Several years ago, clothing rental was only local and for special occasions like prom. These days, there are tons of online clothing rental options, ranging from formalwear to everyday items.
As people become more mindful of fast fashion and overconsumption, it makes sense that online clothing rentals have exploded in popularity—the industry is expected to grow $990 million in the US from 2021-2025.
But renting clothes has its own environmental cost. In fact, journalists claim that a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters found that renting clothing was worse than buying it and throwing it away, at least in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The study definitely had some limitations though, so I want to talk about what exactly the study said, and what that means about the sustainability of rentals.
Is Renting Clothes Worse than Throwing Them Away?
This 2021 study made waves in the slow fashion community when it was released in July. There were lots of provocative headlines like: Renting clothing is worse for the planet than just throwing it away, study shows.
Most of these articles were pretty short and didn’t get at the nuance of the study, which could’ve easily confused readers. To be completely honest, I even got caught up in the hype and didn’t look into the study that much further at first.
The articles basically said that renting had a higher environmental impact than expected, due to the transportation involved in renting. Instead, the best option was to buy less and keep clothes as long as possible. That sounds pretty intuitive to most people who are familiar with slow fashion. But you end up with a lot of unanswered questions about whether renting could be a good option in certain cases, like special occasions.
Overview of the Study
Let’s get into the weeds of the study a bit since most of the articles didn’t do that (I read a scientific paper for y’all, so I hope I don’t lose you here haha). First, we have to look at the way the study was set up. The researchers looked at the life cycle carbon emissions of five different scenarios for a pair of jeans: Base, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Share.
- Base: Buy a new pair of jeans, wear them 200 times, and throw them away
- Reduce: Wear a pair of jeans you already have 200 more times (and eventually throw them away)
- Reuse: Buy a new pair of jeans, wear them 200 times, and resell them. They get worn 100 more times before being discarded.
- Recycle: Buy a new pair of jeans, wear them 200 times, and recycle them
- Share: Rent a pair of jeans and wear them 10 times before returning (the jeans are rented out 20 times and worn 200 times total before being discarded)
The results were that wearing what you had (Reduce) had the lowest emissions, since you weren’t buying a new pair of jeans. After that, the order from best to worst was Reuse, Recycle, Base, and Share. So, this is where people draw the conclusion that renting is worse than buying and throwing away.
Limitations of the Study
The thing is that there were several limitations to this study, many of which the authors acknowledged themselves. The main ones were:
1. For the impact on the environment, the researchers didn’t focus on water use, toxic chemicals, waste generation, or the human impact. They focused on carbon emissions only (Global Warming Potential or GWP in the study).
2. The focus of the study was a pair of cotton jeans. The researchers state that analyzing a synthetic piece of clothing would’ve probably led to different results since synthetics are more resource-intensive to produce.
3. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that an item will be worn the same number of times if it’s owned by one person vs. rented out. There are studies that say clothes are worn much fewer times—as low as seven—before being discarded.
4. The researchers assumed that you would drive 2km (1.24 miles) each way to get the clothing rental. If it was picked up or delivered via low-carbon transport, the emissions are very similar to those in the Base scenario (buying and throwing away). If the jeans are worn 400 times instead of 200 in the rental scenario, that would reduce emissions lower than the Base scenario.
5. It’s difficult to account for overall consumption rates since the study focuses on one item. Wearing a pair of jeans to death doesn’t mean a lot if you’re doing fashion hauls every week.
Because of these limitations, you can’t really flat-out say that renting clothes is worse than throwing them away. The researchers acknowledged these nuances and alternative scenarios; it was really the journalists who were making these sweeping claims.
So, how sustainable is renting, really?
The conversation around the sustainability of renting tends to go one of two ways. They are:
- It’s an amazing alternative to fast fashion since it helps you buy less.
- It’s terrible because of the hidden environmental costs.
After really sitting with the study and trying to understand it, my opinion falls somewhere in-between. I think renting can be a good option in some cases, but I also recognize that it can actually encourage more consumption. Just think of all the rental sites that are subscription-based, where you get sent new (often trendy) clothing every month. While you might not be buying new clothes, you’re still ultimately supporting fast fashion brands and consumption habits. On an individual level, true sustainable fashion means slowing down and loving what you already have.
All that said, there are some scenarios where renting might make sense environmentally and financially. For example, if I get invited to a ball, I’d have nothing to wear. While I’d love to buy a sustainable ball gown and wear it 200 times, I don’t really want to spend hundreds or thousands on that, and I definitely won’t be able to wear it that often (unless I show up to my remote work meetings every day in a ball gown lol). I could also try to thrift a gown, but the selection is limited.
So, if you need to rent, here are some tips for making it as sustainable as possible.
How to Make Clothes Rental More Sustainable
1. Rent only when you can’t wear something long-term.
I’m all about making your clothes last years, but like I said, it doesn’t always make sense to bring something into your wardrobe. Some relevant scenarios are:
- You’re invited to a super fancy event.
- You’re changing sizes rather frequently (i.e. on a weight loss/gain journey, pregnant, or you’re buying for your kids).
- You need seasonal clothing or gear for a trip in a different climate.
- You want to experiment with a specific style or piece of clothing before making the investment.
I would just discourage you from renting regularly for the sake of novelty or trends (as this again feeds fast fashion habits).
2. Try peer-to-peer rental (or just plain borrowing)
It’s always great when you can find what you need within your community. The closer the item, the lower the emissions in delivery or pickup as well (bonus points if you walk, bike, take public transport, or combine errands into one trip). To find what you need for free, try groups and platforms like Buy Nothing, Freecycle, Nextdoor, OfferUp, and Bunz. I’m especially a fan of my Buy Nothing group.
There are also more and more peer-to-peer clothing rental apps, which are basically like Airbnb for clothing. Some examples are Tulerie and Wardrobe. (Keep in mind this is not an endorsement, which is why I’m not including links; there’s not yet any rental platform I feel fully comfortable recommending). These sometimes operate out of a headquarters, where you ship your items, and other times, the lenders are shipping directly. This has less of an environmental impact since the companies aren’t buying stock; they’re renting out what people already own.
3. Pick platforms or companies with sustainable measures
I don’t know of any companies yet that offer carbon-neutral shipping, but I’ll update this post since things are constantly changing.
I also recommend looking for companies that reuse or recycle garment bags, use eco-friendly laundry methods, repair clothes, and donate or recycle clothing at the end of their rental life. For example, while Rent the Runway isn’t a totally sustainable platform, they do have all these measures.
4. Pick sustainable brands
When possible, it’s great to rent clothing from sustainable brands, as the greater the demand, the more likely rental companies are to reallocate a greater percentage of their stock to these brands. I have a whole guide on how to tell if a brand is sustainable if you’re new to this, and I also have a list of my favorite sustainable brands.
Rental certainly isn’t perfect, it does fill an important gap in the fashion industry. We need further studies to better understand its environmental impact, but in the meantime, if you consume mindfully, you’re doing great.
Let me know if you have any more tips or sustainable rental companies you like!