For anyone who works in the fashion industry, this is a familiar statistic: £140-million worth of used clothing is sent to landfill every year. We have known for a long time that overconsumption is causing irreversible damage to people and the planet. But a more recent and thus far less ubiquitous figure is now doing the rounds: the UK clothing rental market is predicted to be worth £2.3 billion by 2029, according to GlobalData. Welcome to the fashion rental revolution.
In the United States, fashion rental is far more established; last year, Rent the Runway closed a whopping $125 million in funding. In the UK, the pot is bubbling. From consignment and subscription-based to peer-to-peer services, these fashion rental models are proving varied and popular, and a key part of the solution to fashion’s sustainability problem.
“I came from the car industry, where for every one car shared, eleven are taken off the road, so sustainability was a driving force – excuse the pun – for My Wardrobe HQ,” says Sacha Newall, co-founder alongside Tina Lake, of the designer rental platform, which holds stock on consignment for individual lenders and brands.
“If we could apply this metric to the fashion industry, we could start to make a dent in the horrific waste that is blighting the planet. We all have a mountain of clothes sitting in our wardrobes that we don’t wear and most brands are sitting on top of huge warehouses of stock. Our plan was to get all these items back into circulation and stop excessive amounts being produced.”
The impact of fashion rental on luxury brands
Much of the initial attraction to fashion rental models was the ability to rent designer clothes for a fraction of the cost to buy which, as the market grows, begs the question: how will fashion rental affect luxury brands in the long term?
“Gone are the days when renting was seen to cannibalise sales,” says Victoria Prew, co-founder and chief executive of HURR, a hybrid model where an individual lender can upload their own wardrobe peer to peer or opt to consign items so rentals are managed on their behalf.
“In fact, it does the opposite. It’s an additional revenue stream for brands and HURR also opens up a millennial audience, highly engaged in sustainability. HURR introduces luxury brands to future shoppers who will go on to have the purchasing power to buy.”
Indeed, this summer up-market department store Selfridges began a collaboration with HURR by bringing the platform’s technology to a pop-up rental store with more than 40 brands.
“As a data-driven tech platform, data informs every part of our decision-making process, from the brands we choose to work with through to the products we feature,” says Prew. “Rather than building a highly complex platform, fashion brands should utilise existing rental technologies to access the sharing economy.”
HURR uses artificial intelligence-powered attribution and item tagging, real-time ID verification and a carbon calculator in partnership with CoGo.
A solution to fast fashion
Yet for all the focus on fashion rental’s relationship with the luxury industry, its impact on fast fashion is arguably more pertinent to conversations about sustainability. Dubbed by Forbes as the “clothing rental app that wants to end fast fashion”, By Rotation’s mission is to transform how people consume fashion, according to founder Eshita Kabra-Davies.
“Fast fashion is the space we are disrupting with our affordable price points so people of all socio-economic backgrounds can share higher-quality items,” she explains. “We want people to buy less, buy better and share more.”
Rotaro, the cult label rental platform, has introduced a more affordable range of rental garments, starting from £15 for a four-day rental period. “We want to offer a viable alternative to purchasing fast fashion,” says co-founder Georgie Hyatt. “We also ensure we are stocking items of high quality. The initial challenge of customer acquisition is to get consumers comfortable with the idea of renting. We [then] have an overwhelmingly positive response and a deep desire to rent rather than buy disposable fashion.”
But be it a side-hustle or full-time revenue stream for lenders, what is stopping individuals from regularly buying new items to upload and lend, thus adding to the excessive production of fast fashion?
“As we only allow mid to luxury brands on the app, the expectation is that you can only list pieces of high quality. Since such items are usually priced higher, we believe people are preferring to save up for an investment piece and then share it with others on the app,” says Kabra-Davies.
“This is far better than buying knock-off, low-quality pieces from high street retailers that provide such a shortcut at the expense of workers in nations like Bangladesh, Vietnam, India.”
Is fashion rental really as green as it seems?
Other criticisms of the rental model include the impact of regular dry cleaning and transport on the environment. “Our logistics facility is using an advanced cleaning technology called Ozone, which is a naturally-occurring gas offering medical-grade cleaning with little-to-no environmental effect,” says Hyatt. “We have also partnered with a premium carbon-neutral delivery service.”
HURR, meanwhile, has just announced a partnership with Oxwash, a dry cleaning company with a cold-wash process. “All HURR managed rentals will be dry cleaned through Oxwash, whose water consumption is 60 per cent less than any other laundry in the world, filtering out 99 per cent of the polyester – plastic – microfibres normally released into the environment,” adds Prew.
By not resting on their laurels, these fashion rental businesses are reaping rewards. HURR has seen an 850 per cent growth year on year of registered members while By Rotation’s users have rocketed by 5000 per cent in the same period. Since lockdown, Rotaro’s rentals have increased by almost 25 per cent.
At My Wardrobe HQ, stock holding has increased by 50 per cent, with a 60 per cent increase in traffic to the website. “We offer customers the chance to keep the items they love so that now 70 per cent of our sales come from resale rather than rental,” says Newall. “Many people are using the rental opportunity as a ‘try before you buy’. It’s a fully circular economy.”