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Is Renting Your Clothes Really More Sustainable?

Rent The Runway says it’s displaced the production of 1.3million new garments since 2010, via its rental model.

Photo: David Roemer

Renting fashion has been on the rise in recent years, as we all look to ensure our wardrobes are as eco-friendly as possible. But research published in Finland in June threw doubt on whether renting is actually a more sustainable option, with the study going as far to suggest that buying and throwing away a pair of jeans might actually be better for the planet than renting some.

Why? The transport involved. Although the study assumes a renter would drive 2km to collect the jeans, a model not currently used by most rental companies, it has raised questions about the CO2 emissions created when sending clothes back and forth, as well as from all the dry cleaning involved (a factor not taken into account by the research).

Now, though, Rent The Runway has released new data that suggests there are significant environmental savings when people rent, rather than buying new. The US company, who worked with third-party consultants Green Story and SgT to conduct the research, estimates that its rental model has displaced the production of 1.3million new garments since 2010 – leading to savings of 67million gallons of water, 98.6million kWh of energy and 44.2million pounds of CO2 emissions over the past decade.


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“What we found out through this study was really encouraging and aligned with what we had always believed to be true,” Anushka Salinas, Rent the Runway’s president and chief operating officer, tells Vogue. “This study really proved that rental has a smaller environmental footprint compared to purchasing; it’s a smarter choice and a more conscious way to get dressed.”

Rent The Runway compared the environmental impact of buying a new garment to renting one, based on the number of wears that each piece gets during the course of both models. The data was based on surveys that customers fill out after renting a piece from the company (although it’s worth noting that currently, you can only say you’ve worn a piece a maximum of 3+ times, even if you’ve worn it more than that during the rental period).

On average, per rental garment, Rent The Runway estimates a 24 percent reduction in water usage, a six percent reduction in energy usage, and a three percent reduction in CO2 emissions, in comparison to buying new.


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While some of these numbers may seem relatively modest, it’s worth noting that it does not take into account the environmental savings from clothes not being produced as a result of rental – for example, if the same dress is rented 50 times, instead of 50 people buying that dress brand new. “We’ve been very conservative in our estimate; this is the baseline from which we will be continuing to build and improve our operations,” Salinas explains.

As you might expect, some rental categories fare better from an environmental standpoint: it makes more sense to rent a dress for a special occasion, rather than a pair of jeans (the subject of the Finnish study), or a coat that you’d buy once and then wear over and over again for years to come.

Overall, the research is promising but continues to highlight the thoughtful approach that is still needed when it comes to renting. Of course, wearing what already exists in your closet is ultimately the most sustainable choice. “Rental is not synonymous with sustainable,” comments Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute. “If the fashion industry does not address the disposability of trends and the pushing of a disposable relationship with clothing, we will remain on this disastrous path.”

Rent The Runway argues that it is part of the solution, but recognizes there is still work to be done – which is why it’s continuing to build on its model, recently integrating resale on its site, too. “Our customers tell us [that] 89 percent of them buy fewer clothes than they did before joining us on Rent The Runway; this behavior is creating less consumption from them,” Salinas concludes. “The most important thing we can do as a company is continue to encourage women to wear the same garment more times, which we facilitate through our model, and increase the longevity of items.”

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