brief thoughts on clothing rentals

A media outlet contacted me about a recent study from Finland that looked at the climate impacts of different scenarios of clothing consumption, including rentals. Here are my unedited responses, with the acknowledgment that I am an irrelevant old man shouting at a cloud at this point. While I never expect more than a sentence or two to make it into the piece (and on a rare occasion, none at all), I find these to be good opportunities to reflect on where my evolving thinking is at, and therefore spend the time writing a response.

A recent study shows that rental clothing services is potentially a less environmentally safe, green, option for shoppers due to core issues such as shipping/packaging wastes, transportation and dry cleaning. Generally speaking, do you have any thoughts surrounding these findings?

The media attention of this study, much of which has been reduced to “it’s better to throw out your clothes than rent”, overlooks the most significant statement: “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-use products. Currently, reduction of the total amount of products in the circuit is the most efficient way to steer the sector toward more sustainable practices. REDUCE and REUSE strategies are the most practical for achieving such goals.” The recent Earth Logic research plan for fashion notes that for the shift required to avoid catastrophic climate change, a reduction in material resource use required is forecast to be 75-95% (page 14 in the report). That points to urgent questions that are still too rarely being asked, like, what are our society and ways of living going to look like with that scale of reduction? What does our economic system need to be like in that transition? I look to economists like Kate Raworth, Jason Hickel, Giorgos Kallis and Herman Daly for guidance. 

In comparison to the heavy footprint fast fashion brands have left on the environment, would you agree that rental clothing services may or may not be a better alternative? Why or why not?

It depends on the context. For now, evidence that clothing rental results in a substantial reduction in the volume of clothing being sold and consumed, is missing. That said, rental has been around for a long time in the formal wear sector and while I’m not aware of studies that have looked at that sector, I suspect that in that sector rental may have a smaller footprint than purchasing, for example. But again, the most urgent action needed is to reduce total fashion production and consumption drastically. The dominant discourse around fashion consumption and sustainability is still like offering menthol cigarettes to someone with terminal lung cancer with the hope it will make the person cough less. We are in the early stages of a human-induced planetary catastrophe, and our collective cognitive dissonance in the face of that is alarming. 

What are some alternatives rental clothing services can try to reduce wastes and become more sustainable?

First, rental clothing should not be employed purely to sate a hunger for novelty, and to prop up the current, inherently unsustainable worldview and levels of consumption. For rental businesses that are in operation, more attention needs to be paid to least impactful laundering and cleaning practices. We also need to focus on decentralized, local systems, in fashion manufacture, retail and rentals. As for research, informal swapping and exchange require further investigation as part of research on shared use. Patrick Duffy’s Global Fashion Exchange is a great example of facilitating direct clothing exchange between people (without involving money), and Nu Wardrobe is another promising initiative doing the same.  

I do wonder about the focus on jeans for this study. For many denim wearers (there are several other denim examples in the Local Wisdom project) the personal patina – exact location of knees, contents of pockets, etc. – that emerges over time is important. The study does not really inquire from a behavioural/ emotional/ social perspective, why would someone rent a pair of jeans? Mud Jeans has been leasing jeans for many years so presumably people do, though Mud’s model is somewhat different to the one presented in the study in that it potentially fosters a longer relationship between the wearer and the garment. A recent study looked at the leasing of baby clothes, a product type that is rarely worn out by a single wearer because a baby grows out of the clothes faster than they are worn out. It’s another area where rental may well have value. 

During a time of fast fashion, the excitement around getting dressed up again and a growing “wear it once” Instagram culture, what are 1-3 ways people can get sustainably dressed while keeping overall excitement present within their wardrobes?

There is no future for the ‘Wear it Once’ culture. We need to aggressively hold accountable public figures, influencers, brands and the media for promoting such a destructive culture and worldview. Simultaneously we need to commend activists like Livia FirthClare Press and others who advocate for reduced consumption with campaigns like #30wears and initiatives like a no-shopping year. Perhaps the greatest learning from the Local Wisdom project is that a fantastic quality of life does not rely on a rapid consumption of a large volume of clothing. Instead, being imaginative, creative and resourceful with fashion is key. As the study notes: “It is also very important to pay attention to behavioral changes that need to be coupled with new CE-related practices.” People who think they need incessant novelty in their lives and fulfill that ‘need’ through shopping are probably avoiding dealing with some aspect of themselves or their lives; shopping is a distraction. They would be better off spending their money on a life coach. I invite people to ask themselves: We are in an escalating planetary emergency that will continue beyond my lifetime. This set of conditions is driven by excessive consumption of resources in the global north, including in the US. Who do I choose to be in the face of that, and how will I behave and live my life in the face of that?

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