Clothing Rental Services Are Not As Green As You Think

From a climate perspective, you're better off buying clothes and discarding them.

old clothes in bags

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So you own a pair of jeans. Have you ever stopped to wonder how wearing and treating those jeans differently could potentially impact their carbon footprint? Efforts could include wearing them for longer than usual, donating them for secondhand sale, recycling, or renting them out for others to use—all of which could be described as being part of the circular economy. 

A team of Finnish researchers set out to quantify what these different approaches can do, and which are most effective at making a clothing item more "sustainable." The resulting study was recently published in the journal "Environmental Research Letters," and it offers an in-depth analysis of five end-of-life scenarios.

The five scenarios described in the paper are: (a) BASE, referring to regular wear and disposal; (b) REDUCE, referring to wearing a pair of jeans for longer than normal before disposal; (c) REUSE, which is passing them on to a thrift store for secondhand use; (d) RECYCLE, or taking advantage of industrial recycling processes to turn it into newly usable material; and (e) SHARE, which is a clothing rental service. 

The researchers found the reduce scenario (wearing clothes for longer before discarding) has the lowest global warming impact (GWP), and the second-lowest is when items are reused (passed on for secondhand use). Recycling did not rank as high as you might expect, with researchers saying it "leads to relatively high overall emissions because the replaced emissions from cotton production are relatively low." 

Fast Company's writeup offers a bit more background: "Growing cotton doesn’t produce a lot of emissions, so recycling cotton may actually have a higher climate impact than simply harvesting cotton. However, synthetic fibers—like nylon and polyester—are made from oil and require a lot of emissions to produce. So it might make more sense to recycle these fabrics rather than extracting oil to create them from scratch."

Finally, rental services are in fact the worst because they rely heavily on transportation to move items from person to person. When that happens on a large scale—as it would if the item is used repeatedly—then the "share" scenario has the highest global warming potential of all. 

This is intriguing because clothing rental services are a relatively new and trendy business model, particularly in urban areas, and much of their popularity is based on perceived sustainability. The fact that they're enabling the sharing of clothes and thus increasing the number of wears before an item is discarded is typically thought of as a positive benefit, but this study reveals it to be otherwise. 

Certain differences could improve sharing's GWP, such as a pair of jeans being worn 400 times instead of 200 times (which is what the researchers assumed to be the usual number in all scenarios), or if it were transported between renters using a low-carbon mode of transportation, such as a bicycle. If these two scenarios were combined, then sharing would reach the same level of global warming potential as reuse—but this would only be feasible "if sharing services are located close to consumers and good quality jeans are used to ensure extended use cycle."

Circularity, or the continuous circulation of products and materials within the economy, is a noble goal—and a "buzzy phrase," as FastCompany writes—but it should not be cherry-picked by brands that opt into certain specific aspects of it while neglecting others and then declaring themselves to be circular. 

Fast Company notes:

"The problem is that many brands have co-opted one small aspect of the circular system—like using some recycled materials or renting clothes to keep them on the market longer—and then marketing their entire company as sustainable."

This research is an important reminder that not all things advertised as green and eco-friendly truly are, and that simply buying fewer items and wearing them for longer is the most effective way to reduce one's carbon footprint. This will require a significant cultural shift, since over the past 25 years, clothing consumption rates have increased by 40% in the European Union, while the average amount of time a garment is worn has decreased by 36%, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In the end, behavioral changes matter most of all: "The role of behavior is the most critical success factor in both reduce and reuse scenarios, which also provide largest GWP reductions."

View Article Sources
  1. Levänen, Jarkko, et al. "Innovative Recycling or Extended Use? Comparing the Global Warming Potential of Different Ownership and End-of-Life Scenarios for Textiles." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 16, no. 5, 2021, p. 054069, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abfac3