How designer rentals are changing fashion and sustainability

If you’re looking for a fresh fashion fix, ask yourself, do you really need to own it? Thrive editor Niki Bezzant checks out the rising popularity of clothing rental, and its potential to cut the number of garments clogging landfills.

Quick quiz: how many new items of clothing did you buy last year? And how many times, on average, do you reckon you wore each of those items?

You would not be alone if you have garments hanging in your wardrobe that you’ve worn fewer than five times. You might even have some you’ve only worn once. Op shops are filled with these kinds of fashion mistakes; things we feel guilty about, keep in the closet for a while, and then eventually discard.

Accurate statistics around clothing and its impact on the environment are tricky to come by – and there are lots of unproven ones out there. But it’s estimated that close to 99 percent of used clothing is eventually burned or sent to landfill, with a huge impact on global waste volume.

A big part of cutting that waste is each of us buying less in the first place. And there are now alternatives to buying new or even second-hand clothes. Enter fashion rental.

Globally, people are warming up to the idea that we don’t have to own all of the things we wear. I was listening to a podcast about fashion history when I first heard about Nuuly, a fashion rental subscription service in the US. Founded by the fashion company URBN, which owns big brands Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie, among others, the service offers six garments a month to customers to rent for a fee of US$88 a month. Users return the garments at the end of the month and choose new ones, or there’s the option to buy. In the UK, clothing rental is also taking off. Options there include subscription services with garments distributed from a central supplier, and peer-to-peer services where users rent garments to each other, a bit like Trade Me, but for clothing rental.

The difference between these companies and what we might be more familiar with – say men’s suit hire – is that they’re not just for “occasion” dressing; they’re for everyday clothing. They offer “pieces that scratch that itch for something new without claiming precious space and hard-earned cash, or giving in to fast fashion,” as fashion writer Scarlett Conlon put it in The Guardian. She reports these subscription services have taken off post lockdowns lifting in the UK, with people returning to more normal activities, but with a bit more pressure on budgets than they might have had before.

The benefits of renting rather than buying are obvious: users are wearing something new-to-them but not contributing to that giant clothing waste pile; renting means you don’t have time to get bored with something and you can try new looks often. Money saving is a big benefit, too, especially in uncertain pandemic times. Services usually have sustainable practices around cleaning and transport, which appeals to green-minded fashion lovers.

Locally, there are a number of fashion rental services (see below). Designer Wardrobe is possibly the most well-known; it offers fashion rentals as well as a platform for users – of whom there are 200,000 – to sell garments to each other. And it has a “rent your wardrobe” offering where you can consign designer garments to the company for renting out, with the proceeds split 50/50 between the owner of the garment and the company. Designer Wardrobe and others seem to offer mostly special-occasion wear at the moment (dresses are the most common garment listed) but there’s a huge selection of brands and styles.

Most fashion rental sites seem targeted at younger women, who perhaps are already more in sync with the sharing economy. The clothes on offer tend to reflect that. But Dunedin-based rental site Loveme Rentme was started by Karen McCormack, a 50-something mother of four, in 2017. She has over 750 dresses in her collection, and says it’s become clear that women of all ages are now ready for rentals.

“We’re starting to think more and more about older age groups and what we buy in; they are not keen on cut-outs or some of the new dresses that show too much skin,” she notes.

She started her business with sustainability firmly in mind.

“I suppose I look at my own life, and I am in no way living a sustainable life, but I’m trying to learn more about being greener and act on what I know,” she says.

“I kept hearing how many times women purchase a dress quickly when they have an event to go to, and don’t even love it. Now I know I have rentedthe same beautiful dress 20 times to 20 different people who have loved that same dress. I do believe renting is a positive step in the right direction for our environment.”

She and others have started to dip their toes into the subscription model for regular clothing rentals. It’s worth keeping an eye on this space, and asking yourself: do I really need to own when I could rent?


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