Sustainable fashion: Clothes rental could square the fast fashion circle

Welcome to a monthly column within our broader sustainability section which is going to focus on what fashion is doing to address the issues in its industry.

Retailers making clothes available to rent might be the only way to square the fast fashion circle – brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box

This is the glaring irony that no-one can quite get their heads around: it is the young who appear to drive ethical consumption and want the clothing they wear to feature recycled plastic and not to be made by children in Bangladesh. But it is also the young who want to wear that plastic dress only once before they move onto another one and discard the first.

On the grounds that it cannot realistically be the case that these two tribes are entirely different sets of people, it must follow that the same people hold both views and either find them completely compatible or have not ever seriously considered the fact that they aren’t.

It also means that no-one quite knows what to do about it. Retailers struggle to decide which camp to put their marketing and branding in, politicians can’t work out who they will be alienating by penalising fast fashion trends and the rest of us are just very confused about what the hell is going on. Step forward the potential knight in recycled shining armour – clothes rental.

Clearly it’s not a new idea but it does look now as though it might be breaking into everyday clothing rather than just being about special occasion evening or bridal wear. Women are used to the idea of not wanting to wear the same party dress over and over again but less used to the thinking that says you need a new outfit just for walking down the street every day.

The emergence of the Outfit Of The Day phenomenon plays right into the hands of attire rental companies – a whole clutch of whom are ready to become the Spotify for clothes (for example YCloset in China, Rent The Runway in the US, Girls Meets Dress or London-only Front Row in the UK). Time for traditional retailers to sit up and take note before that happens.

According to research by Accenture and Fashion for Good on alternative business models for fashion retailing, the rental model unsurprisingly works best financially in the luxury segment where returns can be more than 60% per garment – presumably why the renting of expensive designer party dresses became a thing a long while ago. Accenture notes that for mid-market segments the attractiveness of this model would depend on considerations such as garment durability and logistics. This is another reason why the rental sector can have a positive impact on the environment as dresses made for a couple of pounds will not stand up to the kind of substantial re-use which would be essential for a rental company. These firms will be looking for higher production values in the clothes they choose to rent making the fastest fashion ever more marginal.

Rent The Runway: Dry cleaning is the most important job at RTR where dresses will be turned around more than 30 times before being withdrawn.

The biggest sector player currently is US-based Rent The Runway with 10m+ members, 15k+ styles from 500+ designers leading to 800k+ items to rent. Often describing itself as the biggest drycleaner in the world it caters for all of a woman’s fashion needs and announced in April that it was going to start expanding into children’s wear. It offers several different plans including the Update ($89 for four pieces changed every month) and the Unlimited ($159 for unlimited items swapped any time). It has also recently introduced easy pick up and drop off boxes in 15 We Work locations across the US targeting its core customers – professional, working women.

In September 2018 Girl Meets Dress (as the name suggests it currently only rents dresses) launched its Infinite Membership scheme due to consumer demand. For £99 a month an unlimited rotation of new dresses is available to the subscriber. The offer includes free delivery, dry cleaning and personalized suggestions from their stylists while within London orders made before 1pm will be delivered the same day.

Anna Bance: Founder of UK dress rental company Girl Meets Dress

However there are signs that some established High Street retailers are beginning to wake up to the possibility of renting. In May a coalition of big names such as Farfetch, Ted Baker and FW announced they were piloting a trial to explore how models including rental, repair, customisation and resale might work economically for them. The pilots will be convened by the London Waste and Recycling Board along with C&A’s charitable arm the C&A foundation and all the results will then be shared across the industry to help best practice.

Urban Outfitters has gone one step further and jumped right in with a new subscription rental service called Nuuly due to launch later this summer where users will pay $88 per month to choose six items to rent and return from a selection of “iconic labels, one-of-a-kind vintage find and our own family of brands”. The company expects to register 50,000 clients in the first year.

Urban Outfitters: among the first High Street retailers to offer a rental service

Broadly speaking, a shift to renting represents a win for the environment and a win for the conflicted consumer who can now sleep easy knowing that they can chop and change outfits to their hearts’ desire. However whether more retailers are brave enough to follow Urban Outfitters and make the jump to offering some part of their store space and range available for rental clients remains to be seen. But any indecision will be potentially costly because it provides the opportunity for the specialist rental companies to forge ahead.

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