Clothing rental could be the key to a stylishly sustainable fashion industry

July 31, 2018 by Naomi Braithwaite, The Conversation
‘I’ll have this one for 24 hours, please.’ Credit: Shutterstock

A staggering 235m items of unwanted clothing were forecast to be dumped in UK landfill in 2017, while the average American is estimated to bin 81lb (37kg) of used clothing annually. Overconsumption and the inevitable disposal of unwanted clothing has become a worrying global problem – and in many cases, this clothing is unnecessarily thrown away. Instead, it could be repaired or recycled.

Filling landfill with clothing and textiles costs the UK alone an estimated £82m every year. But on the flip side, the consumption of clothing is hugely important to the economies of many countries, too. Research from The British Fashion Council, for example, found that fashion contributes £28 billion directly to the UK economy – and globally, it is a US$2.4 trillion industry.

Despite this, materialistic values and a widespread desire for having new things, twinned with fashion's premise to create – and sell – different styles, has reduced the functional value of clothing, making it easily disposable. A staggering 100 billion items of clothing are being produced annually, and 50% of fast fashion pieces are disposed of within a year.

In fact, recent figures show that one rubbish truck of textiles is thrown away every second globally. Little wonder, then, that fashion has been dubbed "incredibly wasteful" – even by insiders.

The problem with fashion

Fashion and sustainability have historically had an uncomfortable relationship. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, along with growing concerns over sweatshop labour, have seen fashion companies overhaul their social and environmental impacts. Consumers, meanwhile, have grown increasingly concerned about where and how garments are made. But while fashion takes strides to become ethical, there are still serious concerns over its environmental impact and contribution to climate change.

Fashion is deemed to be one of the world's most polluting industries – from toxic chemical use to water pollution and waste. Some 35% of the global total of microfibres in the oceans comes from clothes and textiles, meaning fashion is a major contributor to this pollution. By 2050, it is anticipated, the will use up 25% of the world's carbon budget.

So what's the solution? A circular economy seeks to move beyond fashion's linear model of take, make and waste, to close the loop, designing out waste and minimising environmental impacts. While fashion brands work to limit their polluting practices through the creation of organic, environmentally conscious collections, there is still a need to limit the sheer volume of waste that fashion creates.

Recycling has become an important initiative to address this. H&M, for example, has a successful garment collection scheme, repurposing their ' unwanted clothing. Other brands, meanwhile, are using recycled materials to create clothing. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has made polyester fleece out of recycled plastic bottles.

While recycling could achieve circulatory by designing out waste, it is problematic environmentally. Recycling is energy intensive and may require use of further virgin materials. Additionally, while it resolves some of fashion's sustainability issues, it does not adequately address the problem that consumers buy too much, and that the average number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36% since 2000. We must reconsider how fashion is sold, encouraging consumers to waste less, and ensure that garments have a longer life span.

Are rentals the future?

WRAP, the UK's resource efficiency agency, has identified leasing as an innovative business model that gives clothes a longer service life, while reducing material use and carbon dioxide emissions. A recent survey conducted by Westfield Shopping Centre in London also proposed that clothing rental would become a key future trend.

The possible value of the clothing rental market in the UK is predicted to be £923m and the model is already well-established for certain items, such as dinner jackets and wedding suits for men. Despite this, there are currently just a handful of fashion companies that have adopted a leasing model. At Mud Jeans, for example, consumers can lease a pair of organic jeans, and after a year can keep, swap or return them. Girls Meets Dress, meanwhile, was founded in the UK in 2009, under the ethos that in a sharing economy ownership will become obsolete.

In America, Rent the Runway has become a significant player in the fashion industry. These companies are built on change, but undoubtedly they face the challenges of the traditional sales-driven fashion system, along with consumer hesitation.

Our research has explored the potential for clothing rental among consumers. While we found there were opportunities certainly at the luxury end of the market, there was a definite resistance to rental of lower priced items, which were just too easy to buy.

If consumers are to engage, rentals need to be convenient, cheap, accessible and fulfil the desire for having something new. Consumers are open to change and leasing could help achieve a more circular fashion industry. However, there are issues to consider from transportation through to dry cleaning impacts. Clothing rental has the potential to reduce waste and increase the lifespan of garments, but to achieve a more sustainable industry a systemic change in business practice and consumer behaviour is needed.

Explore further: From jeans to fibres to garment tags—novel recycling for more sustainable fashion

Related Stories

Largest-ever UK study into body shapes and sizes

July 18, 2018

Every year, 50 percent of online clothes shoppers return fashion items they purchased online, much of this due to incorrect fit and sizing. For the first time in nearly 20 years this is being addressed by an ambitious new ...

The environmental costs of fast fashion

January 3, 2018

It's tough to love our clothes and keep wearing them for longer when we are faced with a tempting array of newness on offer in the shops. But before you head out into the January sales for those irresistible deals, spare ...

Making fashion sustainable

December 16, 2013

Soon after new designs hit the fashion runways in New York and Paris, knockoffs can appear on sales racks in as little as two weeks, especially in retail outlets geared toward the young consumer on a budget.

Chicken plastic and wine leather – giving waste new life

July 25, 2018

A fashion collection made from the remains of grapes from the wine industry and plastic made from chicken feathers are two new twists on the practice of making new products from waste, and a growing demand for sustainability ...

Recommended for you

Security gaps identified in internet protocol IPsec

August 15, 2018

In collaboration with colleagues from Opole University in Poland, researchers at Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security (HGI) at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have demonstrated that the internet protocol IPsec is vulnerable ...

Researchers find flaw in WhatsApp

August 8, 2018

Researchers at Israeli cybersecurity firm said Wednesday they had found a flaw in WhatsApp that could allow hackers to modify and send fake messages in the popular social messaging app.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.