There was a collective narrowing of the eyes at the Because head office when we saw the study conducted by Finnish researchers at Lut University who claimed that contrary to popular belief, renting clothes is worse for the planet compared with reducing new purchases, recycling and most shockingly, throwing away our unloved purchases. Such stately claims begged the question, “Are renting platforms not the solution we thought them to be to combat the fashion industry’s environmental problems?” Over the years, we’ve tracked their growth and championed the industry makers and entrepreneurs encouraging circular fashion, so the study raised some alarm bells. Can renting an item really be more detrimental to the environment than buying and adding a new piece to your wardrobe? Are we extending an item’s life or creating a new cycle of consumption dealing a different blow?

The world of sustainability is convoluted and confusing, we know, so we set out to make sense of the study and break down its main points.

What it covers
The study outlines that the main drawbacks of renting clothes are as follows:

+ There are hidden environmental costs in the delivery – i.e. the carbon emissions in getting the item from warehouse to renters as well as returning the item.

+ Clothes need to be dry-cleaned after each rental, which is harmful to the environment due to the solvents used.

+ The renting model encourages “collaborative consumption” rather than discourage acquiring a new item in the first place or reusing our current items. 

What it doesn’t cover
Naturally, many of those at the helm of online renting platforms have spoken up to refute the bold claims and what has emerged is a record of where the study falls short:

+ The study focuses on the carbon emissions produced through transportation but leaves out other damaging processes such as land use, water usage and the use of harmful dyes. The former focuses on the end of an item’s life cycle whereas the latter deals with the beginning.

+ The study does not account for different rental models we see in the UK. For example, the study assumes a dry cleaning method for all rental platforms but the UK-based Onloan uses wet-washing and ozone technology which is a much more eco-friendly option. 

+ In making the case that it is better to rewear your items, the study assumes a wear time of 200 uses, yet the average customer only wears a garment 10 times before discarding it, according to the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group.

So, there you have it: the readers-digest version of the study that gave the industry a mini quake. There’s no easy way to weigh up one method of consumption over another when there are a plethora of factors that influence a garment or platform's ‘sustainability’. Even if the jury is out on the Finnish study, it certainly has raised pertinent questions, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out as the answers emerge. 

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