWh energy and 44.2million pounds of CO2 emissions over ten years.

The platform has had a real impact on users’ shopping habits as well, with 89% of Buy the Runway members reporting that they have been buying fewer clothes since joining the platform.

But is renting the answer to unbridled shopping and consumption of clothes?

The Finland study

Researchers at Finland’s LUT University looked at the life cycle of a pair of jeans and different usage options, including buying and discarding, recycling, and renting. They found that renting clothes contributes more to global warming than throwing them away and that the best option was to own fewer clothes and keep wearing what you already have.

The study caused quite a furore in the fashion industry, with many journalists and bloggers pointing to several questionable assumptions made by the researchers, not least of which, their choice of a pair of jeans for their study – a rather unlikely item for renting as most people would rather own jeans than rent them. It’s the one item of clothing that people tend to wear for many years. 

Other assumptions

* That the ‘Base’ case involves buying an item and wearing it 200 times before throwing it away – most people don’t wear the average piece of clothing so many times.

* That customers cause a lot of CO2 emissions by travelling to fetch and return items – in reality, many consumers make use of postal services or carbon-neutral DPD for deliveries and returning items.

* That all rental businesses make extensive use of dry-cleaning, which has a high environmental impact.

The study also limited its scope to the impact of carbon emissions due to transportation on the environment and not at other factors like land usage and water pollution.

Having said that, the study does highlight the reasons for finding that renting is not sustainable, which have been confirmed by a study at Brown University.

Why renting is not so sustainable

  • Transport

Both studies pointed to the carbon dioxide emissions caused by returning and transporting clothes. The jury is still out on whether online shopping is more environmentally friendly than physical shopping. Still, there is no argument about “last-mile deliveries” being a major contributing factor to CO2 emissions.

According to a 2015 study led by Josué Velázquez-Martínez, a research scientist and lecturer at the MIT Centre for Transportation and Logistics, an item ordered online and then returned can emit 20 kilograms of carbon each way. It can go up to 50 kilograms for rush shipping. On the other hand, a pair of jeans bought at a store and washed and worn at home emits 33.4 kilograms.

US Post truck

Photo by Joel Moysuh on Unsplash

  • Cardboard boxes used for deliveries are mostly not recyclable

Most rental clothing companies ship their items in non-recyclable cardboard boxes with all clothing and accessories wrapped in separate plastic sheets. Both the plastic sheets and boxes are often oversized, which adds to the waste. Oversized boxes come filled with Styrofoam pellets, compounding the waste further. Most cardboard boxes aren’t or can’t be recycled properly. In addition, the tissue paper used for wrapping is also not recyclable!

  • The cost of dry cleaning

Most clothes for rental, especially high-end fashion items, are dry cleaned, which involves soaking clothing items in a solvent. A solvent traditionally used in the industry is tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), known in the industry as “perc”, which is highly toxic. The use of this solvent leads to contamination of water supplies and the soil in the vicinity, endangering aquatic and wildlife. 

The cost to the environment is not the only price we pay for dry cleaned clothes – the people working in dry cleaning establishments are exposed to all manner of products that are carcinogenic and known to cause lung and skin cancer and harm to the central nervous system.

Both studies commend the leading rental services for avoiding these harmful solvents. However, the hydrocarbon alternatives that most rental platforms use are also problematic. They also cause pollution and create toxic waste. In addition, the stain removers that the industry uses are also toxic.

At the very least, dry cleaning uses more energy than doing laundry at home, seeing as dry cleaning facilities use a range of energy-guzzling equipment, from steamers and pressers to temperature-controlled storage. 

boxes

Photo by Boris Misevic on Unsplash

  • Rentable fashion may encourage more consumption

The Brown University study and several industry observers warn that the rental clothing industry could have an unexpected and adverse effect on consumer habits. While facilitating access to a wide range of brands for an affordable price, the concept can lead to consumers becoming addicted to receiving new fashion items every month, leading to exactly what the industry set out to avoid: overconsumption of clothes.

How to make renting sustainable

Having said that, choosing to support clothing rental businesses is still a more sustainable choice than constantly buying new clothes. It’s a fact of life that special occasions arise for which we need special outfits that, in the ordinary course of events, will not be worn again. It makes sense to rent such an item rather than buy it. 

When joining a renting platform, you can choose a peer-to-peer rental, which may prove to be a more sustainable choice. With peer-to-peer rental, individuals lend out their clothes to members. The platform keeps no inventory; it connects people who want to lend out their clothes with people who want to rent them. Users do their own product listing, marketing, communication, and cleaning. By Rotation, Wardrobe and Tulerie are examples of peer-to-peer renting platforms.

When joining a renting platform, establish whether the concern uses wet cleaning rather than dry cleaning. Wet cleaning is a new innovation that uses less water and specialised detergent to clean garments and is an environmentally-friendly choice.

You can also limit the impact of your rental habit by choosing to rent from a rental concern that operates in your area, wearing the items you rent multiple times, and choosing clothes from sustainable brands.

Not the ultimate answer but a step in the right direction

Renting clothes is not 100% environmentally friendly. It is not in itself a solution to the overconsumption of clothes, but it is a step in the right direction. As mentioned earlier, and borne out by Rent the Runway figures, renting does lead to fewer garments being produced. Since overproduction is at the core of the fashion industry’s pollution problems, renting is making a positive difference. 

Most of the CO2 emissions caused by the fashion industry happens during the production of new clothes, of which an astounding amount never gets worn by anyone. It stands to reason that renting clothes rather than buying would put less strain on the environment, including fewer clothes that end up in landfills.

Final thoughts

But things are seldom so cut and dry – renting has its own environmental impact. It’s a complex issue influenced by factors like consumer habits, transportation and cleaning impacts, and the lure of cheap fast fashion brands. The best option, and the one recommended by research, is to keep wearing what you already have in your closet. In addition, renting, along with buying second-hand from sustainable and ethical brands can help to reduce the impact of your fashion habit on the environment.