Let’s face it. Millenials and Gen Zs aren’t into permanence. We both come from generations that value experiences over material things, preferring not to make heavy commitments to almost everything. Can’t afford to buy a car? Just book a ride-share. Looking for entertainment? You can borrow books, read news, stream music/shows from virtual libraries residing in the numerous platforms, avoiding the build up of books/magazines/CDs collecting dust in a pile in your house.
We love the idea of having options without being tied down to it.
So when clothing rental for daily usage started hitting the market, it’s unsurprising that consumers were quick to welcome this new-ish (bridal and formal wear rental has always been around) concept. Even within Singapore, there’s at least 10 such companies that has popped up within the last five to 10 years. And with more and more young Singaporeans feeling the heat of climate change and the environmental crisis, many are turning to renting their clothes, thinking that it’s an effective way to reduce their consumption.
But just exactly how sustainable is renting your clothes? Is it really the answer to going green? Honestly, I’m pretty split on this. So, full disclosure: I’ve been featured in social campaigns for two local clothing rental companies in 2019. So this isn’t to say that I think renting is fully off the table. I think it’s still admirable if you want to de-own your clothes. But after being gifted subscriptions from both of them and testing out their services, here’s why I feel, personally, I’d rather own my clothes instead.
The options can be pretty homogeneous
For a rental company to be successful, they need to appeal to as large a demographic as possible. This means the clothing selection has to be appropriate for most occasions and in typically flattering styles. Both places didn’t really have a lot of items that fit into my style (the clothing pieces are usually very feminine and from popular contemporary brands like (C/meo Collective, Self-Portrait and Alice McCall) and I had difficulties finding something that I wanted to wear. If girly pieces and those brands sound like your personal style, you probably would benefit from rental services.
And then there’s one other thing: my height. According to statistics, the average Singaporean woman is about 160cm. I’m 153cm. While 7cm might not seem like a lot, it makes a world of a difference when it comes to the fit of your clothes. Loaning pants was clearly not an option for me if I wasn’t going to level the playing field with heels. Most of the sizes also seem to fall within the UK 6 – 8 range, which isn’t very diverse as well. Understandably you want to cater to the most common sizes renting your clothes, but for interested customers who fall outside of that range? You aren’t given as many options to play with. And yet the fees are pretty much standard regardless of available sizes, so you can see why larger women would be at a disadvantage. Even for Digital Editor Hidayah—who wears a UK 12 – 14—gave up trying out rental services as she couldn’t find a lot of items in her size.
Does reducing consumption actually makes a difference to your carbon footprint?
This is debatable. While many rental companies market themselves as a greener way to shop, there still isn’t enough information out there on just how environmentally-friendly their practices are. The good news is, by renting, you do stop these items from going to an incinerator or landfill. Let’s also give rental companies the benefit of the doubt and assume their inventory is rescued from excess stock from companies that would just end up throwing their clothes away. With the exception of The Treasure Collective (whose rentals are from their members own inventories), not a lot of rental companies explicitly specify just how or where do they obtain their inventory from. Some of them even offload their clothes at a discounted price at the end of the year to make space for new inventory.
And what about the carbon emissions produced by their operations? To ensure maximum convenience to their customers, many of these companies deliver and return the clothes for you, sometimes even within the same day. What is the carbon footprint on all those deliveries, especially if you’re on a weekly rental scheme? According to World Resources Institute, 14 per cent of annual global emissions come from the transport sector and 72 per cent of that comes from vehicles alone.
Let’s also look at the energy required by the dry cleaning companies that dry cleans all the clothes as well as the chemicals used—what’s the real damage of that? To maintain hygiene standards, rental companies dry clean every single piece that is loaned out, regardless if you wear them or not. As opposed to you only washing your clothes when you need to. We may not really fully understand the effects of all these practices ’til much later.
It still doesn’t eliminate the paradox of choice
One of the reasons why we tend to shop all the time is that we have this need to constantly fuel ourselves with something new. With renting, you have infinite possibilities to choose from at any given time. But isn’t the whole point of sustainability making do with what we already have? By having a revolving door of clothes at our fingertips, the gratification we feel from having new clothes doesn’t go away.
If buying clothes (and keeping them for a long time) is akin to being in a long-term relationship, renting is like a friend with benefits. You enjoy them for a short time and let them go, allowing you to benefit from consumerism without the guilt.
Also, is being attached to your clothes such a bad thing? In my opinion, when you get to fully immerse your clothes into your life and deem them your favourites, the memories and sentimental value you attach to your clothes than actually increases the value in your eyes. Call me a romantic but I just don’t see that with a rental. And without experimentation within your own wardrobe, how does one then develop a personal sense of style too?
Sustainability also lies on a spectrum
On the other hand, I do regret the handful of purchases I’ve made that have only lasted one wear. These are the occasion specific items: the formal-ish dress that I bought for my best friend’s wedding, or the backup gown I required in a past life where I used to attend and report on society balls for work. The money spend on those dresses collecting dust might have probably been much better spent on a one-time rental instead. And more cost effective too.
So the answer is this—there are no hard or fast rules between whichever you prefer. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is “I buy fast fashion on the regular” and 10 is “I’m completely zero-waste”, then you need to see where you’re comfortable in this spectrum and how much of lifestyle change are you willing to make.
So while renting isn’t perfect, it can potentially be more sustainable than a person getting new items shipped in from fast fashion brands weekly. The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters and consumers of water, and this is due to the over production of clothes. People want trends and they want it now, and fast fashion brands have modified their chain supply to ensure that the latest trends hit the stores ASAP to satiate the appetites of fickle consumers.
So with everything we do in the internet age, take every new movement with healthy amount of skepticism. Do your research, find out if what you’re doing is really helping the environment, or if you’re just another pawn in a corporate company’s green washing scheme.
And if you truly want to be sustainable, just wear what you already own. Over and over again.
Now that’s true sustainability.