Renting clothes has a significant edge over buying new, according to a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind study by Rent the Runway.
Undertaking the life cycle assessment study last year to understand the impact of its rental business, the study follows the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of renting versus buying new across 12 clothing categories (or about 85 percent of RTR’s total inventory). Cocktail dresses, skirts, sweaters and jeans were among the clothing examined.
The rental pioneer’s decade-deep repository of customer wear data, or about 27.1 million wears in key categories, grounds the study. Data is pulled from 2010 to 2019 and assumes a maximum of three wears per the company’s user-generated “Happiness Survey,” which subscribers receive after each rental. While many pieces are worn with greater frequency, consumers wear data is three times maximum.
As a point of comparison on new (or linear) clothing behavior (especially regarding consumer usage and discard), RTR additionally surveyed exactly 4,390 U.S.-based consumers. The company also commissioned the support of third-party sustainability consultancies Green Story and SgT for the study.
“This is one of the first studies of its kind looking at the rental system holistically with this much primary data. It’s also one of the first studies that compares the rental model to linear consumption across so many product categories,” said Akhil Sivanandan, cofounder of Green Story. “The findings of Rent the Runway’s [life cycle assessment] represent an important step forward for the rental industry and the fashion industry as a whole and, most importantly, give consumers much needed data to help them make better, greener choices.”
Among the key findings, RTR finally has a go-to-market number for just how much clothing it displaces from new production: an estimated 1.3 million garments since 2010. Separately, items have long been displaced from landfill, with RTR having achieved nearly 100 percent diversion from landfill as a result of its end-of-life practices (resale, donation and recycling). Along with a convincing stat for consumers who may be considering rental, the stat is a reference point for investors given the company’s recent IPO paperwork in July.
On the significance of the study, Anushka Salinas, president and chief operating officer at Rent the Runway, said in an interview with WWD: “It means that women can feel really confident in their choice to rent, and in particular — subscribe — versus purchase [new].…The longer a garment is in circulation, the better and better the environmental outcomes will be over time. That is what helps to drive the positive economics of our business over time.”
The LCA accounts for RTR’s entire footprint, including all transportation (two distribution centers, dozens of drop boxes and repair activity), cleaning and disposal. But some of the “secret sauce,” as Salinas called it, including the specifics around RTR’s laundering operations and the back-and-forth on transportation for deliveries and the emissions impact from that remain blanketed within the study, as the company said it’s meant to be a broader, “conservative” benchmark.
“Where we didn’t have the perfectly full picture of something, we leaned conservative in the measurement,” reiterated Salinas.
The Clothing You Rent Matters
Even just one rental in your closet boasts significant environmental savings on water, energy and carbon dioxide emissions against buying new, per the study. Across the 12 categories examined, RTR estimates a net 24 percent reduction in water usage, a 6 percent reduction in kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy usage, and 3 percent reduction in pounds of CO2 emissions for one rental garment compared to buying a new garment.
The study is also potentially illustrative of the rental industry at large. RTR estimated net environmental savings of its business model over the years to be 54.7 million gallons of water, 33 million kWh of energy and 13.3 million pounds of CO2 emissions.
“We take the responsibility very seriously that we are what we believe to be the largest, scaled rental platform likely across the world, so that’s why we approached the study the way we did — we wanted to show and prove the overall impact of rental in totality. I think that’s something that we achieved with this study,” Salinas said.
But the clothing you rent matters. According to the study, many of the dressier options (cocktail dresses, skirts, sweaters) are a better fit for rental as opposed to everyday staples like jeans which are bought to be worn in — and often.
Jeans are a touchy subject in rental. Backlash emerged from the rental community following a study from Lut University researchers that pitted rental, resale and new purchases against each other in a comparison on circular behaviors. The study based its findings on 200 average wears for jeans, with drivers presumably driving a mile for the rentals. The main point was that it blasted rental for being the worst for wear due to transportation factors.
“That study was incredibly narrow as compared to the incredibly broad and ambitious study that we conducted. We certainly stayed quiet until we had everything tied on our end and until we could share our results in a way that was high integrity and we had all of the data to back it up,” Salinas said. In RTR’s case, pants (which includes jeans) only accounted for a slim 7 percent of inventory in 2019 (or 6 percent of total rentals since 2010). Meanwhile, casual/everyday wear accounts for 86 percent of RTR’s inventory.
Down the Rental Road
The study may act as a guidepost for rental business in formulating long-term sustainability goals. RTR’s long-term goals, for one, are being developed over the next several months, according to Salinas. Despite some lingering concerns on the sustainability of rental, RTR has taken strides to improve its footprint, including the advent of reusable garment bags, discontinuing its unlimited subscription option and paring down on shipments even prior to its LCA study.
“This is in some ways just the beginning,” Salinas said. “We’ve been on a journey for a long time already but I sort of view this as the beginning of our next chapter.”