CLOTHING RENTAL: AS SUSTAINABLE AS WE ONCE THOUGHT?
The response to a recent Rental study
Disclaimer: We're by no means undermining the validity of this study, it is a piece of literature that seeks to answer the research question using credible sources and methods and comes to a conclusion based on the results found, whilst disclosing that there were limitations.

According to a recent study, renting clothes has the potential to contribute more to global warming than throwing them away. It's safe to say that this has surprised a lot of people in the sustainable fashion community and beyond.
"Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles" investigated whether it's better for the environment to extend the life of our clothes or innovate ways to recycle them at the end of their life.

The study looked at the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 5 different ways that we own and treat our clothes at the end of their life. These 5 ways were:

BASE – Basic use with waste disposal.

REDUCE – Extended use (increasing the amount of time we use a garment).

REUSE – Re-sell (e.g., second-hand shops).

RECYCLE – Industrial processing into new materials.

SHARE – Rental service.

It concluded that SHARE (renting) had the highest GWP, followed by RECYCLE. The lowest GWP was REDUCE, followed by REUSE.
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Clothing rental as potentially harmful

Like me, you're probably wondering what makes renting clothes worse for our environment than putting them in the bin. Well, renting was found to produce the highest amount of CO2 emissions due to the methods used to transport the clothes. By nature, renting requires the product to take two trips: the travel to the customer's house and the travel back to the rental company. As such, the rental scenario had the highest CO2 emissions for delivery and subsequently overall.

Limitations of study

However, it needs to be highlighted that the study assumes a couple of things about the rental process. It assumes that:

1. The customer drives to the rental company to collect and return the item.

2. The end-of-life scenario for renting is incineration.

Transportation

If every rental company did in fact require customers to use a car fuelled with petrol to collect and return the item this does add up to a hefty amount of CO2, but this is just not the case…

Many rental companies send items by post using carbon neutral DPD (On loan and Girl Meets Dress) and Green Last Mile delivery (Circos). Plus, even if your orders are sent via Royal Mail (in the UK), it's likely much better to have a hundred parcels in one van than a hundred cars driving to a store to pick up a parcel. Plus, Royal Mail deliver using electric vehicles, bikes and even on foot. In fact, Royal Mail has been named the "most carbon conscious delivery company" in the UK. Also, even if a customer did go to pick up the items themselves, they may use public transport, walk, or cycle to the store.

End-of-life treatment

The study assumes that all rented clothes get incinerated at the end of their life, but this is not an accurate assumption. Rental company Circos certainly do not throw all their clothes into the incinerator after they've been used. Their goal is to make everything they do circular and, once a Circos product is at the end of its life and taken out of circulation, they collaborate with their partners to create a new product. And, for HURR Collective's end-of-life treatment, they have partnered with the second-hand fashion app Depop so that when items are no longer available to rent they'll be added to Depop to give them "a chance to find their forever homes". We also spoke to Onloan who enthusiastically shared details of their resale site Offloan where they sell their preloved stock that is looking for a forever home. They also mentioned that they upcycle any pieces they can't sell and would love to partner with a fashion school to do this in the future. So, it's safe to say the end-of-life treatment for rented clothes is not categorically incineration!
Where the real issue lies

The real issue here is not how clothing rental services operate, it is a problem with the whole fashion industry and consumer attitudes.

The study highlights that "to reduce overall GWP from the textile value chain, clothes and all other textiles should be kept in use as long as possible". Here, they're highlighting to the consumer that it's important to look after our clothes. One of the ways that we can do this is to learn a few basic repair skills so that our clothes last longer.

Regarding the whole fashion industry in general, the study calls for a massive shake up: they highlight that "in the textile industry, massive over-production is a system level problem that cannot be tackled only with the development of more efficient recycling options for end-of-life products". So, renting itself isn't the answer, we need to have a system overhaul for renting to be a good solution to textile waste. One thing the industry can do is reduce "the total amount of products in the circuit" as this "is the most efficient way to steer the sector toward more sustainable practices".
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How we can make the fashion industry more sustainable

After the study highlighted that we need an overhaul of the current system, they came up with a couple of solutions. For example, it's quite difficult to make REDUCE and REUSE the mainstream if clothes don't last long enough. Therefore, the study made the point that we need more durable or repairable clothes.

Another good solution would be to combine new circular economy (CE) innovations (SHARE and RECYCLE) with existing CE innovations (REUSE and REDUCE) – i.e., we need to make clothes from recycled materials and keep them in use for longer.

Furthermore, they recommend developing business models that merge high quality products with customer communication in order to provide people with a sustainable product as well as educating people that it's important to extend the product's use time. For example, a company could introduce a repair and refurb service or encourage customers to send back their jeans once they're done with them so that they can make new jeans from your old ones, just like MUD jeans do.

I appreciate that's a lot of information to take in in one article; reading and analysing this study definitely brought back memories of university! Even though this is certainly more interesting than a lot of articles I read there. All in all, I think this study has sparked a lot of fighting amongst ourselves which distracts us from the real issue at stake here: the unsustainability of the current fashion industry. Rental companies are trying to find a sustainable solution to fashion waste in a world where few people have control over how many clothes are produced. Those of us who are trying to reduce fashion waste shouldn't be turning on each other and arguing about which method is the most sustainable and picking holes in each other's methods because this isn't the most productive approach to solving the issue at hand. We need to remember the common goal: to make the fashion industry as sustainable as possible and that means reducing the over-production of clothes; educating consumers about keeping their clothes for as long as possible; creating ways to make the end-of-life scenarios for clothes as circular as possible; and, we must not forget, protecting the garment worker rights.
Article by Catherine McAteer