Is renting clothes greener than buying them?

Rent the Runway flagship
CC BY 2.0 Ajay Suresh

Sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline isn't convinced.

Clothing rental is a hot new industry and retailers are clamoring to get on board in hopes of attracting newly conscientious shoppers. This past summer alone, Urban Outfitters, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, American Eagle, and Banana Republic have all announced rental subscription services – a sure sign of changing times.

But is renting fashion actually more environmentally-friendly than buying it, and if so, how much more? Journalist and author Elizabeth Cline delved into this question in a feature article for Elle, and she concluded that it's not as sustainable as it seems.

Take shipping, for example, which has to go two ways if an item is rented – receiving and returning. Cline writes that consumer transportation has the second largest footprint of our collective fashion habit after manufacturing. She writes,

"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."

Then there's the burden of washing, which has to happen for every item when it's returned, regardless of whether or not it was worn. For most rental services, this usually means dry-cleaning, a high-impact and polluting process. All the rental services that Cline looked into have replaced perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic air pollutant that's still used by 70 percent of U.S. dry cleaners, with 'hydrocarbon alternatives', although these aren't great either:

"They can produce hazardous waste and air pollution if not handled correctly, and they’re often paired with stain removers that are more toxic than the solvents themselves."

Le Tote is the only service that uses 'wet cleaning' for 80 percent of its items and strives to avoid dry cleaning unless absolutely necessary.

Lastly, Cline fears that rental services will increase our appetite for fast fashion, simply because it's so easily accessible. There's something called 'share-washing' that makes people engage in more wasteful behaviors precisely because a product or service is shared and thus is perceived as more eco-friendly. Uber is one example of this, advertised as "a way to share rides and curb car ownership," and yet "it has been proven to discourage walking, bicycling, and public transportation use."

Renting clothes is still preferable to buying them cheap and pitching them in the trash after a few wears, but we shouldn't let the availability of these services make us complacent. There's an even better step – and that's wearing what is already in the closet.

Read Cline's entire piece here.

Is renting clothes greener than buying them?
Sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline isn't convinced.

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