Inside fashion's rental market

Driven by young eco-conscious consumers aiming to reduce their consumption, is leasing out clothing really as sustainable as its audience would hope?
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Before the pandemic, Sadé Lightfoot, a global stock-market consultant based in Sydney, was borrowing about five dresses a month from fashion rental sites. ‘I could wear a nice new thing without forking out hundreds of dollars,’ she says. From a consumption perspective, renting seemed more sustainable than buying things that she'd wear once and then retire to the closet. 

It's a story that the globally successful fashion rental market is good at promoting, as it attempts to tighten its grip on young, eco-conscious consumers. Sites such as Rent the Runway (US), Onloan (UK), GlamCorner (Australia) and It's Re:Leased (Sweden) are booming. Rent the Runway, for example, has filed for an initial public offering (IPO), where shares will be sold on a stock exchange, with a valuation of nearly $1.3 billion. Even legacy brands like Ralph Lauren have launched rental services. 

Tapping into the sharing economy, these sites offer customers the chance to wear new garments, plugging the gap between ownership and borrowing from a friend. Currently most popular with millennials and Gen Z, renters generally pay a subscription fee and have access to clothing for days at a time. ‘We rent cars and houses, so why not our wardrobes?’ asks Victoria Prew, CEO of London-based rental site HURR.  

A study by data firm Statista found that the global clothing rental industry was worth a total of $3.9 billion in 2019, with the Americas and Europe holding a combined 80% of the market. By 2025, the industry is expected to have ballooned to more than $7 billion, with both the US and UK markets forecast to more than double in size.

An easy sell? 

At first, it seems an easy sell. Fashion has a problem with overproduction. Consumers fuel the issue with a one-wear mentality, where outfits are donned once for Instagram and never seen again. Rental sites seem to solve the dilemma by offering customers guilt-free one-time wears that don't take up closet space or demand long-term consumption change. ‘Rental makes it easier to be bold, as I get to wear things I wouldn't necessarily buy,’ says Sarah Arts, a public relations executive based in Stockholm, who uses three rental sites. She says that renting reduces the ‘niggling feeling to buy something new’. If successful, it could shrink production orders, preventing brands from producing ever-more stuff. 

But to attribute best eco-practice to all rental sites could just be another form of greenwashing. According to a study by researchers at Finland's LUT University, renting a pair of jeans can produce more carbon emissions than recycling, reselling or even landfill. 

‘The Finnish study brought to light that rental is far from beneficial, per se,’ says Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a fashion think tank that works to make the industry more sustainable. While this research looked at one specific area of impact – global warming – it raised questions about the footprint of rental companies, which do not track or share any metrics to bolster their sustainability claims. ‘They don't disclose how many times a garment is re-rented, how many times their garments are worn by the renters, or the miles traveled,’ explains Maxine. ‘There's no sufficient [data] to really know how sustainable – or not – rental is.’

So, what are the issues? 

Firstly, postage. A single garment that appears on a fashion rental site racks up plenty of delivery miles. Parcel shipping contributed 11% of the entire transport sector's 8 gigatons of CO₂ emissions in 2018, according to data from policy adviser the International Energy Agency. Combine that with the amount of waste packaging that's produced for online orders, and renting is essentially the equivalent – in terms of transportation – of endlessly buying and returning clothes that are retailed online. 

For Dana Thomas, the Paris-based author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, shipping nationwide cannot be green unless, she says, ‘clothes are delivered by bicycle messenger. Then, yes, it's sustainable. If you keep it local, it works.’ 

A 2020 peer-reviewed study by the American Chemical Society, a publisher of scientific research, found that goods shipped from warehouses could be worse for the environment than those purchased when driving to a store. Scientists calculated the variable emissions of transport, warehouse storage, shipping and packaging, and suggested that parcel handlers are key: e-bike usage could cut emissions on some parcels by 26%. They also found the return rate for online clothing to be a major issue. The nature of rental automatically generates these emissions, as all the clothes are returned.

And anything rented, worn or not, has to be dry-cleaned. Rent the Runway has ‘the largest dry-cleaning facility in the world’, says Dana. ‘If it's the traditional sort, using petrochemicals, it's a major downside.’ The toxicity of dry-cleaning's main chemical, perchloroethylene, has been linked to diseases among garment workers and often winds up in groundwater and soil. California is the first state in the US to ban use of the substance. Dry-cleaned goods also come bagged in single-use plastic wrappings. 

