Renting clothes is ‘less green than throwing them away’ | fashion industry

A study has revealed that renting clothes, long touted as one of the “solutions” to the fashion sustainability crisis, is worse on the planet than throwing them away.

The study, published in the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, evaluated the environmental impact of five different ways of owning and disposing of clothing, including renting, reselling and recycling.

And I found that renting clothes had the biggest climate impact of all. The hidden environmental cost was found to be delivery and packaging costs. The rent includes quite a bit of transportation, taking clothes back and forth between the warehouse and the renter. Dry cleaning is also harmful to the environment.

A quality controller works at Rent the Runway's Dream Fulfillment Center in New Jersey.
A quality controller working at Rent the Runway’s “Dream Realization Center” in New Jersey. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Rental clothing is seen as the sustainable and frugal alternative to fast fashion, made famous by companies like Rent the Runway and public figures like Carrie Symonds, who rented out her wedding dress and clothing for the G7 convention. Gwyneth Paltrow is on Rent the Runway and Ralph Lauren has announced a rental group.

The growing sector, which will be worth £2.3 billion by 2029 according to GlobalData, has been touted as a potential solution to fashion’s environmental crisis. A report from the World Economic Forum this year indicated that the industry generates 5% of global emissions.

But instead of solving fashion’s environmental crisis, rents must be reclassified. “We should think of renting like second-hand shopping,” said Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. “[It’s] Not something we do all the time, instead of buying our clothes and exchanging clothes non-stop, but sometimes, when needed, like promises [or] wedding parties. “

Ralph Lauren store
Ralph Lauren said he would produce a line of clothing for rent. Photograph: Mario Anzoni/Reuters

The study found that many rental brands misuse the term “circular economy” – the system in which clothes are passed from person to person before being recycled – as a form of green washing. “No executive wants to overhaul their business, and that’s what ‘going green’ requires, not an overhaul but an overhaul,” Thomas said. They focus too much on short-term gains to invest in long-term benefits.

“Only regulation will solve this problem. No company, in any industry, will volunteer to take a loss for the sake of the planet. They will do so when that is the law. The biggest obstacle is greed.”

The new study suggests that if leasing companies change their logistics to make them more climate-friendly, leasing will, in environmental terms, be at the resale level. I also found that a more sustainable way to consume fashion is to buy fewer items and wear them for as long as possible. “Do you want to be sustainable? Buy less, buy better,” said Thomas.

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