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The rent phenomenon

The rise of the fashion rental industry and its possibilities.

Imagine if, instead of buying new clothes every season, you borrowed your month’s outfits for a fraction of the cost. Imagine if, instead of throwing unsold clothes away, brands were able to sell them to a programme that would allow them to be worn, and loved, over and over again. This concept, known as ‘fashion rental’, is not new but has greatly expanded in recent years and could change our relationship with clothes as we know it.

Fashion rental pretty much does what it says on the tin. Instead of buying new clothes, consumers are able to rent outfits for a number of days, return them, and rent new ones. Companies such as My Wardrobe HQ claims this model benefit both shoppers and the environment as it provides customers with the usual dopamine hit (dopamine being the hormone often associated with pleasure) that comes when you make a purchase, whilst preventing the build-up of unworn, unloved clothes many of us have growing unchecked in the backs of our wardrobes. Renting also allows consumers to access high-end fashion brands for a tiny fraction of the cost required to own a piece.

Sounds good, right? Well, as with anything in life there are a few drawbacks. A study published in May (2021) suggested that renting has a higher environmental impact in terms of CO2 emissions than even the standard fast-fashion model, where clothes are bought and disposed of after an average of 2 years. Part of this is because of the extra transport required to constantly redistribute clothing results in more fossil fuels being burnt. Renting companies may also choose to package the items each time they are sent out, resulting in a higher use of single-use plastics. Finally, renting companies will wash clothes in between customers, which for expensive garments often means dry cleaning. This can further increase emissions over time, meaning that some models of renting can actually be more environmentally unfriendly than traditional models.

However, the results of this study assumed several things about the renting industry. One was that garments were being delivered by a petrol-engine vehicle such as a van or car. If public transport, bicycles, or electric vehicles were used instead, this could substantially lower the carbon emissions associated with renting clothes. Furthermore, if different methods of cleaning garments were used in between renters, this could also reduce emissions. Thus, depending on how the renting provider operates, there could be a significant difference in carbon emissions overall.

It is also worth noting that the ethos of the renting system is not solely focused on combatting emissions, but also on tackling the norms that have built up around the fast fashion industry. It has become common for some brands to design new ‘lines’ every couple of weeks, by which they hope to encourage consumers to continually purchase new items to increase their own profits. This can result in clothing being worn only a few times before it is considered ‘old’, a problem exacerbated by a drop in quality and a loss of mending skills meaning broken items are quickly discarded. By encouraging renters to wear pre-loved clothes but still allowing them to frequently experiment with new styles, renting takes advantage of a consumer’s familiarity with the dominant system whilst allowing them to be more environmentally conscious.

Renting might not be the best model for the future of the fashion industry for many reasons, the most prominent being that it is not practical to rent every item of clothing we wear. However, in an industry struggling to tackle its global impact, the fashion rental industry is providing a new pathway towards making fashion both more accessible and more eco-friendly than in the past.

A link to the 2021 study referenced can be found here:

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