Can Rental Fashion Make Our Wardrobes More Sustainable?

The sharing economy may be nothing new but its big fashion moment is on the horizon. US-based Rent the Runway has been owning the space for the past 10 years but as of 2019, a new wave of peer-to-peer rental platforms is springing up in the UK. The likes of HURR, By Rotation and The Nu Wardrobe have been inspired by the need to disrupt unsustainable shopping habits. Ditching the idea of owning inventory altogether, these new, primarily female-founded businesses want to help close the fashion loop, prolong the shrinking lifespan of garments and facilitate new wear between individuals with a shared sense of style. Lower the impact on the environment, lower the impact on your bank balance.
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We own more and wear less than ever. A 2018 Weight Watchers survey found that around 55% of women's wardrobes in the UK are unworn – that’s a staggering £10bn of clothing collecting dust in the back of our cupboards. Thanks to various factors – fast fashion pricing, a faster cycle of seasonal trends, and an Instagram-fuelled 'wear once for the feed' mindset – our relationship with clothes is becoming more temporary. Billions of wasted garments means that fashion's impact on the environment is now worse than aviation and shipping combined. And while the rise in rental services has raised concerns about a further disconnect in treating our clothes as careful investment purchases, renting already-made-and-bought pieces encourages the same circular economy as vintage shopping.
Stories Behind Things is a storytelling platform that celebrates conscious and mindful consumption, giving narrative to wardrobe pieces with the aim of increasing their longevity. Jemma Finch, cofounder of Stories Behind Things and a member of the HURR collective, explains that "one of the main issues with overconsumption is the amount of clothing that is leaving the circular model and ending up as waste – in your wardrobe, or landfill – after only a few wears. Renting solves this issue by keeping items within the usage loop and increasing their lifespan, which is fantastic." As personal style changes and trends move on, renting can provide flexibility in our wardrobes and discourage wasteful purchasing. Finch believes that "it’s an opportunity to experiment with self-expression. Freeing up the commitment of owning clothing allows you to experiment with new colours, shapes and styles."
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These new platforms are democratising fashion for the masses and are not just a destination for influencers to swap clothes. This is something that the founder of By Rotation, Eshita Kabra says she's very conscious of ensuring, having made 'realness' and accessibility a big part of her business strategy. "We want to build a diverse community of individuals. I have virtually no links to influencers so most of our users are 'real' women. We do not feature influencer imagery unless they are By Rotation users." And it seems to be working. One By Rotation renter, Freja Budd explained that she found the platform to be more diverse because it uses real people with varying body shapes to model the products.
While HURR and By Rotation are open to all, the nature of peer-to-peer rental could potentially result in a lack of diversity in sizing, which in turn becomes cyclical without action for change. HURR founder, Victoria Prew recognises this as a potential barrier and is taking measures to rectify it. She told Refinery29: "Building our supply side is difficult to get right, across both style and size. We’ve taken a proactive stance on inviting 'plus size' models to join the platform, and we’re currently in discussion with a number of key public figures who will act as ambassadors for the site for diversity across age, background and size. The vast majority of our members are everyday women, using HURR to change up their work wardrobes and everyday outfits." Kabra agrees: "We completely appreciate that more needs to be done in order to make a variety of sizes available, and we continue to approach potential users that demonstrate our stance on this – I am hopeful that some will convert to sharing with us."
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HURR is a closed platform at the moment, meaning that you must apply to be a member. While this might be frustrating to some of its 2,000-strong waitlist, Prew says it’s been important for them to get the review process right to ensure a safe, secure place for users to rent their wardrobe. At the moment, HURR is London-centric, enabling them to partner with other eco-friendly businesses like sustainable dry cleaner, Blanc. A UK (and later international) rollout plan is in the works, with an ambassador programme playing an integral part in spreading the word about the business.
Both businesses are still in the early stages, with By Rotation in beta and HURR opening its virtual doors in March this year, but user testimonials are already positive. Budd says that she has noticed herself buying less and making a conscious decision to stop relying on cheap and easy fast fashion in favour of renting. Similarly, Finch describes HURR as a positive way to shop, having rented for an upcoming trip to India. She says: "[I needed clothes that] are appropriate for the region – it’s saved me from buying items of clothing that I’d have only worn a few times, inevitably sitting in my wardrobe for years afterwards."
The rental revolution is a hugely positive step in the right direction to close the loop on fashion, reduce the number of new products being created and avoid things gathering dust in wardrobes without wear. Sizing is not yet varied enough but encouragement and incentives appear to be in the pipeline to achieve greater inclusivity. The disruptive move to a sustainable shopping alternative and the progress these businesses make will be an exciting journey to follow. As cofounder of Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro, puts it: "The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe" – or maybe it's in someone else’s.
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