With the growing encouragement of sustainability activists to reduce clothing consumption and overall trends in fashion consciousness, many sustainable shoppers have turned towards clothing rental services instead of purchasing new clothing, especially for special events. Studies show the willingness of Gen Z consumers to utilize fashion rental services, so it’s no wonder that the market for clothing rental is expected to reach a value of $2.08 Billion by 2025. However, with the ever-increasing market value of fashion rental services, one has to ask: is rental fashion really all that eco-friendly, or is it just another marketing ploy being used to target consumers driven by ethical purchasing practices?

Clothing rental was pioneered by Rent the Runway. Founded by Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss in 2009, Rent the Runway was the first e-commerce platform of its kind, allowing customers to rent designer clothing and accessories at a decent price point. The launch of this platform formed an intersection between tech and fashion — one that continues to expand as sustainability takes center stage in discussions about the future of fashion.

In recent years, more clothing rental services have gained traction within the online sustainability community and frequent event-goers, and in theory, it can reduce the rate at which “one-wear items” are purchased, such as prom dresses. Rental services such as Nuuly, Armoire, and Fashion to Figure, have risen in popularity amongst the sustainability-minded, and even individual clothing brands have dipped into the fashion rental market, with many starting their own brand-specific rental services, such as Vince Unfold and New York & Company Closet.

Nina Rowan, director of marketing at the peer-to-peer rental platform Wardrobe, notes that fashion rental is a reliable method of “extending the lifespan of garments” and providing access to sustainable fashion to the masses. In my interview with Rowan, she stated that “increasing a demand for borrowing and renting services gives brands permission to produce smaller quantities of clothing,” thus reducing fashion’s environmental impact overall. Because of the nature of consumer culture pushing individuals to purchase new in order to be considered fashionable, Wardrobe is working to “make borrowing clothes cool” with an ultimate goal of decreasing “high quantities of newness” present in the industry as a whole.

According to California’s 2014 Waste Characterization Study, over 1,234,711 tons of textiles were discarded in California, contributing to 4% of the CA waste stream. Each year, 200 million pounds of clothing ends up in New York City’s landfill sites – the equivalent of filling the Statue of Liberty with garments 440 times. As Elizabeth Cline so eloquently states it in Elle Magazine, “Fashion’s biggest environmental crime lies in overproduction.” Enter: fashion rental?

Many outlets have painted clothing rental “as a refreshingly guilt-free model” for fashion consumption, although it is important to consider the possible environmental impact of rental to truly give it a fair critique. In short, while clothing rental continues to shift the narrative surrounding the need for new, the rental companies’ carbon footprint still leaves the industry wanting.

According to a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters, clothing rental has significantly greater greenhouse gas emissions when compared to clothing resale and recycling. This is due in part to the frequent transportation necessary to support a clothing rental service, which ultimately generates more emissions than standard purchasing and shipping of new clothing.

Fast Company, a magazine reporting on innovations in technology and creative design, notes that rental platforms could become more “climate friendly” if they “only [use] modes of transport that have zero-emissions or low-emissions”  such as electric or battery-powered vehicles,  allowing the practice to “become on par with reselling, from a climate perspective.” However, until that shift in shipping technology, a regular delivery of a weekly or monthly clothing subscription service could actually result in more carbon emissions than someone purchasing fast fashion. Though, alternatively once more, when fashion customers use rental services on a more infrequent basis (think “one-time wear” garments for special events), the total carbon footprint created is likely to be smaller.

This is especially true with smaller rental services that already have a smaller footprint relative to companies like Rent the Runway. Rowan states that “the future of fashion rental is peer-to-peer” because of the capability of this ecosystem to have a lower impact on the environment, since peer-to-peer platforms typically source their product from individual “lenders” rather than purchasing new clothes directly from brand manufacturers. Wardrobe, specifically, has been carbon neutral since their founding in 2018, but as they note on their website, sustainability is a continued “work in progress.”

In this, we find a double-edged sword. Clothing rental can assist in reducing the quantity of clothes consumed on an individual level, although it may not have a significant impact on reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion industry as a whole — at least not yet — and it still depends tremendously upon how frequently a person is ordering shipments. Not to mention, it’s difficult to measure precise emissions with individual companies, especially rental companies that incorporate recycled packaging or other sustainable methodologies into their business model.

Rowan firmly believes that fashion rental fits into the changing fashion landscape; with recent movements towards genderless fashion and sustainable fashion alternatives, fashion rental is suited to provide this experience by “working with clothing that already exists.” In this way, fashion rental still has the capacity to increase accessibility to sustainable fashion to consumers interested in changing the way they consume fashion goods.

While fashion rental may have years of improvement and innovation ahead of it, there’s no denying its potential in possibly becoming an alternative solution to individual (and perhaps global) overconsumption trends — however, until then, the best solution is still to wear what’s already in your closet.

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