The fashion industry is notoriously unsustainable. Its current system contributes 10% of the Earth’s total carbon emissions and its tendency towards overproduction means that 85% of textiles produced in a given year end up in landfills. How can we reinvent this key industry into one that does not harm its consumers in the long term? The rental clothing industry is one potential solution, but it does not come without its own flaws. Some key players who are attempting to work out its kinks are Rent the Runway, Le Tote, YCloset, Gwynnie Bee, and Vigga, among several others. These services are subscription-based. Customers pay a set fee and receive clothes on a rotating basis, typically month by month. Under this system, apparel becomes more of a service than a commodity. There are significant environmental and consumer benefits, as a rental model is both circular and highly variable. However, there are also drawbacks that limit the feasibility of rental clothing as a replacement for the current retail industry.
A key factor of the recent success of the rental clothing industry is the increasing ease of online retail. For this reason, geographical areas where online retail is already established are much easier markets for rental clothing companies to enter. North America, where online retail is commonplace, makes up 40% of the market, Europe landing in second place at 27%.The rising popularity of e-commerce in Asia makes this region a potential growth market for rental clothing, too.
For better or worse, today’s retail is dramatically different from that of just several decades ago. Online shopping offers a more convenient alternative to the traditional in-person shopping experience. Rental clothing companies aim to offer the same convenience to their customers –– with mixed results. While it eliminates the need to go to in-person stores or dispose of old clothing frequently, a subscription-based service means that customers need to package up their pieces and send them back, typically once a month. This takes time and effort that may make some customers dismiss rental services as more trouble than they are worth. Aside from making widespread clothing rental possible, the internet era has created a generation who could benefit from it more than ever before. The rise of social media and fashion influencers has created a market for single-use clothing pieces. There is now value in possessing a specific piece for only the time it takes to make one Instagram post, a foreign concept until quite recently. While Rent the Runway may have relied more heavily on customers who had frequent formal events when it was founded in 2009, today's young people constantly want to look their best on their social media platforms. While this trend has other drawbacks, it lends itself to a more circular version of the retail economy.
However, millennials’ and Gen Z's preferences may not be the same as the next generation. Consumer preference volatility makes it hard to determine whether rental clothing can feasibly replace traditional retail. The values of ownership cannot be easily dismissed, and it is difficult to predict if future generations are going to return to them or share in today’s need for variety. Renting something requires the renter to take meticulous care. Just as a home renter cannot personalize paint colors, a garment renter will not be able to have their clothes altered or afford to have them stained. Clothing is our second skin; it’s personal. The marks of life’s little struggles and triumphs are found all over them. The rental clothing model does not allow for the coffee stain on dad’s old sweatshirt. Fully transitioning retail from ownership-based to rental-based will get rid of its sentimental value. The question is if people in the coming decades will value sentimentality and consistency or sustainability and variability.
The average lifetime of a garment has decreased by 36% in the past 15 years, with the US average falling at a quarter of the global average. Rental clothing, if perfected, could take a significant amount of the $460 billion of wearable clothing that is discarded in landfills every year and re-circulate it in the market. It could transform fashion from a disposable commodity into a renewable service. Instead of encouraging the overproduction seen in the status quo, this model would motivate retail companies to only produce in necessary quantities. Overall, this suggests that rental clothing is greener than our current model.
The carbon footprint of frequent returning and transporting of clothing, however, is a significant one. Today, the globalization of the rental clothing market creates a nightmare for transportation emissions as the same garments have to be shipped across the world multiple times per year. In order to justify the amount of packaging it would require, these corporations would have to use 100% recyclable materials, which the majority of them do not currently do. Meeting consumer demand for sanitation (especially in a post-COVID-19 world) requires that all clothing be dry cleaned each time it returns to the company facility, which is a process that uses far more water than a traditional washing machine. While most of these issues have existing solutions, implementing them in a cost-effective manner would be a logistical challenge.
While rental clothing holds much promise, a world where it is the primary method of retail consumption cannot exist without a significant cultural shift and feasible solutions to its environmental drawbacks. A partial transition, given the current rate of industry growth, seems likely in certain geographical regions within the next ten to twenty years. Whether it maintains that position, however, or fades into irrelevance depends on which consumer values persist and how rental retailers plan to meet them.
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