Gone are the days of going to the mall to buy a new pair of jeans or dress for a special occasion. With the major switch to online shopping, the way we shop for clothing has changed considerably.
For reasons of improved selection and affordability, many people are turning to clothing rentals to temporarily fill their wardrobes. This leaves us with another consideration, is clothing rental more sustainable than buying new?
The short answer is yes (for the most part, anyway), but this article will explore the subject more and provide some of our favorite online clothing rental sites for you to try out and try on that “new” jacket you’ve had your eye on.
First, The Problem with New Clothes
Fast fashion may be convenient, but it’s also quickly destroying our planet. The environmental consequences of that $5 pair of leggings are significant.
It’s wonderful to be able to express ourselves with a carefully curated outfit, but at what cost?
A 2019 article from The Conversation elaborates on some of the negatives that come with new clothes:
- Fashion is one of the “trendiest” (AKA biggest) polluters of all industries. Not only does it produce one-fifth of the total global wastewater, but it’s also responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.
- Fast fashion is relatively new. It didn’t really get its start until the early 2000s, yet it’s already significantly changed how we consume clothes. Like a voracious and picky eater, we’re buying and disposing clothes at rates much faster than ever before.
- While we may get a quick rush of feel-good brain chemicals after swiping our credit card, there aren’t many other winners when it comes to our purchases. A shockingly low percentage (just 2%!) of garment workers earn a fair wage.
Plus, we simply don’t need new clothes as much as we’re purchasing them! How often have you worn a sweater only once before finding a newer, “better” one to replace it with?
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing every year. And this doesn’t even consider all of those dust collectors hiding in the back of your closet…
Is Clothing Rental More Sustainable than Buying New?
If it isn’t clear by now, renting clothing is more sustainable than buying new duds.
We can’t deny the fact that many of us like to wear new things every once in a while. In fact, this desire is backed by science. The fast fashion industry is certainly keeping up with our desires, and around 100 billion pieces of clothing are being produced every single year.
Off the bat, this is a shocking statistic, even more so when you consider that about 50% of these garments end up in landfills, thrift store shelves, or incinerators within just one year (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
With clothing rental, we get a win win. We get to mix up our wardrobes every once in a while, and the planet doesn’t suffer as a result.
Clothing + Circular Economy = Happy Planet
Fortunately, the increase in clothing rental sites and brick-and-mortar locations is part of a larger movement towards making our economies follow a circular path.
For those of us not well-versed in circular economies, here’s the definition, also courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials and use, and regenerating natural systems.”
Instead of the usual make, take, and waste model, elements of the circular economy want to keep clothing in use for much longer. This is why we’re seeing big companies like Patagonia and REI launch programs to accept old garments and either sell them as used clothes or recycle them into new garments.
This is also why we’re seeing an increase in opportunities for clothing rental. While the clothing still has to be manufactured in the first place, the option of renting clothing keeps it in use for much longer—meaning that shirts, pants, dresses, jackets, and more can be kept out of landfills and incinerators for years, if not longer.
But it gets better than that. A 2020 study found that if done right, borrowing garments could help offset the impact (transportation, laundry, etc.) of the clothing rental, just by keeping it in use for longer.
Unless the rented garment is replacing one that is typically worn everyday, a t-shirt for instance, the environmental outlook is generally better when the clothes are rented.
This is even more so the case with specialty garments, like a fancy dress or jacket. When you rent a piece of clothing that is only used on occasion, that rental means a significant reduction in the impact on our planet.
Any Case Where Clothing Rental isn’t More Sustainable?
Clothing rental is great and as we said, when done properly, the rental process itself can offset the impact associated with transportation and laundering.
However, when done incorrectly it can be as damaging as buying new clothes.
Transportation is the second largest contributor to our fashion footprint—just after manufacturing. When you’re part of a subscription service for clothing rental in which you’re receiving and returning a package or two every month, this can add up—especially if you don’t end up liking the clothes that you receive, and opt to swap them out for something else.
Then we get to the laundry pile of these rented clothes. Many services choose to use dry cleaning, which is known to be a pollutive and high-impact process. In fact, many dry cleaners around the United States use perchloroethylene, which is known to be a carcinogenic air pollutant.
Lastly, if you’re caught up in a fast fashion frenzy and use clothing rentals to constantly rotate your wardrobe, you may not be as green as some of these brands may have you think.
Known in the industry as “share-washing,” greenwashing, or making things appear more environmentally friendly just to profit off of them, is also found with some of these clothing rental services.
Best Sites for Clothing Rental
Following in the footsteps of car sharing platforms, accommodation companies like AirBnb, and other opportunities to use instead of own, recent years have seen an explosion in clothing rental sites.
We’ve rounded up a few of the most popular ones.
Rent the Runway
Rent the Runway (RTR) was the first big name in clothing rentals and remains one of the most popular. If you’re looking for formal attire or some of the biggest names in fashion, this is the rental company for you.
They offer several different choices for customers, including one-time rentals, or subscriptions that allow you to bring home 4, 8, or even 16 items every month (just be sure to remember the transportation impact of the latter option.)
Le Tote has been around since 2012 and can help you out with your style. They make suggestions for you based on your browsing, rental history, and even the weather in your area. Unlike many other clothing rental companies, in addition to offering formal wear and business casual clothes, they also have a selection of athleisure—AKA the look of 2020-2021.
Plus, they’re one of the few clothing rental services that only uses dry cleaning when necessary.
In 2011, Gwynnie Bee transformed the clothing rental landscape by offering an exclusive range of clothes from sizes 10 to 32.
Now, they’ve expanded their clothing range to start at size 0, but they’re still one of the best clothing rental options for plus-sized fashionistas.
Not only are they the most inclusive clothing rental company out there, but they’re also one of the few to provide a 50% discount for the first month while you try it out.
Unfortunately, included dry cleaning and unlimited returns aren’t the best look for our planet.
Nuuly has a good mix of casual and everyday staples from brands like Free People, Anthropologie, and Urban Outfitters, sent in a reusable garment bag with no single-use plastic in their deliveries.
While they are one of the most affordable clothing rental companies ($88/month to keep six items for 30 days), they do use dry cleaning and two day shipping—which may have a pretty hefty impact on our planet, especially if you’re using them every month.
You can pause deliveries as often as you’d like, so if you just want a wardrobe switch-up every few months, they’re a good pick for the planet.
Final Thoughts on Clothing Rental Sustainability
Let’s get back to the question, is clothing rental more sustainable than buying new clothes? Yes, absolutely!
But do you know what’s even more sustainable? Wearing what you already have in your wardrobe or, if you still feel like you need a change on a regular basis, switching to buying all of your clothing secondhand.
Let us know your thoughts: Have you tried clothing rental? Are there are other sustainable clothing rental companies you would add to this list?