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Slowing Down Fashion: The Rise of Garment Rentals

Euan Cook explores how garment rental is key in promoting ethical consumer action and combatting the fashion industry’s environmental qualms.

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Photo by Parker Coffman

A report by the World Economic Forum has stated that the fashion industry generates 5% of global carbon emissions, suggesting that the traditional consumer model has to adapt in order to be more environmentally friendly.

The global production of clothing has doubled in the past 15 years to keep up with the rise of fast fashion. Yet, the growing demand for clothes does not mean every bought item is worn. Reportedly, UK adults wear just 44% of the clothing they own, resulting in the disposal of 350,000 tons of clothes in landfills (with an estimated value of £140 million) every year. If consumers are simply investing and, just as flippantly, disposing of these items, our climate crisis will only keep spiralling out of control.

A New Perspective

Garment rental services have previously lived in the shadow of the UK’s most prolific designer outlets. Often described as the Airbnb of the fashion world, renting clothes has opened up a growing market in the distribution of (once) private property.

While this service was, frankly, unheard of before the coupling of “social” and “distancing” entered our everyday vernacular, garment rentals have had a soaring popularity due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Garment rental services such as My Wardrobe HQ, By Rotation and OnLoan are now targeted to be worth a total of £2.3 billion by 2029, with Carrie Johnson applauding and promoting the service after renting her wedding dress as well as several outfits for the G7 summit.

The desire to temporarily invest in expensive garments as one-hit-wonders is thought to be the solution to the fashion industry’s immediate problem of wasting perfectly fine clothes. This demand for ethically sourced clothing is reflected in the 66% increase in internet searches for “sustainable fashion” since 2018.

How Does it Work?

The idea is simple: businesses or private lenders offer a fee to consumers for hiring a single item for a set period. For example, a Chanel quilted handbag has a retail price of £3,000 but can be offered to a consumer for £18 a day. Payment depends on the asking price of the lender, the set rental duration varies, and there is no regulation on the age of the garment. It must merely be in excellent condition.

“Rather than deny the innate human desire for newness, which we associate with pleasure and reward, fashion rental can give us the dopamine release we need - maybe more so during tough times.” - Carolyn Mair, The Guardian

If the human desire for “newness” is quenched through renting clothes, perhaps the mass production of new garments will be reduced if a competing market fiercely enters the fashion scene.

Breaking Down the Logistics

Garment rental services tread a fine line between promoting a “circular economy” - where clothes are recycled between consumers as a form of “greenwashing” - and ironically encouraging excessive investment in rented clothes. The question has been asked whether garment rentals could be equally, or even more, damaging to the environment than the usual consumer pattern.

The abundance of access-based consumption is the main point of contention. Steven Curtis argues that encouragement of increased consumption means consumers have access to a greater selection of goods at a reduced price. Transportation, in particular, is one of the top sources of carbon emissions in the U.S, which could spell disaster for the environmental benefits of garment rental services seeing as home deliveries are key for a successful operation.

Sacha Newall optimistically compares the growing garment rental industry to car rentals: “For every one car shared, 11 are taken off the road”. However, in this case, cars are not being taken off the road. Instead, more vehicles are seemingly deployed to transport more rented items of clothing.

Josué Velázquez-Martínez builds on this, explaining that a returned item that is ordered online can emit 20 kilograms of carbon for each journey, soaring up to 50 kilograms for “last-mile deliveries”, which comprises a quarter of the transportation carbon footprint. If you were to purchase, wash and wear garments outright, that figure could be reduced to 33 kilograms of carbon.

Striving Towards Conscious Fashion

What Velázquez-Martínez does not consider is that, to date, the fashion industry is responsible for 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year (more than flights and maritime shipping combined). To tackle this, garment rental services like Rotaro enforce biodegradable and recyclable packaging, carbon-neutral delivery and wet-wash laundry, which is considerably more eco-friendly than dry-cleaning.

Eshita Kabra-Davies rightly points out that “A lot of people have noticed how small their space is and how much stuff they’ve amassed, and realised they don’t need that much”. Therefore, garment rental services that are conscious of the waste they produce and actively promote more eco-friendly operations are certainly stepping in the right direction.

These services are not designed for everyday use, nor should they be abolished altogether. They are best used in moderation for special occasions such as weddings. Fashion businesses that adopt a rental service are not replacing the traditional consumer model, but instead are an evolution that can operate alongside Dana Thomas’ “buy less, buy better” mantra of shopping.

Indeed, garment rental services shatter the traditional mould of profligate lifestyles in a campaign to make consumers more conscious of the fashion they are investing in.


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