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Clothing rental services are surging in popularity — but they come with a worrying, complicated problem

Hurdles like transportation and packaging can undermine the eco-friendliness of clothing rentals.

Clothing rental services

Photo Credit: iStock

Whether you're looking to participate in trends without committing to them, searching for an outfit for a special event, or simply trying to save money on out-of-budget pieces, clothing rental services have become popular among an array of shoppers. Even celebrities like Kate Middleton have hopped on the bandwagon.

With the unfathomable waste produced by the global fashion industry, the ability of apparel rental companies to keep clothes in circulation has labeled them as one of the most sustainable fashion practices — but is renting your clothes truly better for the planet than owning them?

The short answer? No, not really.

What are clothing rental services?

Clothing rental is just as it sounds: renting apparel instead of owning it. We have been renting clothing, specifically formal wear, for decades to save money on articles of clothing worn only once.

The clothing rental industry looks a lot different today as people rent more casual pieces to reduce the clothing waste of wardrobes.

Some of the biggest companies in this $1.1 billion industry include Rent the Runway, Nuuly, Armoire, and Gwynnie Bee.

Why rent clothes? 

The fashion industry is problematic for its overproduction of clothing and pollution. Each year, the fashion industry produces an estimated 100 billion garments, and over 100 million tons of textile waste get sent to landfills annually — not to mention the exuberant amount of resources used to create new clothes.

These problems are worsening with the prevalence of fast fashion. Buying trendy pieces from fast fashion brands can be costly and even purposeless, considering how quickly a trending article of clothing can go out of style.

Clothing rentals offer a new opportunity to keep garments in service for longer. Instead of an owner discarding clothes after wearing them, rented clothing can ideally get worn more times by more individuals.

Although clothing rentals can keep clothes out of the landfill for longer, they create different problems for the planet.

What is the impact of clothing rentals?

One of the most alarming issues with clothing rentals is transportation — sending and receiving rented clothing — as most rental companies and services are online. Shipping a garment from the rental company to a customer, then to a dry cleaner, and back to the facility releases a lot of planet-heating carbon pollution into the air.

One study even reported clothing rental services are worse for the planet than recycling, reselling, and even throwing away clothes.

But this isn't all, according to Alden Wicker, the author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making You Sick. Wicker believes the dry cleaning between each customer and the plastic film used to package each garment were the main environmental concerns of clothing rentals.

To Sonali Diddi, associate professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University, the lack of transparency among clothing rental companies is a big issue with clothing rental companies.

Room for improvement

"Online fashion rental business models, while very innovative, need to be more transparent about their business practices across the entire supply chain to be able to promote the sustainability aspect of their business model," Diddi says.

Diddi explains that clothing rental companies could reduce their impact on the planet by offering in-store pick-up and drop-off options, less wasteful packaging, and more sustainable garment cleaning processes. Even more, utilizing electric delivery fleets could dramatically reduce carbon air pollution resulting from transporting rented clothes.

Some rental companies are already applying these notes. At the beginning of 2022, Rent the Runway began offsetting 100% of its carbon pollution from shipments to and from customers and has a partnership with ThredUp to sell pieces that can no longer cycle through rental.

What you can do

Determining the impact of renting clothing depends on several factors, so deciding whether to rent or buy clothes depends on your priorities.

Ultimately, the most sustainable choice is wearing clothes you already own. But this isn't always doable.

An alternative would be to supplement your wardrobe with rentals as need be. Renting a dress for a one-time formal event, for example, makes more sense for your budget and the planet than renting long-lasting capsule pieces like a coat worn each year for several years. 

And the more times you wear a rented clothing item, the less of an impact this garment has.

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