Fashion rentals, not as simple as good or bad

A recent Finnish study on renting fashion has started making the round in the press, catching my (and many others) attention.

Hot of the press headlines

The study assessed the environmental impact of five different ways of owning and disposing of clothing, comparing the impact of reducing, reselling, recycling, and renting with standard fashion purchases. The study found that renting clothes had the highest climate impact due mainly to packaging, transportation, and delivery.

The study in itself is transparent on its assumptions. A quick scan reveals that:

  • It uses jeans (made out of denim — cotton) as the base for all scenarios.
  • It assumes that rental users drive about 2 km to pick up and deliver the pair of jeans.
  • It focuses on rental companies buying stock (not peer-to-peer models).
  • It does not account for any innovations in transport or cleaning processes.

These facts immediately probe the headlines to be nothing less than problematic.

This is because they prompt people to perpetuate their ‘shop, use little, throw away’ behaviour while also discouraging fashion companies seeking to break this cycle by providing alternative ways for people to access fashion.

Ultimately, the real question is, what system are you designing for?

Is it a more efficient linear system in which we make, use for a short time, and throw away clothes? Or is it one in which items stay in use for as long as possible and are recirculated?

If it’s the latter, we should solve the issues that hold that [insert business model] model back, e.g. by providing more local rental hubs, electric delivery vehicles, reusable packaging, and safe cleaning processes. It is key to start shedding light on these areas to increase the urgency to address them. Doing so will make models that create revenue without producing and selling more clothes more technically and economically viable.

Since most of the GHG happens at the production and manufacturing stages (GFA & McKinsey 2020) then, reducing the amount of clothing being produced in the first place will have the greatest environmental impact.

Therefore, rental, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad — it all depends if it ultimately succeeds in making people buy fewer new clothes.

The study concludes that,

Therefore, business models that succeed in displacing new clothes purchases while being profitable should be encouraged and celebrated. These are, after all, the models that will decouple the industry from the extraction of virgin raw materials, allowing it to thrive in the future.

Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

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Circular economy expert. Health & wellbeing advocate. All views my own.