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People have been renting formal wear for more than sixty years, whether it’s for proms, weddings, or other special occasions. Consumers often opted for rentals because it didn’t make financial sense to buy an article of clothing that will only be worn once. Today, fashion rental services have begun expanding to casual wear, and many fashion-conscious consumers are keen to try them out to reduce clothing waste. 

With 11.3 million tons of textile waste landfilled in 2018—most of which is discarded clothing—minimizing waste is crucial. However, is renting clothes really more sustainable than buying a new article of clothing? Research shows it’s not that simple.

Gen Z consumers are willing to rent clothes to minimize waste

According to a small 2021 study published in Sustainability, Gen Z adult consumers were keen on trying apparel rental services to reduce their overconsumption of clothes. Renting, theoretically, would satisfy the desire for a new wardrobe, but the focus would be on usage, not ownership.

The researchers gathered 362 eligible responses via an online survey and found that there are plenty of factors significantly affecting consumers’ willingness to use apparel rental services, says Ting Chi, one of the study authors and chair of the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles at the Washington State University.

For instance, Gen Z consumers are more likely to rent clothes if they know someone who has a positive perception of it. Education on environmental benefits of clothing rentals and past environmental behavior was also linked to the intent to use apparel rental services.

“Ownership burdens may lead to discarding the item, donating the item, or selling the item secondhand and prematurely,” says Chi. “Renting apparel could be a viable solution to consumers who prefer the latest trends without the ownership burden.”

On the surface level, renting services can help extend the life of clothes, provide easier access to items that might have been otherwise unavailable, and encourage people to buy less often. However, renting is not necessarily synonymous with sustainability.

The sustainability of renting clothes hinges on many factors

A 2021 study published in Environmental Research Letters suggests that buying a new pair of jeans, using it as you normally would, and disposing of it would be better for the environment than renting a pair and returning it after 10 uses. The researchers compared the estimated total carbon dioxide emissions throughout the production, delivery, utilization, and end-of-life stages of both scenarios and found that renting a pair of jeans would have a higher global warming potential.

Although renting would increase the utility of the product, getting and returning the item of clothing is said to generate more emissions. However, if the consumer were to increase the number of times the jeans are worn and use a low-carbon mode of transportation, it would be equal to or more sustainable than buying a new pair, according to the study.

“Factors that would impact which has greater or less harm [between renting or buying clothes] would include how many times the garment would be worn if it were purchased, the distance traveled between each rental cycle, and the washing methods used in each,” says Maxine Bédat, founder and director of The New Standard Institute who was not involved in the study.

The type of clothing being rented or bought plays a big factor in sustainability as well. For instance, buying a new, poor-quality fast fashion item would not be the same as purchasing a high-quality piece of clothing that’s made to last, says Sonali Diddi, associate professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising and core faculty in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at the Colorado State University who was not involved in the study. The impact of renting from a store within walking distance compared to a delivery from an online rental service will also be different.

“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,” says Diddi. “In short, given the lack of data and information available about online fashion rental business, it does not seem to be a sustainable choice over buying new clothes.”

Subscription fashion rental service Rent the Runway (RTR), commissioned a study in 2021 to perform a life cycle assessment of the rental business model compared to purchasing a new garment. The study, conducted with third-party sustainability consultancies JPB Strategies, Green Story, and SgT, concluded that renting saved water, energy, and carbon emissions compared to buying new clothes. However, they didn’t provide concrete verifiable information and data, which brings into question the reliability of their findings, says Diddi. 

“With sustainability and climate change discussions becoming more mainstream and on consumers’ radar, fashion rental companies, and especially RTR, engaged in claims that renting clothes is a sustainable choice of fashion consumption without providing clear data,” she adds. “I think online fashion rental companies need to intentionally engage in sustainable practices [rather than] providing a ‘band-aid’ and reactive approach.”

Renting could be more sustainable if there were more in-store pick-up options, convenient drop-off locations, sustainable cleaning practices, and environmentally friendly packaging options, says Diddi. Providing an incentive to return plastic packaging, being transparent about the supply chain, and showing a clear end-of-life plan and accountability for rented clothes would also help bolster bold sustainability claims.

It’s much better to buy less and mend more

“The best way to promote sustainable fashion consumption is for consumers to follow ‘Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ in that order,” says Diddi. The most sustainable practice would be to avoid buying new clothes in the first place. You can try swapping wardrobe staples with friends and family members instead. Repairing and reusing clothes also extend a garment’s lifespan. 

Should you decide to purchase something new, focus on the needs rather than the wants. Buy high-quality clothes that are built to last and avoid synthetic fibers, which are a significant contributor to microplastic pollution. 

“Fashion disruptive models like online rental, while innovative, cannot be termed as the most sustainable choice given the high environmental impacts related to cleaning, transportation, and packaging,” says Diddi. “Further, mostly all the online fashion rental models give an option to consumers to buy the clothes that have been rented, further fueling the fashion overconsumption epidemic.”

Overall, we still need further research to have a more concrete answer on the sustainability of renting compared to buying new clothes, says Bédat. For now, you can opt to rent pieces that you won’t be wearing often, which reduces the need to produce new clothing—but it may be better to own the wardrobe essentials that you turn to frequently.

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