Clothing rental

Impact Report: Is Clothing Rental Bad for the Environment?

It’s very fun to say “actually that’s bad!” on the internet. It’s less fun and more time-consuming to research things, which is why when one (keyword: one) Finnish study said, “Renting clothes is worse than throwing them away,” people passed it around like (vegan) marshmallows at a campfire.

But before we panic, cancel our clothing rental plans, and feel awful that we’ve been scarring the planet forever—please don’t do this!—let’s take a breath and have a look under the hood of the complex world of clothing rental companies.

What Is Clothing Rental?
Is Clothing Rental Sustainable?
Is Renting Clothes Worse Than Throwing Them Away?
How Much Energy Does It Take to Make New Clothes?
Which Is Better: Renting or Buying Clothes?
How Can I Keep My Fashion Carbon Footprint Down?

What Is Clothing Rental?

Clothing rental companies became popular about a decade ago. Renting clothes allows us to share a giant wardrobe instead of buying (and buying and buying) individual pieces. In that way, clothing rental companies do help the planet, because they discourage impulse buys and overconsumption, which can help lower factory production of clothes. And since the world’s landfills are already clogged with discarded clothes, that’s a very good thing.

Clothing rental companies can be big (like Rent the Runway, which has tens of thousands of pieces available for consumers) or small (like Tulerie, which allows members to rent directly from each other’s closets).

Is Clothing Rental Sustainable?

All clothing rental companies use some form of shipping to get the clothes to and from clients, and that creates carbon emissions because of transportation. Shipping also creates waste in the form of boxes and tape, though many rental companies, including RTR and Nuuly, use zippered and reusable containers to reduce waste.

Then there’s the issue of laundering the clothes we rent, and that’s where things get interesting. Traditional dry cleaning is heavy on toxic chemicals, but in the past 10 years, more conscious methods have gone mainstream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rent the Runway says their detergents are biodegradable, and the plastic they use to seal their clothes after cleaning is repurposed into “wood-alternative building materials” by Trex, a construction company. (That’s assuming you remember to return the plastic wrap back to RTR along with your clothing shipment, of course.) Nuuly promises their cleaning materials are totally non-toxic, and Ralph Lauren has a full web page on their efforts to reduce impact through their rental program.

True or False: Renting Clothes is Worse Than Throwing Them Away

Renting clothes is not worse than throwing them away. Renting clothes, like most things we do in this modern world, has some impact on the environment, and that impact can be lessened through reduced consumption, more mindful shipping practices, and stricter low-impact standards on the dry-cleaning industry. But is renting clothes worse than throwing existing clothes into a landfill? No. No. No. No. No.

When you throw clothes out, they end up as part of a vast global network of non-biodegradable, non-recycled trash. In 2018 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says over 11 million tons of textiles ended up in American landfills—about 7.7% of all total trash. (It’s worth noting that “textiles” include many things besides clothes, including home goods like bedding and curtains, and transportation parts like seatbelts, floor padding, and some insulation. But if clothes even account for half of that number, it still means we can save over 5 million tons of waste per year, which is major.)

How Much Energy Does It Take to Make New Clothes?

It takes 1,074 kilowatts of energy and 6 trillion liters of water to make one year’s worth of new textiles, according to Cornell University physicist Dr. Rui Zou. Even if the carbon footprint of discarded clothes is less than the carbon footprint of shipping and cleaning clothes—and that’s a big “if”—the actual energy used to create each garment wasn’t taken into account during the Finnish study. As environmentalist Lily Fang puts it in her breakdown of the issue, “researchers didn’t focus on water use, toxic chemicals, waste generation, or the human impact” of labor, which can include child exploitation or dangerous conditions, especially with super-cheap fast fashion items. (In the words of Business of Fashion founder Imran Ahmed and Dutch fashion expert Li Edelkoort, “How can a [new] garment be cheaper than a sandwich?” The answer is through terrible labor practices.) So while sending a cocktail dress back and forth via FedEx isn’t ideal, trashing that dress and then making a new cocktail dress (only to trash that one, too) has a far worse impact on the environment.

Which Is Better: Renting or Buying Clothes?

There’s one more piece of data that wasn’t mentioned in the initial Finnish study that’s vital to its accuracy: frequency of use. Let’s say you’re headed to a black-tie wedding (yay!) and you want a gorgeous dress. You rent a designer piece, wear it, and send it back. Let’s say that 100 more people wear that dress, instead of buying 100 dresses. If that dress took 2700 liters of water to make—which is, according to the World Resource Institute, about what one new cotton t-shirt needs—then passing that dress to 99 other people, instead of making new ones for every partygoer, will save 267,300 liters of water. That’s enough to fill over 5 swimming pools. Even with the energy spent shipping and cleaning that dress 100 times, your carbon footprint is much less than it would be with production. As long as rented clothes are worn many times over, renting clothes is less harmful to the environment than buying new clothes and then throwing them out. Way less harmful.

How Can I Lower My Fashion Carbon Footprint?

You can still be fashionable while being mindful about the environment. Experts like ELLE editor-in-chief Nina Garcia recommend investing in well-made pieces you really love and keeping them in your closet for years. Get informed about how and where your clothes are made, and don’t be afraid to ask questions at retail stores or online if you need more information. Also, consider investing a little of your own labor in the fashion game. Supermodel Lily Cole writes in her book A Good Yarn that easy fixes like darning your own socks can keep clothes in circulation instead of in landfills. Same with patching torn jeans. (Want to know how? Sign up for our newsletter for a lesson!) Of course, the most sustainable outfits are the ones already in your closet. Swapping with friends IRL works, too. Buying secondhand clothes can also help, especially clothes that are resource-intensive, like those made with denim or synthetic fabrics. If you like renting clothes, try to use the service for special occasions to cut back on the energy and resources used shipping and cleaning. And remember, no piece of clothing is 100% sustainable, so buying things you really love and committing to really wearing them—even if you’ve already posted them as an OOTD—is an easy way to lighten the load on the planet and your budget.

I have ADD. What Does This Story Say?

Sorry ☺ Here’s the breakdown:

*A viral study from Finnish scientists said throwing clothes away is more sustainable than renting them.

*The study is misleading because it doesn’t account for the energy and resources it takes to create new clothing.

*The study is misleading because it uses standard data about dry cleaning waste and shipping waste, rather than the specific data reported by clothing rental companies.

*If you want to rent clothes, you are not killing the planet, but you are creating carbon emissions through shipping and water usage through cleaning.

*No piece of clothing is 100% sustainable but by wearing your own clothing longer, swapping clothing IRL with your friends, and buying pieces that are made ethically and made to last, you will be helping the planet, your budget, and your sense of personal style.