The rise of fashion rental platforms including Hurr and Rent the Runway has been rapid and well-received in the US, UK and beyond. The concept of the rental market in fashion is also a huge beacon of light against the backdrop of wasteful fast fashion. We live in a time where we are regularly - and rightfully - reminded of the high percentage of clothes that go straight to landfill, and the proportion of Instagram-loving teenagers who cannot wear the same outfit more than once. The UK spends over £80m on the very process of landfilling. On the surface of it, rental fashion seems like the perfect solution to prevent people being bored of wearing the same things, and therefore preventing the environmental damage of discarding clothes to landfill after wearing them a few times. It is after all, absolutely mind-blowing that 50% of the 100bn new garments made every year are discarded within a year of being created.
But, is rental really the perfect solution? According to Wired, the average clothing item on rental platforms is worn 10 times before it reaches the end-of-life stage i.e. it cannot be rented out any more due to damage, wear and tear, staining etc. 10 times is far fewer times than I’d anticipated. Any Livia Firth following eco-warrior will pride themselves on aiming for #30wears so 10 doesn’t seem like the gold star to aim for.
Another challenge facing the fashion rental market is the relatively narrow part of the market which it addresses (premium / luxury). The greatest levels of wastage in the garment industry comes from the ‘value’ (cheaper) sector of the market. It tends to be the poorer quality, trend-led, high street items which get discarded after a handful of wears and end up in landfill compared to the premium end of the market, where items are more cherished. It isn’t economically viable to create a rental market for this ‘value’ end of the market (let’s say less than £50). If a company rented a £50 item out for 10% of its worth, and its quality only enabled it to be rented out 5 times, a rental platform would make a loss. So, whilst the rental platform can be an economical and environmental solution for the premium and luxury markets, it won’t help with the part of the market with the highest number of garments are purchased and thrown away every year.
Other environmental elements to consider when assessing the fashion rental market are the CO2 emissions and water usage of transport and cleaning clothes. Rent the Runway currently operates the US’s biggest dry-cleaner, cleaning 2,000 dresses every hour in its 160,000sq ft fulfilment centre. Then it has to be transported to the next user. Whilst e-commerce in general requires fashion items to be shipped, at least it’s only once rather than every week?
There’s no doubt that renting clothes supports sustainability in fashion. However, in order to achieve true sustainability, there’s a long road ahead which includes altering consumer behaviour and widening the net from the luxury / premium end of the market. One of the biggest challenges for the rental market continues to be wardrobe staples (I mean, I wouldn’t rent jeans and a t-shirt worn by someone else - would you?) For now though, we’ve no doubt that renting statement and occasion-wear will continue to grow in popularity.