Renting clothes is not necessarily sustainable

People have been renting formal wear for more than sixty years, be it for prom, wedding, or other special occasions. Consumers often chose rentals because it didn’t make sense to buy an item of clothing that would only be worn once. Today, fashion rental services are beginning to expand into casual wear, and many fashion-conscious consumers are keen to try it out to reduce clothing waste.

With 11.3 million tons of textile waste buried in 2018 – most of it discarded clothing – reducing waste is critical. However, is renting clothes really more sustainable than buying a new piece of clothing? Research shows that it is not that simple.

Generation Z consumers are willing to rent clothes to reduce waste

According to a small 2021 study published in SustainabilityGen Z adult consumers were eager to try out clothing rental services to reduce their excessive clothing consumption. Rent, in theory, would satisfy the desire for a new wardrobe, but the focus would be on use, not ownership.

Researchers collected 362 eligible responses via an online survey and found that there are plenty of factors that significantly influence consumers’ desire to use clothing rental services, says Ting Chi, one of the study’s authors and chair of the department of apparel, merchandising, design, and textiles at Washington State University.

For example, Generation Z consumers are more likely to rent clothes if they know someone who has a positive perception of it. Education on the environmental benefits of clothing rental and prior environmental behavior has also been linked to the intention of using clothing rental services.

“Ownership burdens may result in the item being disposed of, donated, or sold prematurely,” Chi says. “Rental clothing can be a practical solution for consumers who prefer the latest trends without the burden of ownership.”

On a superficial level, rental services can help extend the life of clothing, provide easier access to items that might not otherwise be available, and encourage people to buy at a lower rate. However, rent is not necessarily synonymous with sustainability.

The sustainability of clothing rental depends on several factors

2021 study published in Environmental Research Letters He suggests that buying a new pair of jeans, using them as usual, and throwing them away would be better for the environment than renting a pair and returning them after 10 uses. The researchers compared total estimated CO2 emissions across production, delivery, use, and end-of-life for both scenarios and found that renting a pair of jeans would have a higher potential for global warming.

Although rent will increase the utility of the product, getting and returning the piece of clothing is said to generate more emissions. However, if a consumer were to increase the number of times they wear jeans and use a low-carbon mode of transportation, it would be equal or more sustainable than buying a new pair, according to the study.

Factors likely to influence and which have more or less harm [between renting or buying clothes] It will include how often the clothes would be worn if purchased, the distance traveled between each rental cycle, and the washing methods used in each, says Maxine Bedat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute who was not involved in the study.

The type of clothing that is rented or purchased plays a big role in sustainability as well. For example, buying a new, poor-quality fast fashion item wouldn’t be the same as buying a high-quality piece of clothing that was made to last, says Sonali Dede, associate professor in the department of design and merchandising and principal faculty at the Colorado State University School of Global Environmental Sustainability who was not involved in the study. . The effect of renting from a store within walking distance compared to delivery from an online rental service will also be different.

“Although online fashion leasing business models are very innovative, they need to be more transparent about their business practices across the entire supply chain so they can enhance the sustainability aspect of their business model,” says Didi. In short, given the lack of data and information available about the online fashion rental business, this does not appear to be a sustainable option for buying new clothes.

The joint fashion rental service, Rent the Runway (RTR), conducted a study in 2021 to conduct a life-cycle assessment of the rental business model compared to buying new clothes. The study, conducted with third-party sustainability consulting firms JPB Strategies, Green Story and SgT, concluded that renting saves water, energy and carbon emissions compared to buying new clothes. However, they did not provide concrete, verifiable information and data, which casts doubt on the credibility of their findings, Dede says.

“With sustainability and climate change debates increasingly on the radar of consumers, fashion rental companies, particularly RTR, have engaged in claims that clothing rental is a sustainable option for fashion consumption without providing clear data,” she adds. “I think online fashion rental companies need to deliberately engage in sustainable practices [rather than] Providing a ‘first aid’ and interactive approach.

Lease could be more sustainable if there were more in-store pickup options, convenient delivery locations, sustainable cleaning practices, and eco-friendly packaging options, Dede says. Providing an incentive to return plastic packaging, transparency about the supply chain, and demonstrating a clear end-of-life plan and accountability for rented clothing would also help bolster bold sustainability claims.

It is much better to buy less and treat more

“The best way to promote sustainable fashion consumption is for consumers to follow ‘Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ in that order,” Didi says. The most sustainable practice is to avoid buying new clothes in the first place. You can try switching out basic clothes with friends and family members instead. Repairing and reusing the garment also extends the life of the garment.

If you decide to buy something new, focus on needs rather than wants. Buy high-quality clothing that is designed to last and avoid synthetic fibres, which contribute greatly to plastic particle pollution.

“Fashion models such as online leasing, while innovative, cannot be described as the most sustainable option given the significant environmental impacts related to cleaning, transportation and packaging,” says Didi. “Furthermore, almost all of the rented online fashion models often provide an option for consumers to purchase the rented clothes, fueling the epidemic of excessive fashion consumption.”

Overall, we still need more research to get a more realistic answer about rent sustainability than buying new clothes, says Bedat. Currently, you can choose to rent pieces that you won’t wear often, which reduces the need to produce new clothes – but it may be better to have the wardrobe essentials you turn to often.

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