Renting clothes instead of buying new ones is being heralded as the answer to the environmental impact of the fashion industry, with Selfridges and Harrods creating entire sections within their stores dedicated to rental. But recent research from Re-make has shown that the dry cleaning, shipping and packaging involved in rental means the fashion rental supply chain has many of the same environmental issues as fast fashion.
What is fashion rental?
Renting clothes is certainly not new. Hiring mens' formal wear has been popular since the 70s, when it became common to hire morning suits (the ones with the tails) and black tie for weddings and events. With the advent of fast fashion in the early 2000s rental declined in popularity as ‘off the peg’ suits and formal wear became more accessible.
In the last few years Millennials have adopted the concept of fashion rental, particularly women's formal wear, as it allows you to wear something you wouldn't usually be able to afford.
Innovative ways of enhancing the rental experience include offering peer-to-peer rentals, where clothes are rented from other app users, and shops dedicated to allowing people to try on rental garments they have seen online.
What's the problem with rental?
Claiming that fashion rental is problematic has to be put into perspective: If rental is compared with buying 10 fast fashion outfits, wearing one once and discarding the rest then fashion rental is still a much better choice from an environmental perspective.
However, when a garment is rented out for one night there is a lot of behind the scenes activity that makes it a less sustainable alternative.
Firstly, the garment has to be sent to the wearer. Because these garments are usually a high price point they have to be transported carefully. This can mean they are delivered by a courier who will only be delivering a small number of parcels over a large distance, creating a sizeable carbon footprint.
The packaging used to send the garment is also a consideration. Most garments are sent in cardboard boxes, which have a low recycling rate. Although cardboard is biodegradable it takes a lot of energy to produce, and is heavy, which results in higher vehicle emissions. A garment that is purchased online in the traditional sense is shipped once, using one cardboard box. A garment that is rented can be shipped multiple times, back and forth from consumer and back to the company again and again.
Once you have worn the garment it has to be cleaned before it can be rented again. Dry cleaning uses a number of harsh chemicals that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
At the moment it's also likely that the garment you are renting wasn't produced in a sustainable way in the first place, meaning the carbon footprint is higher.
Alternatives to renting
If you have a big event coming up (and it does seem to be possible again!) what are the alternatives to hiring a garment?
1. Make do and mend
I know this is not a very exciting option, nevertheless trying on that dress in the back of your wardrobe might have been the answer all along. Here are a few things you can do to make an old garment feel like new:
- Perfect the fit. Take it to a seamstress to have it altered to your liking - you will be amazed what they can do!
- Alter it yourself. Pressed for time or budget? Many small alterations can be done relatively easily with the help of YouTube and a needle and thread.
- Customise your dress with embroidery.
- Accessorise! A great handbag and shoes (which, let's face it, have probably been languishing in your wardrobe for at least a year) can work wonders
It's likely one of your friends has an outfit you've always coveted, so why not see if you can borrow it. This not only saves the mileage of a courier delivery, but you may be able to wash it yourself afterwards and avoid dry cleaning (but do check the wash label!)
3. Shop local
We would say this, but if you do buy something new, shopping local will reduce the carbon footprint, and you can always lend your new outfit to your friends afterwards. As long as you avoid buying something that will only be worn once, sometimes buying new (sustainably produced) clothes can be a more sustainable option than renting.