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Sustainability of Rental Fashion: eCommerce Subscription Models

What is the sustainability of rental fashion? Renting instead of buying would, in theory, reduce textile waste, but is this the case, and what other factors contribute to the overall sustainability of buying vs renting.

For many consumers, the sustainability of rental fashion schemes is a key driver. Being able to wear the latest trends without feeling like you are destroying the planet is something many will talk to as a key benefit of rental fashion. Yet, how true is this statement and is rental fashion really more sustainable?

Waste in the Fashion Industry

As a society, we have become rabid consumers, never more evident than in the fashion industry. Changing trends, inferior quality product and heavy promotional discounting make clothing cheap and easily discardable. 

The statistics are alarming. In Australia alone, every 10 minutes, 6000kg of clothes are thrown away, destined for landfill. In the UK, 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfill in 2019.

Infographic showing UK Fast Fashion Waste Statistics
UK Fast Fashion Waste Statistics. Source: bbc.com

In recent years, we have seen a boom in eCommerce fashion rental schemes, partly driven by consumer upset regarding this level of waste. Subscription-based models have been promoted as a potential replacement for traditional retail, with the prospect of waste being reduced by never owning clothing items in the first place.

While renting instead of buying seems like a logical solution, the question remains as to whether fashion rental schemes are actually helping to reduce waste? More widely, are fashion rental schemes a positive move in terms of the environmental and sustainability impact of the fashion industry?

Fashion Rental

The concept is simple. Rather than buying clothing to potentially only wear a handful of times, renting items allows you to use them for a period of time before returning them to be reused by someone else.

The global market for online clothing rentals is due to reach USD 1.96 billion by 2023. Utilising a subscription-based model, fashion rental companies like Rent the Runway, My Wardrobe HQ and Le Tote, sign people up for ongoing payments in return for a regular supply of rental garments.

Rent the Runway Fashion Rental returns carrier
Rent the Runway: Leading fashion rental company. Source: renttherunway.com

People with limited budgets can in theory rent and wear clothing items from high-fashion brands they otherwise couldn’t afford, replacing the need to buy disposable items from fast-fashion retailers. In a world where people are now documenting their lives through social media, increases in pressure to not wear the same outfit twice have further heightened the levels of waste.

eCommerce Subscription 

From an eCommerce business perspective, the model is attractive. The regular, consistent, and recurring payments, combined with the cut-out of the competition, make subscription models very interesting to brands and retailers.

This subscription model has worked successfully in the tech industry, so it’s no surprise other sectors are following suit. Whereas you would previously have bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop, you now buy an Adobe Creative Cloud ongoing subscription; this move to a subscription model is widely heralded as the critical driver behind the strength of the Adobe business.

It’s therefore not surprising that traditional retailers and brands, including Urban Outfitters, H&M, and Bloomingdale’s, are just a few of the names beginning to enter the rental market. In an ever-changing landscape, businesses are fearful of missing the next retail evolution, and so many are making plans around a subscription-based service.

Bloomingdales My List Fashion Rental Scheme- How it Works
Bloomingdale’s My List Fashion Rental Scheme. Source: bloomingdales.com

Sustainability of Rental Fashion

The crucial call-out is the lack of actual data, or quantified research, regarding the sustainability of fashion rental schemes. People can speculate on the benefits, however, much of this tends to come from the fashion rental companies themselves.

We looked at both the pros and cons of fashion rental to try and provide a balanced view:

Pros of Fashion Rental

  1. Reduced Waste: On the face of it, a rental service where clothes are reused seems like it should help reduce textile waste. Companies like Rent the Runway stress that the ‘sharing clothing economy’ is driving a reduction in landfill waste.
  2. Overproduction: The apparel industry generates 3.3 billion tons of CO2 every year creating garments. Vast levels of overproduction result in a significant amount of this clothing ending up in a landfill without use. A widely adopted rental service would help ensure all clothing produced is actually worn.
  3. New Sales Channel: My Wardrobe HQ claims that fashion rental can provide a sales channel for garments that didn’t make it into full production (samples etc), along with those items left at the end of each season.
Rent the Runway- Points showing sustainability of fashion rental schemes
Rent the Runway: Sustainability of fashion rental. Source: renttherunway.com

Cons of Fashion Rental

  1. Dry-cleaning: People renting clothes expect them to arrive in pristine condition, thus every item will be dry-cleaned after rental. While many dry-cleaners now avoid harmful solvents, the high levels of water and power required for dry-cleaning will have a significant environmental impact vs regular washing of clothes.
  2. Shipping: With fashion rental schemes driven through eCommerce, every single rental will require both outbound and return shipping. In a world where we are beginning to wake up to the potential environmental impacts of a high return rate, having vast volumes of clothing items transported across considerable distances for only one wear is concerning.
  3. Packaging: As with any eCommerce order, items are packaged to protect them during transportation. New packaging is used for every rental and return, compared with only single-use for regular eCommerce purchases.
  4. Clothing lifespan: A paying rental customer, while understanding items have been previously worn, will expect clothing to arrive in an ‘as-new’ state. It’s also fair to say that people are less protective and careful with items they do not own. Initial research would therefore, suggest that rental garments have a hugely reduced lifespan when compared to ownership.
UPS Electric Delivery Vehicle
Fashion rental requires a high level of extra logistics. Source: UPS.com

Is Rental Fashion More Sustainable?

In summary, the answer to this question regarding the sustainability of rental fashion would be that we genuinely don’t know. As with many aspects of sustainability, especially in eCommerce, there is a lack of both research data and analysis to be able to base an informed opinion.

There is no doubt that the level of waste in the fashion industry needs to change and it cannot be sustained at current levels. Any scheme, therefore, that can contribute to reducing this textile waste has the potential to be hugely impactful. Fashion rental does have this potential.

On the other hand, in an eCommerce industry where the carbon impact of both packaging and logistics is starting to become clearer, it raises massive question marks. Even if fashion rental reduces textile waste, do the associated increased carbon footprints from logistics and packaging make this reduction worthwhile?

Overall, we are likely to see delivery supply chains with increases in electric vehicles, packaging solutions becoming more circular, and the rental fashion model ironing out other sustainability issues. As such, it is very likely that renting instead of buying will become a common choice for the eco-focused.

Further Reading: Price transparency in retail. Is this the key to sustainability? Read More

One comment

  1. Rentel fashion is the new trend going on these days. People instead of buying new clothes and wearing it just one or two times are now opting for rental fashion. You can rent clothes instead of buying and use it whenever you want to. Thank you for listing the pros and cons in this article with us and sharing this article with us.

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