Rental Companies Will Not Fix Fashion's Environmental Woes

There are better (and greener) options for managing your wardrobe.

fancy rental clothes on hangers

Liudmila Chernetska / Getty Images

I have a small bone to pick with fashion rental companies. I'm talking about the companies offering everything from baby clothes to office wear to fancy dresses that people can rent for a daily fee or monthly subscription rate in order to spare themselves the added expense and hassle of buying items outright.

My issue with fashion rental is that I don't think it's the eco-friendly savior that so many people make it out to be. That might come as a surprise to Treehugger readers who have read my various articles over the years that praise rental fashion as a more sustainable option to buying new clothes. While I am a staunch proponent of extending the lifespan of clothes for as long as possible, I think the fashion rental industry goes about it in a rather wasteful and illogical way. 

Stylish, but Impractical

First, who wears this stuff? This is an honest question. I understand that much of the rental clientele may live in New York City, London, or Paris, where people actually dress up to leave their homes, but that is not the world I inhabit. No, I live in a world where leggings and sweatshirts are the 'fit du jour for every single person I know. I can't remember the last time I saw someone in a pair of heels or with a designer handbag. I'd probably stop and stare in amazement.

When I scroll through the major rental websites like Tulerie, MyWardrobe, and Rent the Runway, I can't help but imagine the quizzical looks I'd get if I ever ventured out the door dressed in any of the outfits displayed on their well-intentioned homepages. I live in a small town in Canada. Nobody dresses like this! Everyone wears comfortable, practical clothes (right now, snow boots and parkas) and maybe dresses up a few times a year, which is hardly enough to support a rental subscription. 

As for renting baby clothes, you'll quickly realize those cute little cotton footie sleepers are the way to go, 24/7—especially when you see what goes into them. Save the money for their education fund. I speak from experience.

Even for extremely fashionable urbanites, with so many people now working from home or using a hybrid approach and still avoiding group gatherings, I suspect demand for rental has dropped. Many people have clothes in their closets that they haven't worn in two years. (Le Tote did file for bankruptcy in 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, less than a year after closing an enormous deal with Hudson's Bay Company to buy their Lord & Taylor chain.) 

My point here is, for a business model to revolutionize fashion—as some like to say rental will do—it has to be relevant to most people's daily lives. There is nothing relevant about these rental websites to my life, or to the lives of millions of other people shopping and dressing outside of those major urban centers I listed above. And thus, I fail to see how rental could possibly be the "genuinely important fashion industry innovator" that Lucy Siegle recently described in the Guardian.

So Much Washing and Shipping

On to more practical complaints: All that extra washing (usually dry-cleaning for these fancy items, which is still really bad, even when the perchloroethylene has been taken out) is anything but eco-friendly, nor is schlepping each piece around a city for someone else to wear—likely once!—before doing it all again. 

Fashion expert Elizabeth Cline pointed out in a feature article for Elle that shipping has to go two ways whenever an item is rented and returned: "An item ordered online and then returned can emit 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of carbon each way, and spirals up to 50 kilograms for rush shipping. By comparison, the carbon impact of a pair of jeans purchased outright (presumably from a brick and mortar store) and washed and worn at home is 33.4 kilograms, according to a 2015 study commissioned by Levi’s."

A study published last year in the respected Finnish journal Environmental Research Letters found that rental fashion is, in fact, the worst form of managing one's wardrobe, due to the environmental costs associated with dry cleaning and transportation. It ranks lower even than throwing clothes away. (It is worth noting that Siegle disputes the study, saying it's flawed for analyzing jeans—an item that's infrequently rented—and for making assumptions about logistics and garment care.) 

The study authors said it's disingenuous for rental companies to claim they're part of the circular economy; they're engaging in greenwashing when they do that. As Fast Company explained in its analysis of the study, "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."

No Outfit Repeaters

I would ask renters, too, why they feel so compelled to change up their outfits with such frequency. A curious headline from Stuff NZ says, "Instagram shame drives boom in fashion rentals," which suggests that it's a fear of being seen more than once in the same outfit that prompts countless renters to fork out (cumulatively large) amounts of cash just for a novel look. We know, too, that some people are buying clothes to wear for a single Instagram picture. So much for convincing them to be "proud outfit repeaters." 

The fashion rental industry, as I see it, is propped up in large part by the idea that we need to be changing our outfits constantly. We do not! There is nothing wrong with buying—no, investing in—a piece of high-quality clothing and then wearing it for years and years. Embrace the unique beauty of a well-loved, well-worn item. It's something to be proud of, especially if it shows signs of mending.

As Eve Andrews wrote recently for Grist, "When someone puts in the effort to heal the authentic wounds of cloth, they’re demonstrating that they care enough about the lifespan of something man-made to make sure it doesn’t collapse in tatters off someone else’s body."

A Better Way

If you truly tire of something, swap with a friend. That's what friends are for. Or buy secondhand items. Thrift stores are a treasure trove of fashion finds, and they cost as little or less than a rental—and you get to keep them or tweak them or swap them or trade them back in. 

You also get to wear items multiple times between washes, without worrying about the added footprint of dry-cleaning and shipping/delivering to the next person in line. Less washing is a very good thing, something we should all be striving for. Try airing them out first. I wash my clothes when they look, smell, or feel dirty—any one of those three (or a combination, which may mean I've let it go too long). Even Stella McCartney says you should wash your clothes less. Listen to Stella! She knows a thing or two abut fashion.

Wearing and rewearing items from your own basic wardrobe is a less showy, Instagrammy approach, but it is undeniably easier, cheaper, healthier, and far more practical. I realize that, for some people, fashion is an art form, something they truly love exploring in bold and creative ways—and I admire and respect that. For those people, a rental industry might be a great option to have. 

But for the rest of us ordinary folks, who only need to be decently and comfortably clothed each day, rental is not a magic bullet solution to anything. Let's not pretend it is. We're better off doing what the authors of the above-mentioned study recommend: Buy fewer items and wear them as long as possible. Plain and simple.