person holding knitted textiles

Sustainable fashion consultants and businesses argue that cleaning and transporting clothing can have a lower impact than the disposal of it.

Fashion rental companies have questioned the conclusions of a high-profile report suggesting that renting clothes is “less green than throwing away” based on the environmental impact of dry cleaning and transportation.

The study was published in Finnish by Environmental Research Letters. It evaluated the environmental impacts of five ways to dispose of clothes, including renting and recycling.

hanged assorted-color dress shirts

“We believe rental needs to be scrutinized to make it as green as possible,” states Tamsin Chislett (CEO and co-founder) of Onloan, a rental company.

According to Chislett, the assumptions made in the study about transportation, which was based on a Finnish company, don’t reflect the realities of the UK rental market. Chislett said that the study was based on each item being collected via a car ride. Hirestreet, Onloan and My Wardrobe HQ send clothes by post. Bricks-and-mortar shops also offer customers the option to pick pieces by foot.

The study focused on transportation as a major area of concern. It found that renting clothes was more likely to cause global warming than resale and recycling, and that it is more likely that customers will use rental services to improve their mobility.

The study also revealed the environmental harm that dry cleaning can cause. My Wardrobe and Onloan say that they use liquid CO2 and wet cleaning to reduce the environmental impact of dry cleans.

close-up photo of top hanged on rack

Alice Wilby, a sustainable fashion consultant, says that it is important to consider the “scale” and “intention” of each rental company in order to minimize their impact. She warns against comparing small-scale rental businesses that use sustainable practices to big brands who are now using rental.

Wrap estimates that around £140m worth used clothing is being sent to landfill in the UK each year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, however, estimated in a 2017 study that more than half the fast fashion products were disposed of within a year.

Isabella West, of Hirestreet, a rental company for partywear, claims that some items have been worn more often than 40 times. Some styles are available every weekend from now through September. My Wardrobe HQ claims that they can extend the garment’s life by as much as 15 times.

According to the Global Fashion Agenda report and Boston Consulting Group, extending the life of clothes by nine more months can reduce their carbon, water, and waste footprints by approximately 20-30% and cut down on the cost of resources required to supply, wash, and dispose of them by 20%.

person holding knitted textiles

Wilby admits that just keeping clothes in circulation isn’t enough. “The majority of clothing available for rent is not made from sustainable materials and has not been produced ethically. It is not circular, as we don’t have fabric-to fabric recycling facilities at scale for all the different types and blends of fabric that we rent.” She also questions the fate of rental clothing after its use ends.

Wilby says that there is no other option than to buy less, buy ethically made and take the best care of your clothing. Even if the clothing is rented by an electric van and washed at low impact, it will still be much more worn and washed more often than clothes owned by the customer. It is possible to use rental to reduce customer consumption and decrease industry production. However, it must be part of a larger system overhaul.