Above: Rent the Look by By Malene Birger
Clothing rental is really nothing new. It has been possible to rent clothes for special occasions for decades, and different types of ”clothing libraries” have been around for a long time. A few brands have also tried out different leasing options for a while, but it’s not until now that the clothing rental-phenomenon has truly boomed.
One of the signs is the fact that it’s reached the world of fast fashion. During last fall, both Gina Tricot and H&M opened their first stores where shoppers are able to rent the brands’ clothes. (So far, H&M’s program is just a trial; only available at the Sergels Torg store in Stockholm, to the company’s loyalty members, and it only offers access to select skirts and dresses from H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection. Gina Tricot’s rental offer is limited to three stores: Götgatan in Stockholm, Femman-huset in Gothenburg and City in Linköping.)
As these rental possibilities pop up as sustainable alternatives to fast fashion – and fast fashion retailers in turn jump on the clothing rental-bandwagon – no in-depth studies of the environmental impact of clothing rental exist to offer advice on how sustainable it really is. There are those who believe that the clothing chains’ rental concepts are, in fact, more like a big try-on project: you not only get to return the garment, you get to use it first, then decide whether you want to keep it or not.
According to Philip Warkander, the first person to hold a PhD in fashion studies, clothes are intimately associated with our bodies and we underestimate how quickly we create emotional ties to our items.
– What works well for renting and borrowing is of course books, but fashion is simply another type of product. Clothes have an intimate relationship with our bodies and therefore not everyone is comfortable with either wearing what someone else just wore, or returning something with red wine stains and a sweaty scent. I can definitely see that it works for some products, like bags, and for some consumers, but I think it will take time until we see the concept of clothing rental break through on a broader scale.
In the Swedish Trade Federation’s Sustainability Survey 2018, 24 percent of those surveyed said that they planned to rent something in the coming year. But those who said that they’ve actually rented something are significantly fewer. In 2018, only 2 percent stated that they rented everyday clothes, and a couple more that they rented party pieces.
– In some parts of the industry, clothing rental works well, say, for garments worn on special occasions, like tuxedos and gowns. This type of rental is usually not associated with the fashion industry, since it’s intended for more traditional events, but these types of rental businesses do best over time. Renting out more fashionable clothes hasn’t worked that well so far, and as it seems, Swedish consumers prefer to own their garments. This is why I don’t think of it as a sustainable option. First and foremost you have to address the consumer’s own appetite to shop before trying to change the attitude from the outside, says Philip Warkander.
While Filippa K has stopped to lease through its stores, and solely do so today through partners like It’s Re:leased and Something Borrowed (both web-based businesses that lease upon a monthly subscription), other services have started to emerge that are expanding the parameters of what the fashion rental economy can look like. Danish brand By Marlene Birger recently presented its rental platform Rent the Look, which currently takes some of the best looks from their Fall 2020-collection directly to the customer.
Another one of the latest entrants to the field is Swedish Gemme – a service that sets apart from other fashion rental platforms by being peer-to-peer based. It calls itself a techy solution that allows us to rent out our wardrobes with the same ease as we rent out our homes via, say AirBnb. (Read this piece to learn more about Gemme). The English equivalent is Hurr, which only launched a mere year ago but is already in the midst of its first investment round, and this fall opened UK’s first peer-to-peer rental pop-up shop in London. This type of services don’t require production of new fashion, which clearly suggests it’s a more sustainable option. But at the same time, they require professional cleaning and other types of new logistics.
– One of the biggest problems with the rental concept so far is that it’s inconvenient. It is more convenient to buy clothes, have them in your wardrobe and take care of them yourself, than to ensure that they are returned on time and in mint condition, says Philip Warkander.
As more and more exciting solutions emerge in the wake of a collective wish to update an outdated fashion economy, there are different options for those interested in a sharing economy. But the question still remains: will any of these rental services, both old and new, change our consumption habits?
– We have to consider why we think it’s so fun to consume. On the one hand we know that we get a kick out of shopping. But on the other hand it’s about seeing our work and our consumption as two sides of the same coin. We work to shop and when we shop, we have to work more. Shopping indicates that we are free, but what we waste is the time we’ve spent on payroll. We must discuss this more and at a deeper level, says Philip Warkander, and continues:
– Consumption has its basis in different human needs and desires. I usually ask myself if I need an item or simply want it? Sure, sometimes I can treat myself to something unnecessary, but by asking myself why I think I would become happier by buying another item, I reveal to myself how primitive the whole system really is, and it can cause me to get tired of the whole spectacle before I’ve even payed. It’s about having a dialogue with yourself, getting to know yourself beyond the point of consumption. It may sound vague, but I think the way to a more balanced consumption is to ask yourself questions such as what makes you happy, in the long term, and how to get there. Rarely is the answer another pair of pants.
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