We undeniably find ourselves at a critical point in history. Temperatures continue to rise, as does the sea level. It is evidently of the utmost importance that we prevent the collapse of the environment as we know it. And the fashion industry being a major contributor to the issue, it’s only natural that we start by reforming it. Indeed, the fashion world is making efforts to move towards a more sustainable model. Biodegradable materials, second-hand clothes, and reducing production sizes are amongst the most popular solutions. But what about rental fashion?
Perhaps the concept conjures up the image of the average teenage movie protagonist’s hideous rental tuxedo. But make no mistake. Rental fashion is not what it used to be. In a world in which sustainability is essential in all fields, the clothes renting business has come to proliferate. Here is everything you need to know about this up-and-coming sector.
The Concept of Rental Fashion
The idea behind rental fashion is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of buying clothes, one rents them from a company, then sends them back when one no longer needs them.
This way, one circumvents contributing to garment overproduction, which is at the root of the problem. Additionally, renting clothes can help one avoid buying garments that might end up in a wasteland after a few uses. After all, waste is a big part of the issue. In that, rental fashion certainly seems like the cusp of sustainable consumerism (if there is such a thing).
Yet that’s only part of the appeal. Renting clothes gives people the opportunity to wear things they might have otherwise never worn. More specifically, it allows the average person to rent designer items for a few days. Hence, rental fashion contributes to high fashion’s democratization, as it brings it to “normal people”.
Furthermore, it provides individuals with a channel to express themselves. Rental fashion gives them access to a vast array of clothes without adding a significant financial burden. There’s something for every taste and occasion.
Relating to the latter, renting garments also helps one save some money. Think about the amount of occasion-specific outfits you used once and never touched again. Maternity clothes, evening gowns, seasonal garments, and Halloween costumes need not be a significant investment. One could just rent them.
But, as usual, things are never as good as they seem.
The Downside of It All
This May, Environmental Research Letters published a groundbreaking report. It argued that, out of five different ways of owning and disposing of garments, rental fashion has the highest climate impact. Such information sent shock waves through the fashion industry, spurring the writing of a plethora of articles on the subject.
The report proposes that packaging, transportation, and dry cleaning break rental fashion’s aspirations of sustainability. Rental fashion is often dry-cleaned, delivered in cardboard packages, and transported through carbon-emitting mediums. Such elements are so negatively impactful that they transform a sustainable practice into the apex of environmental harm. Dry cleaning clothing is toxic for both people and the planet. Cardboard is not very environmentally friendly. And cars and trucks contribute significantly to global warming.
However, one must always be wary of extraordinary claims. Yes, rental fashion might not be ideal. But determining if a sustainable alternative is outright bad requires a lot more nuanced than what the report supposes.
But Not Everything Is Lost
As was previously mentioned, the report bases its claims regarding rental fashion’s shortcomings on three main aspects. Yet such elements are far from unchangeable. What if rental companies stopped resorting to dry cleaning? What if they switched to environmentally-friendly packaging? And, what if they began using carbon-neutral means of transportation?
That might be a lot of what-ifs. Nonetheless, they are not really hypotheticals. The reality is that plenty of rental companies do not use dry cleaning, cardboard packaging, or environmentally damaging transportation. For instance, Rent the Runway has its very own reusable garment bags and dry clean with non-toxic substances. Moreover, most of the UK’s rental businesses use carbon-neutral delivery services.
Manifestly, the report’s claims do not apply to all companies. In fact, it itself mentions that brands could become significantly more climate friendly if they modified the three above-mentioned elements.
It’s also worth mentioning that the report only considers environmental impact. It completely disregards sustainability’s two other pillars: economic and social impact. Indeed, influencer Venetia La Manna highlights how misleading it can be to neglect ethical implications in one of her posts. Rental Fashion might need some revisions, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to shop frantically at fast fashion stores.
The Take Away
At the end of the day, it is never beneficial to reduce things to binaries. It would be inaccurate to label rental fashion as completely ‘green’ or as absolutely environmentally friendly. There is no denying rental companies are not perfect. Plenty of them does use dry cleaning services, cardboard packaging, and polluting means of transportation. Yet plenty of them don’t.
A particularly sustainable model is the peer-to-peer one. It does not rely on companies purchasing coveted items to then rent out. Instead, it connects individual lenders to individual renters that are close to each other. Transportation is therefore not nearly as impactful.
All and all, however, rental companies should not be discarded or idealized. They should be supported, while simultaneously questioned.
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