An Infinite Closet - Is Renting Your Wardrobe Sustainable?

An Infinite Closet - Is Renting Your Wardrobe Sustainable?

At first, the thought kind of made me squirmy, if I am being honest. Wearing clothing that perhaps hundreds of other people have worn before you forced that zipper shut. (Yes. This happens. All. The. Time. Sometimes women even get stuck inside all that designer fabric).  They say its dry cleaned, but . . . is it? Is it really dry cleaned?  The opportunity to wear high-end fashion that I would never be able to buy on my own pushed me over the edge, and I jumped all in.  I became a renter - a borrower of Badgley Mischka, Sea New York, Ulla Johnson Shoshanna - you name it. And, I loved it.  I loved receiving that blue bag (it's blue, not black!) - nearly every day - that held inside the next day's promise to "look good, feel good, be good". I held onto the sliding rope of belief that I was a conscious consumer as I was slipping in and out of my daily costumes, driving those blue bags to Fed Ex every weekday. Talk about fast fashion.  I was setting the pace to get my monies worth out of that unlimited subscription (sigh - iykyk).

Companies like Rent the Runway, Nuuly, Le Tote, and Amoire tout themselves as a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to fast fashion - but are they?  Rent the Runway, created in 2009, promotes the "closet in the cloud" in which they promote "a dream closet filled with an infinite selection of designer styles to rent . . .  for a fraction of the cost."  The founders state that they are "powering our community to save time, money and have more fun getting dressed . . . All the while contributing to a more sustainable future of fashion." 

With Rent the Runway, the renter chooses a plan to include how many shipments she would like in a month's time and how many pieces of clothing or accessories in that shipment.  Before I "paused", I was on a 4 Swap plan that included 16 items a month for the price tag of $235 plus tax.  When you are ready for new pieces, you send them back and confirm your new shipment.  You drop off your returns to the local UPS.  RTR used to have drop boxes and stores where one could exchange items.  These became obsolete during Covid. In order to combat large declines in subscribers (almost 60% 2020), RTR expanded into the resale market, allowing customers to shop its "closet in the cloud" and purchase the used items. RTR's growth year over year since Covid is back to a 64 percent increase, however, after completing an IPO in October 2021, a year later, the stock has fallen nearly 90%.

There is a hidden environmental cost to rental subscription services.  Renting clothing inevitably creates heavy transportation needs - the movement of clothing back and forth between the provider and the renters.  Each "blue bag" needs transportation twice for each rent - whatever is delivered must be returned. Carbon dioxide emissions times two. According to some rough estimates, an item ordered online and returned (mimicking the renting model) can emit 44 pounds of carbon each way. Obviously, if someone orders and item online and keeps it, those emissions are cut in half. But, with the popularity of online shopping and free shipping and returns, its hard to say that there is much of a difference.

Drycleaning can be harmful. While we don't fully understand the aggregate effect, we do know that dry cleaning requires more energy than our personal, at- home laundry services. And at home, we may not be washing an item after every single use.  For rental companies, there is a guarantee that the garments are cleaned after each rental, thus, regardless of wear, upon return. All of the major clothing rental companies do represent that they do not use perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic drycleaning solvent. So, there's that positive. Le Tote states it uses wet cleaning for the majority of its pieces and uses a biodegradable detergent. Maybe this is a "wash" as a sustainability factor? 

Some rental companies ship in cardboard, which has a low recycling rate.  Some companies drape the clothing in plastic, prior to shipment. Although, Rent the Runway does state you can return the plastic garment bags it for recycling.

Rent the Runway claims that its rental model has displaced the production of 1.3 million new garments sine 2010.  It states that this has led to savings of 67 million gallons of water, 98.6 million kWh of energy and 44.2 million pounds of CO2 emissions over the past 10 years.  But . . . would consumers have otherwise really purchased these products, or are they simply renting because of the availability and novelty to wear items you otherwise wouldn't?  Most weeks when renting, I couldn't find items I really wanted, and I ended up renting items because I already paid for the spot.  Most of the things are not items I would have otherwise purchased.  One time I time I rented pajamas to fill a spot (they were cute!) Many items were sent back with 1 wear or 0 wears because you cannot try on for fit before committing.  So, take these numbers however you will.  I don't find them particularly reliable. 

Whether renting clothing is sustainable . . .  I think it's questionable.  If a majority of people are like me, they are doing it because they have paid for the service, and they need to choose items.  While they already have clothing in their closet that can be worn.  I would have not otherwise have gone naked. 

I have decided that investing in pieces and buying items that are handmade and sustainable, is better for me, than renting items I really don't need. But, I do think rental services speak to a need gap in my closet - the special occasion items like a cocktail dress or a ski suit.  When I need these pieces every other year, if that, renting is the perfect solution.  Otherwise, I am all about finding ways to embrace sustainable fashion and build a conscious closet to shop.  


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