Then there's the issue that the most luxurious garments that users loan might not withstand the industrial dry-cleaning process. Rental sites ‘tend to focus on garments made from synthetic fibers because they're less likely to shrink, tear or fade,’ says Amanda Lee McCarty, a former buyer for a popular US rental site. She recently launched the Clotheshorse podcast, which helps to debunk claims of sustainability within the industry. 

As many luxury brands focus on natural fibers, says Amanda, the garments ‘aren't fit for rental as it exists right now’. Brands often remake their bestselling pieces in poly blends for such sites, so they're actually creating new stock, rather than fixing the overstock problem. Quality is less of a priority than cost. ‘The less expensive a garment is [to buy], the easier it is to amortize the cost per rental to pay it off,’ she says. Yet cheaper items aren't designed to last. Sometimes things will only be worn once or twice before being damaged. ‘Companies won't repair these items because the cost of the garment doesn't warrant the additional expense to fix it.’ 

Customer scrutiny 

Rental is better pitched as green when the system is peer-to-peer – when users can rent clothes from others who might live locally. Apps such as HURR and By Rotation – which was founded by Eshita Kabra-Davies – offer a platform for users to list the items in their own wardrobes and earn money from each rental. ‘It means our users are in charge of the cleaning of their own garments, as we believe they know how best to care for them,’ says Eshita. ‘Quite often that's simply by hand-washing at home.’

Eshita has rented a few garments from people who live nearby. ‘My friends aren't all the same size as me, or don't have the same style, so this is like extending that circle,’ she says. ‘We're just unlocking what's already in people's wardrobes.’ The model does mean that By Rotation can't track its shipping footprint, though. ‘If we're saying postal services are bad for the environment, then we shouldn't be buying anything online at all,’ says Eshita. It's a fair point, but one that's likely to face much more customer scrutiny in the coming years. 

Time for better practice

Combining online rental with in-store experiences can reduce the footprint: By Rotation recently held an event in London, where users rented clothing from one another; HURR held a pop-up, also in London; and Rent the Runway used to have a showroom in New York ‘where you could walk out in the clothes with no delivery involved,’ says Dana. ‘The locally minded approach is greener.’ 

Occasion-wear for weddings and events is where rental as a retail model can really shine. ‘How many gowns sit in your closet, year after year, unworn after that one event?’ asks Dana. ‘Renting is especially smart for occasions; most wedding dresses only get one wear.’ 

Ally Voss, founder of bridalwear brand Clover London, agrees. Though most of her designs are made to order, she has a small collection available for rental on HURR, which, she says, is beneficial for brides who don't feel the need to own their dress and for those on a tight time-frame. ‘The dress can go on to be “the one” for someone else.’

Ally's dresses are cleaned by Oxwash, an innovative ‘wet cleaning’ company that wants to free the industry from toxic chemicals. Backed by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, it was founded by ex-NASA scientist Kyle Grant and has partnered with various rental sites, including HURR and Something Borrowed. ‘We use only water and biodegradable detergents, rather than carcinogenic solvents,’ says Kyle. ‘Garments are washed at 20°C, reducing emissions by 45%.’ Also, riders collect clothes on e-bikes. ‘We want to reduce pollution in the industry,’ adds Kyle. If Rent the Runway and other sites were to adopt such practices, their impact would be significantly lessened. 

Metrics would further drop if rental periods were for longer, according to Jarkko Levänen, the lead researcher in the Finnish LUT study. ‘If the clothes were used for as long as possible, and rental companies used durable and repairable garments, it would lessen their carbon footprint and emissions,’ he says. 

What's next?

Rental as a concept has grown fast. But today's shoppers are discerning. They are increasingly questioning the practices of companies and are putting their money where their morals are. 

A 2021 survey of millennial shoppers by business advisory network Deloitte found that almost 20% boycotted companies whose actions conflict with their values. Rental sites will come under fire if they don't adopt best logistical practice – a mindset shift that's already under way. Sadé Lightfoot has stopped using rental subscriptions altogether. ‘They were selling themselves as ethical while supporting brands that weren't,’ she says. ‘None of their packaging was eco-friendly.’ Sustainability, she says, felt like a ‘tick box’. To offer a solution, and to survive, these sites will need to take closer stock of their actions.

This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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