Renting your clothes is not worse for the planet than throwing them away
A recent study from LUT University in Finland has hit the headlines for its claims that fashion rental, which has boomed in the UK since the pandemic, is in fact worse for the planet than buying clothes and throwing them away.
Here Tamsin Chislett, co-founder of fashion rental subscription business Onloan, challenges the main assumptions made in the report and argues that, while not perfect, the case for prolonging the lifetime of garments through rental is a strong one.
Tamsin writes: The story making the headlines is based on this new study - but the study is limited, and the conclusions drawn from it are questionable in a number of ways. The headlines are compelling, but a misrepresentation of the analysis. We believe that rental needs scrutiny to make it as 'green' as possible - but encouraging people to throw clothes away doesn't help the industry, let alone the planet.
Here's how the study is limited:
The study assumes that customers each drive 2km in a private car to go and collect their rental items, which naturally leads to lots of extra emissions. While this is based on a real business in Finland, it doesn't reflect reality for any UK rental business we know of, who all use a postal service (and in Onloan's case carbon-neutral DPD) to deliver & return rented items.
The study assumes as a "Base" case that someone wears an item they own 200 times before throwing it away, whereas the reality is that fairly few pieces in our wardrobe get that much love. The average number of times a customer wears a garment before disposal is 10 times.* It is estimated that more than half of the fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.** In our experience at Onloan, customers rent as a better alternative to those purchases which won't become long-term pieces in their wardrobe.
The study assumes the same total number of wears for an item kept by one person, as it does for an item that is rented out. Given all rental businesses make more money if they prolong the life of a garment and ensure it is highly utilised, this seems like a poor assumption.
In fact, the study concludes that with low-carbon delivery, and a higher utilisation of clothes, rental has a similar impact as resale. (Or in the study's words: "In sum, it can be said that if uses can be doubled and delivery can be arranged without impacts to ‘Global Warming Potential’, then the SHARE [ie the ‘rent’] scenario can reach approximately the same level of GWP as the REUSE [ie, the ‘buy/sell secondhand’] scenario.”) This could/should have been the main takeaway!
Finally, the study only looks at carbon emissions via transportation at a consumer level, not other aspects of environmental impact, such as land use, water usage, dye pollution – all of which occur during the production part of the value chain. Extending the life & increasing the wear of a garment spreads these impacts over more wears.
We also noted that the study also assumes the same washing techniques for all scenarios. Many people assume that rental businesses do a lot of dry-cleaning and have negative impacts as a result. But at Onloan, and at many other UK rental companies, we avoid it as much as possible, and focus on wet-washing and “Ozone” technology instead.
Our view is that details matter – rental businesses have to consider transportation, packaging, washing techniques, garment care, and garment afterlife. Brand ethos matters too - at Onloan we chose a monthly rental model because we want people to enjoy styling rented clothes multiple ways and we don't want to feed the "fast-fashion" idea that outfits should only be worn once. Even then, re-wearing what we already own will still be a more “sustainable” option. But to say rental is worse than throwing an item away seems flawed. Extending the life of clothing has a significant positive impact on the planet. Extending the life of clothes by an extra nine months reduces its carbon, water, and waste footprint by around 20-30% each, and cuts the cost in resources used to supply, launder and dispose of clothing by 20%.***
We also don’t think rental should be pigeonholed as “just for occasion wear". This would make sense if everything else we bought were long-term investment pieces that we wear 200 times, but that’s just not the case. During the past 10 years, the number of items of clothing purchased per consumer has more than doubled.****
Whether we get bored of something, it no longer fits correctly, or it's simply an impulse purchase we bought for “newness”, the fast fashion industry thrives on people buying, wearing less, then buying again. It’s why our wardrobes are bulging but we only wear 44% of the clothing we own and around 30% of the clothing in our wardrobe has not been worn for at least a year.***** All those short-lived pieces are better off rented because then a single item CAN be worn 200 times, just by lots of different people.
Rental isn't the perfect solution - we need to openly critique and iterate on rental models as we build them to ensure they dramatically improve the status quo. We just feel there is more to the study, and there is more to UK rental business models, than the headlines have suggested.
*Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2018), p.59
** Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017),
*** Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2018), p.4
****Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2017), p.57
***** WRAP, ‘Valuing our clothes: the evidence base’ (2012)
Tamsin Chislett is the co-founder of fashion rental subscription business Onloan.