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Exploring Sustainable Business Models: Clothing Rental

Rental is an interesting and promising sustainable business model for the fashion industry. But the pandemic have definitely created massive challenges to the industry.
By: Lynda O'Malley
May 06, 2021
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Sustainability of the fashion industry is difficult to navigate as an entrepreneur, designer and even as a consumer. Late last year we took a look at what makes sustainable fashion -- sustainable -- in our sustainability check piece. And this year, we are specifically looking at the hot topic, the rental economy. 

Rental is an interesting and promising sustainable business model for the fashion industry. Rental business models (i.e. a service rather than a product) are an excellent contrast to fast fashion, allowing for more wear per garment, and therefore reducing carbon, water, waste, and social impact over the product lifetime as you move away from the one and done wear approach of fast fashion. 

Rental business models have disrupted many industries. The future of car ownership, for example, will probably look quite different. And the sharing economy is thriving alongside rental: bike sharing, tool libraries (shout out to the Toronto Tool Library, external link), and the like. For fashion, by getting more wear out of a garment, you reduce the environmental and social impact of that garment. All that embodied carbon, that embodied social and environmental impact, is reduced. The rental and resale markets squeeze more value out the environmental, carbon and social budget that it took to make that garment. 

This is why the rental market is so interesting. In shifting the ownership model away from the consumer often results in getting more wear per garment, and consumers get the added benefit of wearing a variety of garments without the great expense that that would normally entail. The product, instead of ending up in landfill, destroyed or in a donation bin, reenters the economy, extending and deriving more value (for consumers and the business operating the rental service). 

Fast Facts

Case Study: Sprout Collection

“We have definitely seen an uptick in our subscribers this past month, so we are hopeful things are going back to normal soon.”

Joyce Lim, CEO of Sprout Collection
Sprout Outfit in front of colourful background.
Joyce Lim, Founder of Sprout Collection

We’ve seen a number of clothing or product rental companies in the Fashion Zone, such as Sprout Collection, external link and Rarity Rentals, external link. Fashion Zone team Sprout, external link started with maternity wear, they’ve expanded out from there. “Currently a majority of our existing customer base consists of two camps: professionals and expecting women. Maternity wear is a necessity and so our mamas to be still require a new wardrobe despite the fact that we are on lockdown,” says Joyce, Founder of Sprout Collection.

The clothing and accessories rental market has not been unmarred by the coronavirus pandemic. Those that specialize in event wear have been very hard hit. Many have pivoted or expanded their offerings and or have shifted messaging and marketing efforts to target customers with lifestyles altered by COVID.

Product Trial

Sprout Outfit in front of colourful background.

I myself recently rented from Sprout to try it out. I am not adverse to second hand or nearly new clothing. I am an avid Common Sort, external link & Value Village, external link shopper (hands up for Leslieville), and with the pandemic, (many or most, or all it feels) vintage and second hand shops had been closed again. I like the idea of borrowing from a brand like Sprout, where I can rent something that would normally be out of my typical budget to buy new, and I feel it’s a good choice environmentally. They also have a great selection of casual dresses and sweaters, perfect for working from home. 

Joyce continues, “We’ve also noticed that many of our customers who’ve remained with us are working professionals or entrepreneurs. As you’ve noted, they relish the fun of being able to switch up their sartorial choices despite their WFH situation and also partly due to the fact that they are client facing and probably in virtual meetings all the time.”

Some experts think that despite a dip from a lack of events & hygiene concerns, external link, clothing rental will likely pick up quickly after the pandemic, as consumers increasingly focus on savings coming out of the pandemic. In fact, we may be on the cusp of a clothing rental market resurgence , external linknow. 

And to square off any naysayers, let’s talk straight: rental is not a 100% perfect sustainable solution. One has to take into consideration wet vs dry cleaning, the stocking of conventionally made clothing, as well as the shipping of garments back and forth: all of these activities have an environmental impact. However, given the benefits of rental overall in reducing overconsumption and increasing the number of wears per garment, rental is a clear and monumental step forward.