S & S Decoded: The Fashion Rental Market

At A Glance

The fashion industry is shunning a linear model of take, make, waste for a new landscape that embraces rental business models and a shared economy. This form of activity revolves around shared access to goods or services facilitated by community based online platforms.

“I’ve got nothing to wear.” is undoubtedly one of the most frequently used terms by women around the world, however a number of innovative organisations are rethinking the solution to this problem. The fashion rental market is booming – rightfully so, it permits a sustainable and economical one-night stand with a designer Preen dress or holiday fling with a Zimmerman coverup. With the opportunity to access an affordable endless virtual closet much akin to T.S.Elliot’s infinite wardrobe that leads to Narnia, citizens are increasingly adopting this method of shopping.

Why do societal pressures fuel fast fashion habits? What does the future look like for fashion rental? Where does one start their fashion rental journey? How truly sustainable are the rental services? Can they really mitigate the impact of fast fashion? This article answers all.

In Focus

Why do we need to borrow?

The environmental degradation and social injustice created by the fast fashion industry is no secret. (You can read my in-depth articles on fast fashion here.)  As a brief recap, the apparel industry creates the equivalent to 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases annually and is responsible for the enslaving of millions of garment workers across the globe.

This challenge is exacerbated by the psyche of mindless consumption driven by the conform to societal pressures surrounding image. Charity foundation Hubbub found that one in six young people feel unable to re-wear an outfit if it has appeared on their social media channels, prompted by campaigns such as #OOTD that endorse new over used.  Alongside this, purchasing with no purpose renders many pieces entirely unworn, collecting dust in closets, Traid report 23% of items in Londoner’s wardrobes are unworn and adults nationwide only wear 44% of the clothing they own. These attitudes are creating unprecedented levels of clothing waste (over 350,000 tonnes annually at the value of £140 million) being sent to landfills.

How does a rental service work?

With the aforementioned statistics in mind, rising consciousness on the impact of fashion habits has seen that

The online clothing rental market is predicted to reach $1,856 million by 2023.

Allied Market Research

Fashion rental services allow customers to borrow garments from luxury or mass market brands across a whole host of categories whether it be occasion wear, street style pieces or accessories for a set period of time.   In previous decades, fashion rental services have centred predominantly on formal occasion wear by the likes of pioneer Rent the Runway, but this is no longer the case. They provide an ample opportunity to dress in the seasonal trends without splurging and encourage your wardrobe investment pieces to be those that are timeless, seasonless and permanent fixtures.

The majority run as subscription models, with payments made on a monthly basis and some charge an additional rental fee for each item, usually around 10% – 15% of its original RRP.

Where can I start renting?

A new wave of innovative start ups and a reconfiguration of traditional retailers make renting clothing a seamless process. Here are a few of my recommendations in no particular order:

Rent The RunwayUnlimited swaps membership is $160 per month

Nu Wardrobe Flat fee membership basis £8 monthly, £20 3 months, £35 6 months

(Read my interview with Nu Wardrobe founder Aisling Byrne here) Nuw has worked with the London Waste and Recycling Board to develop an impact calculator to show the carbon, waste and water offset of each share that happens on the platform. According to WRAP (2013) for each item that is shared on a platform of this nature, we offset up to 25% of te resources that would have been used in the making of a new garment. They are also excitingly developing a blue print for building these wardrobe sharing communities across the country having successfully launched in London, Cambridge and Dublin! Nuw was recently featured in the 2020 BAFTA’s guide to sustainable fashion – one to watch!!

Hurr Collective A  Zimmerman dress for one week rental is about £120

My Wardrobe HQ A Ganni dress will cost around £8/ a day, occasionally there are the options to buy the items outright.  

Front Row Balmain blazer for five days sits at £230.  

Higherstreet UK – Lesser known brands, cheap starting prices of around £20

Higher Studio

By RotationA peer to peer rental app where you can list your items and gain ££!

Existing brands who have adopted a rental service into their overall strategy include Urban Outfitters and Bloomingdales. H & M also trialled this in November 2019 so it will be interesting to observe if this is rolled out on a larger scale.

Perks of peer to peer services over traditional rental systems are that it creates a sense of community, you are directly connected to the story of the garment and its owner and they host events – one would liken this more to the sisterhood of the travelling pants rather than borrow a designer garment for a week type scenario.

An example of the borrowing process of fashion rental app Nu Wardrobe

Is the fashion rental market sustainable?

Calling upon rental services to curb your cravings for a wardrobe update is a positive habit to uptake in the transition to living more sustainably. Limitations do exist on the extent to which the rental market can alleviate the monstrosity of fast fashion. The impact is currently marginal, according to GlobalData, while the US market could reach $4.4 billion by 2028, that would represent a mere 0.9% of the total clothing sales in that year.

How truly sustainable are these platforms in reality? Leasing apparel still generates a considerable footprint when you account for shipping, packaging and of course dry cleaning for the next borrower.

Interestingly, Josué Veláquez-Martínez, the executive director of MIT’s Supply Chain Management masters programme and Sustainable Logistics initiatives argued “The returns and transportation activities just of moving all these clothes will definitely be higher than the regular delivery of fast fashion clothing.”.

Regardless of if it’s new or borrowed, an item ordered online and then returned can emit up to 20kg of carbon each way – this then increases to 50kg if you tick the next day option. This compares to a study conducted by Levi’s in 2015 where purchasing a pair of jeans outright that are then washed and worn at home is 33.4kg.  Contrastingly, ASOS reported that it emits the equivalent of 3.8 kg of carbon dioxide per delivery. (You can read more on the impact of returns and reverse logistics here.)

Whilst my own personal opinion is that borrowing trumps new because of the mindset it promotes and the reduction it encourages in waste and overall demand for production. Not to mention it boycotts brands who engage in dangerous working conditions and actively avoid paying living wages to their workers throughout their supply chains. Using the above information contextualises both sides of the argument so you can make informed purchasing decisions.

Final Thoughts

The rental market will not single-handedly mitigate the impact of the fast fashion industry. It is instead a seismic opportunity to transition the consumption patterns of shoppers away from the ‘one and done’ approach to garments. It provides a viable alternative to linear fashion models and a long-lasting solution when integrated with other sustainable behaviours and choices. To be truly successful in the rental market, my belief is that organisations need to focus on depth and breadth of their collections, easy navigation via devices and have seamless shipping processes. Supporting start-ups that champion borrowing through peer to peer networks engages with tackling sustainable fashion through community, a notion that is often lost in today’s society.

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