There are many problems that arise from the ever-growing fast fashion industry. Fashion rental could help reduce the environmental burdens of the fashion industry and improve society’s accessibility to sustainable fashion.
Imagine you are attending an event and you would like to wear something “new” (ie something you have never worn before). Many consumers (at least in the Northern part of the world) would head to an online retailer and order something new for the occasion, and perhaps with the addition of next day delivery. Now, after attending the event, what do you plan to do with the boss? Some people may wear it once or twice, others may leave it in their wardrobe for years, then donate it to a charity shop.
We are becoming more and more familiar with the socio-economic and environmental costs of fast fashion, yet, in the last fifteen years, apparel production has roughly doubled. In March 2022, one of the UK’s leading online fast fashion retailers listed 6,265 styles of dresses on their website, not including those in the sale section (which often cost just £ 2).
Fast fashion it refers to the incomprehensible speeds with which clothes are produced and enter the market for consumers. As garments are produced at an extreme rate and often constructed from cheap and unsustainable materials, this affects the durability of the garments. Consequently, Garments worth £ 140 million are sent to landfills in the UK every year. Many consumers who donate clothes to charity shops don’t realize that more than half ends up in landfills or is incinerated. This highlights just a few of the many problems that the ever-growing fast fashion industry is generating at unimaginable speeds.
Now, think back to the scenario where you bought a dress for the event. Imagine if you did instead rented the garment, worn for the only occasion, after returning it to the lender, without having to worry about where it would end up (such as the illegal landfills that many “donations” are found). A quick search shows that, on an online rental platform in the UK, for the price of £ 40 you could rent a garment worth £ 250 for a couple of days (in comparison, there are 1,428 styles of dresses priced between £ 40 and £ 45 on a UK online retailer’s website).
A landfill including “donations” in Accra, Ghana. Instagram image by The Or Foundation)
Compared to a Airbnb for clothesrental fashion is often considered part of the sharing economyand involves consumers who rent clothes from designers and colleagues. This embraces a very different approach to clothing “ownership” and moves away from the fast fashion industry model that is often compared to disposable plastic.
There are several benefits of fashion rental for both people and the environment. First, renting clothes often requires a change of mind away from the fast fashion norms we have become so familiar with. For example, the results of this she studies indicated that “fashion rental considerations are utilitarian in nature, centered on functional benefits rather than more hedonistic ones.” For many people, the decision to rent clothes will be a conscious one and they will have to overcome many prejudices, norms and beliefs about fashion to truly embrace the world of renting. However, when people overcome these barriers to truly accept a more sustainable wardrobe, it could potentially lead to long-term changes in consumer behavior, as rental fashion can trigger the mental work that needs to be done.
Hurry up, an online peer-to-peer rental service, demonstrates this notion of changing consumer attitudes and describes their motivation to “allow women to extend the life of their wardrobe.” Fashion rentals can do just that: boost up people who realize the shortcomings of the fast fashion industry to do research and change their consumption behavior.
The fashion rental can also improve the accessibility among the sustainable fashion society. A common perception of sustainable fashion is that purchasing is more expensive. While this is (for the most part) true, because if a garment were truly sustainable, its price would have to reflect the sustainable material, fair wages and working conditions that helped make it happen. By providing more sustainable brands on the rental website, consumers are able to wear clothes that adhere to their ethical views without paying the higher prices.
There are also clear environmental benefits to adopting a circular economy and slowing fashion. Changing the throwaway aspect so deeply rooted in the current fashion industry would lead to less clothes being produced as throwing them away becomes less normal. For example, Rent the Runway says yes has replaced the production of approximately 1.3 million new garments since 2010 with its business model and extending the life of a garment will certainly have positive environmental benefits.
However, before rental fashion, which is still considered a niche form of consumption, can go mainstream, there are several issues that need to be addressed.
For example, research has suggested that the contamination is a key obstacle to the adoption of rental fashion by the masses. An item could be considered tainted when another person interacts with it and consumers are put off by the idea of renting due to the idea that multiple people have previously worn the item. This idea is mainly rooted in the culture and idea of cleanliness of the West, along with the norm of discarding objects with small imperfections. A number of actions can in turn address this problem, for example by ensuring that clothes are dry cleaned between uses (although this raises questions about the carbon intensity and sustainability of the business model); but perhaps the most important point to focus on should be to change the mindset of the many who have become so accustomed to the fast fashion norm because a change in this mindset is, after all, vital to avoid a total rejection of the concept of fashion a rental.
This item also suggests that renting clothes isn’t actually as sustainable as we initially thought, stating that renting clothes is actually worse than throw them away. The main driver of this discovery was the transport of clothing among renters and lenders, as rental fashion means clothes are regularly delivered across the country.
Importantly, many sustainable fashion experts discounted this research, noting that the study assumed customers would each drive 2km in a private car to pick up their rental items. This in fact does not accurately reflect the UK fashion hire process which, like Fashion revolution he points out, he uses a postal service for the delivery / return of the rented garments.
No in-depth study has yet been published on the claims that rental fashion is completely “green”, but for now it makes sense to believe that the rental fashion market has introduced a new way of thinking about accessibility, environmental impacts and to fashion sustainability.
If you want to know more about the fast fashion industry and feel the need for a collective change, the book by Aja Barber Worn out, addresses many of these issues and also discusses the role of colonialism in fashion consumerism; and if you ever visit Amsterdam, the Fashion museum for good (and their website is a valuable resource) it’s also a great place to visit.
Featured image from: Wikimedia Commons