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Are Clothing Rental Companies the New Black?

Aug. 19, 2019Would you rent a dress for your wedding? How about your entire wardrobe?

If you’ve scrolled through Instagram at some point over the past several weeks or months, you’ve likely come across an influencer or two – or five – who’s advocating doing just that. Eschewing to typical packed-too-full closet for a one-and-done approach of rent-it-and-return-it. Specifically, these influencers are likely working with clothing rental company, Rent The Runway. Launched in 2009, RTR is just one of a slew of clothing rental services that have popped up in recent years and whose momentum and popularity has only grown. As trends come and go in a flash – along with our collective desire to keep up with them – the demand for accessible fashion options is often at odds with our desire to live more sustainably. As knowledge of fast fashion practices becomes readily available – news of poor working conditions, underpayment, and artist rip-offs – one can’t help but wonder, could renting your clothing be the key to an endless wardrobe and a better environment?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Like a lot of things in our modern lives, renting your clothing is much more complicated than simply purchasing a subscription and instantly gaining access to the season’s most stand-out styles and key trends. Why? Well, let’s look at the clothing industry at large: the clothing industry accounts for approximately 10% of global carbon emissions and is second only to oil in industrial pollution. Our hunger for the new and now has helped the fashion industry balloon to a $3 trillion dollar industry that produces approximately 150 million garments every year (to put that into perspective, that’s enough to provide 20 new garments every year to every person on the planet). Renting your closet sounds like the perfect solution to this ecological threat – the answer to not wanting to commit to a trend, to not knowing what to wear, to always looking like an editorial, even on the tightest budget. But to pull back the curtain on these services reveals there’s a little more to it.

Depending on the service you choose – and there are plenty to choose from with more launching daily, from Urban Outfitter’s just-launched Nuuly, to luxe fashion-based Rent the Runway, to profesh-focused Le Tote, to polished women’s sites like Gwynnie Bee and Haverdash – the how-to looks a little like this:

  • Users choose a plan. Typically a flat fee in exchange for a select number of items to borrow per month. Depending on the service and chosen tier, this could range anywhere from 6 to 12 to unlimited garments.
  • Choose your garments and get them shipped to you. Rent the Runway’s unlimited plan allows you to choose 4+ garments and swap them for new options as fast as you can wear them.
  • When you’re done, ship ‘em back or choose to keep. Most clothing rental companies offer the option to purchase a borrowed garment at a discount separate from your monthly subscription rate. 
  • The clothes you send back are then dry-cleaned and sent out to their next temporary home while you select the next batch of clothes to wear and style.

Each garment rental service offers their own benefits, from youth-focused Nuuly and professionally-minded Le Tote, to Rent the Runway, which now offers a maternity option, a black tie and wedding shop, and even home goods through their partnership with retailer West Elm. For someone who might not want to invest in a closet full of maternity styles or for the budget-conscious bride or wedding guest, these rental services could be game-changers, the caveat, it seems is that most require a membership so a one-and-done rental may be difficult to obtain. Still, with the average woman donating or throwing away approximately 80 garments a year, if a month’s subscription will save you money on that wear-it-once dress, it could be worth it.

But it’s important to keep in mind, we’re not necessarily saving the planet when we rent our clothes. Even more eco-focused dry cleaning is detrimental to the environment, and by driving consumer desire to always stay on top of the trends and always have something new to own, photograph and show off, we’re not exactly teaching ourselves to love and appreciate what we do have. Clothing rental may provide inexpensive access to clothing that might otherwise be out of reach, but it also generates a notable amount of emissions due to shipping, along with dry cleaning and pieces that are unable to be donated or sold as part of a sample sale. 

Still, we’re in the early days of fashion as a circular economy. Already, more sustainable options are popping up, such as For Days, which already has a sizable waitlist. For Days uses the principles of a circular economy – that is, an economy that minimizes waste while making the most of resources available – paired with a subscription model to encourage reuse and recycling within the clothing industry by charging a one-time fee of $38 (which acts as a lifetime membership) which users can apply towards their organic cotton tees and tops. Consumers can then use their tees as their own – trash them, chop them, essentially wear them to death – and when they’re ready to return, members can swap them out for something new for $8, returning their old tees to be recycled as thread by the brand. It’s a closed-loop system that encourages use and reuse while theoretically saving consumers considerable cash in the long run.

Are clothing rental companies the perfect solution? No. For consumers who care about fashion and the environment, the best solution may not be one we particularly like: simply buying less, buying used, and appreciating what we have. 


Do you have a clothing subscription? Share your thoughts with us on social by tagging us @AvocadoMattress and #AvocadoGreenMagazine!

Julie O'Boyle

By Julie O'Boyle

 —  Julie O'Boyle is a freelance writer and content strategist with a background in fashion and DIY and a devotion to the outdoors and functional nutrition. Currently residing in the woods of Maine, when she's not writing you can find her at the beach or on a mountain, or otherwise getting her hands dirty.

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