How sustainable is it to rent clothing? Experts and top brands weigh in

(NEW YORK) — With landfills receiving millions of tons of textile waste each year — and growing — the environmental impact of clothing has become the fashion industry’s dirty little secret.

Today, more people are paying attention to this worsening issue and have zeroed in on the impact of rental clothing subscription services. These companies, such as Rent the Runway, Nuuly and Le Tote, give people the option to keep their clothes in an ongoing rotation, so they can swap their sweatpants for a pair of borrowed designer trousers. All they have to do is subscribe, select a few of their favorite looks, wear them and then return them later — some brands even offer an option to buy the pieces.

But while many of these companies have been marketed as a greener way to dress by contributing to a more circular, recycled economy, a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters questions how sustainable the logistical processes behind rental clothing subscription services actually are.

The study found that renting clothes could potentially cause the highest impact to global warming when compared to keeping a piece of clothing for an extended period of time or reselling it, which the study suggested impact the environment the least. The study said that rental services can impact the environment via increased transportation needs, such as shipping and packaging, as well as through the constant cleaning needed to maintain the clothes between each renter.

How does transportation play a part?

The transportation sector — including cars, trucks, boats, railroad and commercial aircraft — is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which said it contributed to 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

Most of the items used through rental companies are delivered through these transportation modes, but as the study suggests, delivery via a bike or another lower carbon-emitting vehicle could help to reduce emissions into the environment.

Some top rental clothing services, such as Rent the Runway, have implemented alternative methods for passing off the clothes, including a network of physical drop-off locations to consolidate inbound shipments from customers while also trying to mitigate the use of high carbon-emitting vehicles.

The company has also partnered with traditional carriers and implemented other non-traditional return methods such as a network of swap stops to consolidate inbound shipments from customers.

Cleaner, greener cleaning methods and practices

When it comes to keeping the clothing fresh, some apparel companies have relied heavily on dry cleaning, while others have found environmentally friendlier practices.

Women’s monthly clothing rental subscription company Nuuly says it uses a custom-built cleaning facility along with dry and wet cleaning methods. The company told ABC News that more than 60% of its products are cleaned with non-alkaline and phosphate-free cleaning solutions, which are gentler on the environment when compared to traditional household detergents.

Rent the Runway says it uses similar methods, along with biodegradable detergents that are free from added fragrances and zeolites. The company said it does not use any halogenated cleaning solvents such as perchloroethylene. After cleaning, most pieces pass through a steam tunnel with temperatures between 248 and 302 degrees and are immediately sealed in plastic to protect them from subsequent handling.

Rent the Runway said it encourages customers to keep the plastic out of landfills by sending it back along with their garments. From there, the company said the plastic is recycled through a third-party partner, which in turn uses the plastic for wood-alternative building and decking materials.

Both Nuuly and Rent the Runway also say they make use of recyclable garment bags as opposed to big boxes and packing materials.

“Our goal is to power a new future for fashion, one in which women buy less and wear more, disrupting a centuries-old industry and contributing to a more sustainable future for the industry,” Anushka Salinas, president and chief operating officer of Rent the Runway, told GMA. “We are focused on shifting customer behavior, improving our operations and transforming the dynamics of the industry to drive positive change.”

The company also said it’s making progress in these areas by inspiring a customer base that buys less clothing and keeps clothing in rotation for as long as possible, thereby shifting the focus on the industry from high volumes and low price points — which are generally found through fast fashion brands — to quality, durability and utilization.

While these sustainability efforts from rental clothing companies have to be considered in the grander scheme, some experts agree that the bigger issue has to do with overall mass textile production.

The study only looked at cotton-based jeans and not other textiles

While the study examined how extended use, reselling, recycling the textile materials and renting them could potentially be harmful to the environment, it also highlighted limitations in the research and areas of future exploration. Specifically, it noted that the study was only conducted on cotton-based products and that research into clothing made from synthetic fibers might have resulted in different findings.

Some experts also agree that jeans, which were primarily used for this study, are one article of clothing that’s rarely rented.

“They’re the kind of thing you buy and wear a couple of times a week for at least a year, if not five,” Alden Wicker, a journalist and founder of sustainable fashion website EcoCult, told GMA. “Renting is great for items that you would only wear a few times or even just once, like cocktail dresses and evening gowns.”

Mass textile production and manufacturing likely hurts the environment more than rental clothing

In 2018, landfills received 11.3 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles, which equates to 7.7% of all municipal solid waste that was landfilled, according to the EPA.

The study published in Environmental Research Letters says that developing “more efficient recycling options” for textiles will not be able to reduce this amount of waste on their own.

“Currently, reduction of the total amount of products in the circuit is the most efficient way to steer the sector toward more sustainable practices,” the study said. “Reduce and Reuse strategies are the most practical for achieving such goals.”

Timo Rissanen, an associate professor in fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney, told GMA that people urgently need to reduce total fashion production and consumption.

“We are in the early stages of a human-induced planetary catastrophe, and our collective cognitive dissonance in the face of that is alarming,” he said. “Rental clothing should not be employed purely to satiate a hunger for novelty and to prop up the current, inherently unsustainable worldview and levels of consumption.”

Whether you’re looking to try rental clothing services or not, there are eco-concious fashion advocates such as Clare Press, a sustainable fashion influencer and host of the “Wardrobe Crisis podcast,” who serve as guides for people looking to dress more sustainably.

“I think rental has an important role to play in making fashion circular by keeping clothes in use for longer while satisfying consumer desire for novelty,” Press told GMA. “Do I prefer renting fashion over buying a $10 dress from Shein? Absolutely.”

“Resist being told what to do by pop culture, big media and fast fashion,” she added. “It’s much more interesting and inspiring to make your own style decisions and wear what makes you happy.”

Press said that even though she loves new clothes, that doesn’t mean she should be buying new pieces every week.

“Maybe what makes you feel best will be re-wearing much-loved clothes you already own,” she said. “Quality over quantity, and styling what you already have in new ways.”

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