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(NEW YORK) – With landfills accumulating – and growing – millions of tons of textile waste every year, the pollution of clothing has become the fashion industry’s dirty little secret.
Nowadays, more people are paying attention to this deteriorating problem and have focused on the impact of rental clothing subscription services. These companies, like Rent the Runway, Nuuly, and Le Tote, offer people the ability to keep their clothes in a rolling swap so they can swap their sweatpants for a borrowed designer pair. All they have to do is subscribe, choose a few of their favorite looks, wear them and return them later – some brands even offer an option to purchase the pieces.
But while many of these companies have been marketed as greener apparel by contributing to a more circular, recycled economy, a study recently published in the Environmental Research Letters poses the question of how sustainable the logistical processes behind apparel subscription services are.
The study found that renting clothing could potentially have the greatest impact on global warming compared to keeping a garment for an extended period of time or reselling it, which the study found has the least environmental impact. The study suggests that rental services can impact the environment through increased transportation needs, such as shipping and packaging, as well as the constant cleaning required to maintain clothes between tenants.
What role does transport play?
The transportation sector – including cars, trucks, boats, trains, and airliners – is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Most of the items used by rental car companies are delivered through these modes of transport, but as the study suggests, delivery by bicycle or other lower-carbon vehicle could help reduce emissions into the environment.
Some top apparel rental services like Rent the Runway have implemented alternative methods of dropping off the clothes, including a network of physical drop-off points to consolidate inbound shipments from customers while reducing the use of high-carbon vehicles.
The company has also worked with traditional freight forwarders and implemented other non-traditional return methods such as a network of exchange stops to consolidate inbound shipments from customers.
Cleaner, greener cleaning methods and practices
When it comes to keeping clothes fresh, some clothing companies have relied heavily on dry cleaning while others have found more environmentally friendly practices.
The monthly womenswear subscription company Nuuly uses a purpose-built cleaning system and dry and wet cleaning methods. The company told ABC News that more than 60% of its products are cleaned with non-alkaline and phosphate-free cleaning solutions, which are more environmentally friendly compared to traditional household detergents.
Rent the Runway says it uses similar methods, along with biodegradable detergents that are free of added fragrances and zeolites. The company does not use halogenated cleaning agents such as perchlorethylene. After cleaning, most of the parts pass through a steam tunnel with temperatures between 248 and 302 degrees and are immediately shrink-wrapped in plastic to protect them from later handling.
Rent the Runway said it encourages customers to keep the plastic out of landfills by sending it back with their clothes. From there, according to the company, the plastic is recycled via an external partner, who in turn uses the plastic for alternative building and terrace materials made of wood.
Both Nuuly and Rent the Runway say they use recyclable garment bags instead of large cardboard boxes and packing materials.
“Our goal is to create a new future for fashion where women buy less and wear more, turn a centuries-old industry upside down and contribute to a more sustainable future for the industry,” said Anushka Salinas, President and Chief Operating Officer of Rent the runway, said GMA. “We’re focused on changing customer behavior, improving our operations, and changing the dynamics of the industry to drive positive change.”
The company also said it is making progress in these areas by inspiring a customer base that is buying less clothes and keeping clothes in rotation for as long as possible, shifting the focus to the high-volume, low-price industry – the im Generally by fast fashion brands – on quality, durability and use.
While these sustainability efforts by rental apparel companies need to be considered on a larger scale, some experts agree that the bigger problem has to do with overall mass textile production.
The study only looked at cotton-based jeans and no other textiles
While the study examined the extent to which prolonged use, resale, recycling and rental of the textile materials could potentially be environmentally harmful, it also identified limits in research and in future exploration areas. Specifically, she stated that the study was only carried out on cotton-based products and that research on clothing made from synthetic fibers may have led to different results.
Some experts also agree that jeans, which were primarily used for this study, are an infrequently rented item of clothing.
“You buy and wear them a few times a week, if not for five years,” Alden Wicker, journalist and founder of the sustainable fashion website EcoCult, told GMA. “Borrowing is great for items that you would only wear a few times or even once, such as cocktail dresses and evening dresses.”
Mass textile production and manufacturing is probably more damaging to the environment than rental clothing
In 2018, 11.3 million tonnes of municipal textiles were landfilled, which, according to the EPA, corresponds to 7.7% of all municipal waste landfilled.
The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, states that developing “more efficient recycling options” for textiles alone will not be able to reduce this amount of waste.
“Currently, reducing the total amount of products in the cycle is the most efficient way to steer the sector towards more sustainable practices,” the study says. “Reduce and Reuse strategies are the most practical to achieve such goals.”
Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney, told GMA that people urgently need to reduce the overall production and consumption of fashion.
“We are in the early stages of a man-made planetary disaster and our collective cognitive dissonance in the face of this is alarming,” he said. “Rental clothes should not only be used to satisfy the hunger for new products and to support the current, inherently unsustainable worldview and level of consumption.”
Whether you want to try a clothing rental shop or not, there are eco-conscious fashion advocates like Clare Press, a sustainable fashion influencer and host of the Wardrobe Crisis Podcast, who serve as a guide for people looking to dress more sustainably.
“I think rental plays an important role in making fashion circular by making clothes last longer while meeting consumer demands for novelty,” Press told GMA. “Do I love fashion rather than buying a $ 10 dress from Shein? Necessarily.”
“Resist being told what to do by pop culture, big media, and fast fashion,” she added. “It’s much more interesting and inspiring to make your own style choices and wear what makes you happy.”
The press said that while she loves new clothes, that doesn’t mean she should buy new pieces every week.
“You may feel best wearing popular clothes that you already own,” she said. “Quality over quantity and style the existing in a new way.”
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