Is renting clothes really sustainable?

Paulina Kulczycki

Renting clothes seems like a great idea to address the problem of mass production in fast fashion. Grab your next outfit for a few bucks for a couple of days instead of buying it forever – sounds great, doesn’t it? It was touted as the future of fashion, and a great example of a circular economy. It has led to the emergence of numerous apps and start-ups with a common goal of renting out fashion. But is renting clothes really as sustainable as it sounds? Recent studies have proven otherwise! Since we at SANVT always strive to get to the bottom of things when it comes to sustainability, we investigated!

It’s awesome to witness the sheer number of initiatives coming out of the slow fashion movement, offering green alternatives to fast fashion. And renting clothes has been one of the most popular ones for many years. In fact, it was claimed to be the ultimate fashion revolution! After all, it allows us to wear expensive designer clothes for a small price without having to purchase a new piece.

It’s particularly clever when you want to dress up for a special occasion, for which you would only wear an outfit once. In this context, renting clothes makes perfect sense. Compared to buying a new fast fashion product, you avoid a ton of waste, save water for the dyeing process, reduce pollution in the meantime and prevent the excessive use of raw textiles. So in theory, the concept is sound – but in practice, studies have proven it’s not quite as simple as that.

For a long time, renting clothes seemed to be the answer to the problem of mass production in fast fashion.

Renting clothes leaves a surprisingly high ecological footprint

As a new study by the Finnish journal Environmental Research Letters has shown, renting clothes leaves a bigger ecological footprint than suspected. The study examined five different ways of getting and disposing of clothes – including renting, reselling and recycling. Surprisingly, renting clothes had the largest impact on the climate.

The hidden environmental costs were found to be the delivery and packaging costs associated with the rental. A permanently bought item travels once to the buyer but rented clothes have to be constantly transported back and forth between the warehouse and the tenants. Furthermore, the study pointed to the inevitable dry-cleaning following a rental, adding an extra negative impact to this circular model. The study concludes that, among the green alternatives to fast fashion, renting clothes is the option with the biggest ecological footprint. Who would have thought!?

Rented clothes have to be constantly transported back and forth between the warehouse and the tenants.

Renting clothes is not a circular economy

Besides the hidden ecological footprint, we should be aware of another fact: renting clothes is not a great example of a circular economy. In a circular economy, clothes would be passed on and lent from one person to the next. Rental companies, however, rent the clothes and get them back to rent them over and over again – so it’s more like a ping-pong economy than a circular economy. Often, ‘circular economy’ is used as greenwashing by rental companies.

To rent clothes in a truly sustainable way, we should rely on the wardrobes of our friends and acquaintances (maybe even our grandparents). Alternatively, we can go to so-called fashion swap parties, where clothes are literally swapped for free. In that case, we are actually becoming part of a more authentic circular economy without the environmental impact.

Should we stop renting clothes completely?

Even though renting clothes is not the best answer to the environmental problem of the fashion industry, it is of course still more environmentally friendly than buying fast fashion. Especially if we would wear the product only once or twice, before disposing of it. By no means should we completely discard the idea of renting clothes. Rather, we should redefine the concept. Instead of praising it as the perfect solution, we should consider renting clothes as an option when we need a one-off outfit for a special occasion.

If we really want to consume sustainably, less and better is always our best option. For instance, if we had a base of sustainable essentials that form the foundation of every outfit, we could then complement and highlight our style with second-hand items or rented It-pieces. At SANVT, you’ll find sustainable, fairly produced, climate-neutral and timeless basics that will serve as the high-quality foundation of your sustainable wardrobe.

To rent clothes in a truly sustainable way, we should rely on the wardrobes of our friends and acquaintances.

The real sustainability is the friends we made along the way

In a nutshell, renting clothes is definitely a good alternative to buying new (fast fashion) clothes but it is not the greenest option, and not a silver bullet to fashion’s impact on the crisis. And as with any slow fashion movement, the key word is slow. So in both cases, whether you want to rent or buy clothes sustainably, the most important thing is to consume less and at lower speed. If circular economy in fashion piques your interest, we believe you should definitely start exchanging clothes with your friends, in a truly circular fashion.

You can read what makes SANVT sustainable here.