Many problems stem from the growing fast fashion industry. Fashion rental could help reduce the environmental burdens of the fashion industry and improve society’s accessibility to sustainable fashion.
Imagine that you are planning to attend an event and you would like to wear something “new” (i.e. something you have never worn before). Many consumers (at least in northern countries) would go to an online retailer and order something new for the occasion – and perhaps with next day delivery to boot. Now, after attending the event, what do you plan to do with the garment? Some people may wear it once or twice, others may leave it in their wardrobe for years, eventually donating it to a charity shop.
There is growing awareness of the socio-economic and environmental costs of fast fashion, yet over the past fifteen years clothing production has roughly double. In March 2022, one of Britain’s leading online fast fashion retailers listed 6,265 dress styles on its website, and that doesn’t include those in the sale section (which often cost the clothes just £2) .
fast mode refers to the incomprehensible speeds at which clothing is produced and enters the market for consumers. As clothes are produced at an extreme pace and often constructed with cheap and unsustainable materials, this affects the durability of clothes. As a result, £140million worth of clothes are sent to landfill in the UK every year. Many consumers who donate clothes to charity stores don’t realize that more than half of them end up in landfills or are incinerated. This highlights just a few of the many problems the ever-growing fast fashion industry is generating at unimaginable speeds.
Now think back to the scenario where you purchased an outfit for the event. Imagine if you had instead rented the garment, wore it for only one occasion, then returned it to the lender, and never had to worry about where it would end up (like the illegal dumps that many “gifts” are found). A quick search shows that, on an online rental platform in the UK, for the price of £40 you can rent a garment worth £250 for a few days (by comparison there are 1,428 styles of dresses priced between £40 and £45 on an online retailer’s website in the UK).
A landfill including ‘donations’ in Accra, Ghana. Image via Gold Foundation Instagram)
Compared to a Airbnb for clothesrental fashion is often mentioned as being part of sharing economy, and involves consumers renting clothes from designers and peers. This takes a very different approach to clothing “ownership” and moves away from the fast fashion industry model that is often equated with single use plastic.
Fashion rental has several benefits, both for people and for the environment. First, renting clothes often requires a mindset shift away from the fast fashion standards we’ve become so familiar with. For example, the findings of this study indicated that “considerations around fashion leasing are utilitarian in nature, focusing on functional benefits rather than more hedonistic benefits”. For many people, the decision to rent clothes will be a conscious one and they will have to overcome many prejudices, norms and beliefs about fashion to truly embrace the world of renting. However, when people overcome these hurdles to truly embrace a more sustainable wardrobe, it could potentially lead to longer-term shifts in consumer behavior, as rental fashion can trigger the mental work that needs to be done.
Hurr, an online peer-to-peer rental service, exemplifies this notion of changing consumer attitudes and describes their motivation to “empower women to extend the life of their wardrobe.” Fashion rentals can do just that: empower people who realize the flaws in the fast fashion industry to research and change their consumer behavior.
Fashion rental can also improve society’s accessibility to sustainable fashion. A common perception of sustainable fashion is that it is more expensive to buy. Although this is (mostly) true, because if a garment was truly durable, its price should reflect the durable material, fair wages and working conditions that went into making it. By offering more sustainable brands on the rental site, consumers can wear clothes that adhere to their ethical views without paying the higher prices.
Embracing a circular economy and slowing fashion also have clear environmental benefits. Changing the disposable aspect so deeply ingrained in today’s fashion industry would lead to fewer garments being produced, as throwing them away becomes less of a norm. For example, Rent the Runway says it’s moved production of around 1.3 million new garments since 2010 with its business model, and extending the life of a garment will certainly have positive environmental benefits.
However, before rental fashion – which is still considered a form of niche consumption – becomes mainstream, several issues need to be addressed.
For example, research has suggested that the issue of contamination is one of the main obstacles to the adoption of the rental mode by the masses. An item can be considered contaminated when another person interacts with it, and consumers are put off by the idea of renting due to the idea that several people have already worn the item. This idea is mainly rooted in Western culture and the idea of cleanliness, as well as the norm of throwing away objects with small imperfections. A series of actions can in turn solve this problem, for example ensuring that clothes are dry cleaned between uses (although this raises questions about the carbon intensity and sustainability of the business model); but perhaps the most important point should be to change the mindset of those who have become so used to the fast fashion norm because a change in that mindset is, after all, vital to avoid a total rejection of the concept of rental mode.
This article also suggests that clothing rental is not as sustainable as we originally thought, stating that clothing rental is actually worse than to throw them away. The main driver of this discovery was the transportation of clothes between renters and lenders, as the fashion for renting means that clothes are regularly delivered all over the country.
Importantly, many sustainable fashion experts dismissed this research, pointing out that the study assumed customers each traveled 2km in a private car to collect their rental items. In fact, it does not accurately reflect the rental mode process in the UK which, as fashion revolution points out, uses a postal service to deliver/return the rented clothes.
An in-depth study on claims that rental fashion is completely “green” has yet to be published, but for now it stands to reason that the rental fashion market has introduced a new way of think about accessibility, environmental impacts and sustainability. of fashion.
If you want to learn more about the fast fashion industry and feel a need for collective change, Aja Barber’s book consumes, addresses many of these themes and also addresses the role of colonialism in fashion consumption; and if you ever visit Amsterdam, the Fashion Museum for Good (and their website is a valuable resource) is also a great place to visit.
Image courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons