Renting Clothes Has Been Revealed As Environmentally Unfriendly But Is It?

A scientific study from Finland has shown that renting clothes creates a worse impact on the environment than throwing them in the bin. To say we’re dev’d is putting it mildly.

Taking care of our fashion needs (and wants) sustainably is our #1 consideration and renting clothes seemed like a genius solution to get a fashion fix without repercussions on the planet or a hit on our finances.

The survey compared five different ways to own and dispose of clothes and suggested that renting clothes had a higher environmental impact than reselling your old garms, recycling them or binning them. The biggest damagers to the environment in the rental process come from chemicals used in dry cleaning clothes in-between loans, carbon emitted in transportation between renter and rentee and the packaging methods.

But we’re not giving up on renting yet.

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Lauren Bravo, writer and author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, has given us perspective. “Like every news story, it’s important to understand the nuance here rather than just writing off all clothes rental as terrible. It’s crucial we don’t use studies like this as a reason to give up and just go back to our old fast fashion habits or (as the study worryingly presents as a greener option) throwing our clothes in the bin. Not every rental company is created equal. Some are far more committed to sustainability than others and some business models are naturally lower-impact than others.”

It’s accepted that buying something and wearing it once is a, quite frankly, ridiculous way to consume fashion (you should aim for thirty wears for every item you buy) and renting remains a brilliant way of helping us buy less product in the first place. For those outfits you’ll only wear a few times (even your wedding dress, as Carrie Symons proved) renting is a sensible option. Lauren agrees, “It makes far more sense for fewer clothes to be made (the number one thing the fashion industry could do for the planet right now is make fewer clothes) and to share them around instead. We all need to get better at buying less and pooling our resources.”

The GLAMOUR team take on the ’30 wears challenge’ and here’s how we got on…

Eshita Kabra, founder of social wardrobe sharing app By Rotation was “surprised” by the report. “Many of our users are shying away from fast fashion altogether as they commit to lower consumption habits and renting high quality pieces instead. Renting fashion allows us to change our consumption habits by buying less, buying better, and sharing what is already in circulation.”

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The Finnish report focused on the garment options for clothes owning and disposing. What you do with your clothes when you’re over them has an impact on the planet (adding to the £1billion of clothes dumped in the bin every year is not a helpful alternative) but it’s actually the earlier stages of textile manufacture (yarn production, weaving, dying and finishing) that take the biggest toll on the environment. Wearing something already in existence will cut out some of those processes.

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Sacha Newall, co-founder of My Wardrobe HQ has the figures to back up the eco-friendly credentials of renting too. “As soon as we saw the headline message of the interpretation of this study, we contacted Compare Ethics, a completely independent scientific research group. If we look at water, the average pair of jeans requires 7800 litres of water for production. If 20 people each buy a pair of jeans this requires 156,000 litres of water. If 20 people rent one pair of jeans and the jeans are washed between rentals (25 litres/wash) the total water cost to the planet is 8300 litres in total. That’s a huge 147,700 litre water saving. (Source UNCTAD.)” Basically, a serious result.

If you’re planning on extending the lifespan of your wardrobe by renting it, consider using an eco-friendly dry cleaners that use CO2 to clean your clothes or get busy with a steamer. “Not every garment needs to be dry-cleaned after every wear. Just a good steam will do!” advises Lauren.

Sacha continues, “We use chemical free Ozone cleaning (which most rental businesses use), wet washing (not dry-cleaning), we only use carbon neutral and green couriers and all of our packaging is not just recycled, but reused.” Do you research before you choose who to rent with (or from.) Lauren is a fan of peer-to-peer rental, “It’s a system which operates more like AirBnB for clothes, allowing users to loan or swap their clothes directly with other people – ideally on a local basis, so you can meet up for handovers rather than sending everything via post or courier.”

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Renting our clothes also gives us golden opportunities to experiment with our personal style, try out new brands and make friends with similar taste. Eshita continues, “I love that I have become part of a community of people, from all backgrounds and careers that bond over their love of fashion and dedication to consume more mindfully. I’ve made so many incredible friends and “style matches” through By Rotation!”

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The Finnish study concludes that rental companies need to overhaul their processes to become more environmentally friendly and has crowned buying fewer items (and wearing them for longer) as the most sustainable fashion option. Well, duh. Vivienne Westwood’s iconic mantra, “Buy less, choose well, make it last,” is a philosophy we’re definitely on board with.

Renting was never the only solution to the fashion industry’s acceleration of the climate crisis but it can certainly continue being a considered element of thoughtful consumption – it’s not the doom-laden choice the Finnish report suggests. According to Lauren, “the best possible thing we can do is wear the clothes we already own. It’s down to the rental brands to make sure they have the planet, not profit, at the centre of their business model.”

Read more from Glamour UK Fashion Director at large Alex Fullerton here or follow her on Instagram @alexandrafullerton

This is why you *need* to pay attention to sustainable fashion (and the brands you need to know about)