The fashion rental industry is continuously growing, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With more people staying home and avoiding places like retail and grocery stores, online shopping has become the new norm — even more so than before the pandemic hit. However, with this sudden increase in eCommerce, there is serious concern about sustainability and the long-term effects this will have on the planet. So what about fashion rental — do these companies offer a more sustainable option for conscious fashionistas?
In the fashion world, rental is often touted as the sustainable alternative to fast fashion, with less resources spent on production of new goods and a larger cultural move towards a sharing economy.
However, with dry cleaning, shipping, and packaging, the rental fashion industry isn’t entirely off the hook when it comes to presenting a sustainable option for fashion lovers. Chemicals, pollution, and carbon footprints are still very much a part of the fashion rental industry, even if in smaller amounts than the retail sector. By evaluating these issues, we can begin to look for new, innovative ways to achieve a truly sustainable fashion rental industry.
Making the Switch to Green Energy
Every aspect of energy consumption within the rental fashion industry, including transportation and dry cleaning, must be considered when evaluating it from a sustainability standpoint. Luckily, renewable energy is a growing industry, with more sustainable options becoming more and more available. With this in mind, innovation will play a significant role in any businesses’ abilities to utilize more eco-friendly options. Green, renewable energy has the potential to cause less harm to the environment, something that can’t be said of contributors to global warming, such as fossil fuels.
Understanding green energy is the first way that the rental fashion industry could begin to become an effective consumer of renewable sources. There are more options now for utilizing green energy in the transportation and cleaning of rental fashion products than every before. Green energy is a stable, inexpensive source as more wind, geothermal, hydro, and solar energy locations pop up all across the United States. And with the increased demand for more green energy options, costs have fallen remarkably over the last few decades. With the right tools and knowledge, it’s much easier to take the guesswork out of making the switch to green, renewable energy.
Sourcing Alternative Packaging Options
By 2020, it’s probably safe to assume that most people are aware that plastic is one of the least ideal packaging options sustainability-wise. It’s polluting our oceans, spreading toxins, and contributing to global warming (to name just a few of its problems). While many businesses have shifted away from plastic packaging options, there can be downsides to some of the most used alternatives as well.
Many rental companies still ship in cardboard boxes, which have a very low recycling rate. Rent the Runway has shifted to reusable garment bags, which have a long lifespan, but do require cleaning after every use.
While paper and cardboard packaging is biodegradable, it requires more energy to produce than plastic and is heavier than plastic, which means higher vehicle emissions and fuel costs to transport it. However, while paper and cardboard made from virgin materials do use up a lot of resources, recycled paper and cardboard use 70% less.
There are also now packing options that use organic materials in place of less environmentally-friendly ones (like packing peanuts!), and some of them might surprise you. Some eco-friendly packaging options include:
- Cornstarch: Cornstarch is used to create a polylactic acid which then creates a biodegradable organic plastic that is just as good as their other chemically-dependent plastic counterparts.
- Mushrooms: Easy to grow and compost and very similar to the look and feel of styrofoam, mushroom packaging is great alternative material.
- Seaweed: Similar to mushroom packaging, seaweed packaging can form biodegradable containers to transport goods with and is easily compostable.
Fashion rental companies work somewhat like an old-school Netflix, with packages being sent and returned on a weekly or monthly basis.
Considering how much packaging the rental fashion sector uses, especially compared to the single-use eCommerce purchases, finding alternatives to the excessive, non-biodegradable materials could be a game-changer for the rental industry and Mother Earth.
With many city-specific rental companies popping up, companies have the opportunity to utilize local drop-off points and pick-up locations in order to significantly decrease the amount of one-use shipping packaging.
Limiting Dry Cleaning When Possible
Another concern for clothes sharing companies is excessive dry cleaning. Dry cleaning is nothing new to the rental fashion industry and the amount of energy used to dry clean clothing is enormous, not to mention, potentially hazardous to your health. The solvents used in dry cleaning can be toxic, are able to spread through the environment through air and water, and can take decades to degrade. With equipment like steamers, chemical solvents, and pressers, dry cleaning’s impact on the planet can be worse than wet washing methods. And, unfortunately, the rental fashion business does a lot of dry cleaning — after all, many rental companies focus on high-end, designer wear that simply can’t be tossed in the wash.
While dry cleaning lightly used clothing is certainly better for the environment than the process of mass producing materials for one-time purchases, it’s still not ideal.
In an article for Elle Magazine, ethical and sustainable fashion journalist and author Elizabeth Cline explains, “But rental platforms could be far greener than they are, investing in renewable energy for warehouses, reducing packaging waste, and switching to wet cleaning wherever possible. Shoppers, meanwhile, can do their part to not turn rental services into fast fashion with a toxic dry cleaning habit. Sharing fashion, unlike fast fashion, can be as green as consumers and rental companies want it to be.”
While renting clothes is a great start, how fashion rental companies ultimately continue to work towards lessening their footprint will be the real test of their sustainability. The future of the fashion industry remains a mystery, but what we do understand right now is that it’s impacting the planet in ways that may become irreversible. As the fashion rental industry continues to grow, looking for sustainable, renewable, green avenues will ensure our clothing needs can be met without further harming our home.
What You Can Do to Help
As a concerned consumer, you can hold companies accountable for the environmental effects of their practices. If you’re interested in fashion rental, ask companies about their packaging and cleaning methods. Ask about local pickup options. Voice your concerns about dry cleaning, and seek out companies that meet your standards for sustainability.