Think the fashion rental market is niche? Think again

Fashion businesses today are being held to account on many levels, from how they treat their workers, to the materials they use.

It is no longer acceptable to be mass producing garments that cannot decompose, or are made to break, or, on the humanitarian side, to be underpaying and overworking garment workers in terrible working conditions. 

The tides are changing, with organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation inspiring an entire generation to re-think, re-design and build a circular economy for the future.

Wardrobe rental companies are thriving, B Corps are on the rise and even behemoth fast fashion companies like Zara have committed to making their products sustainable.

This shift is partly due to an increase in information and education around the topic, but for the most part, it is being pushed along by Millennial and Gen Z consumers, who are more interested in conscious consumption than older generations.

Historically, fast fashion grew out of consumers’ desire for more affordable versions of designer clothing. To have something quick and something new.

Is it possible to satisfy this craving while also operating sustainably?

The short answer is yes, but it requires manufacturers, brands and retailers to make some fundamental changes.

Ellen MacArthur put it simply: “Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting. We need a new textile economy in which clothes are designed differently, worn longer, and recycled and reused much more often.”

A growing number of fashion brands are responding to this call to action, either by launching rental businesses, or supporting resale of their garments – essentially disrupting the very industry they operate in.

Here’s what three international retailers – URBN, Ann Taylor and Stella McCartney – are doing in this space.

URBN: Joining the subscription game

URBN, the parent company of fast fashion brands Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropolgie, is not known for being sustainable, but it recently launched Nuuly, an online subscription service that is similar to the US rental company Rent the Runway.

Nuuly subscribers receive six items of everyday clothing every month for $88. 

The service plays  into the hands of consumers who still want variety in their everyday wardrobe, despite the fact that trends — puff sleeves, animal print, biker shorts — are only around for a short while. Why would they want to invest in such clothing long-term? 

URBN also introduced Rework in 2016, a range made from offcuts of fabric that would otherwise be thrown out and end up in landfill. Given the limited fabric only small runs are made, with the plus side being limited-edition sustainable styles.

Ann Taylor: Fuelling the circular economy

Ann Taylor, another big name in US fashion retail, launched Infinite Style in 2017, a subscription rental service that enables customers to choose three workwear items for $95 a month with unlimited box swaps.

Unlike some bigger names in the industry, such as Rent the Runway, Ann Taylor didn’t start off in the rental or subscription business, but rather it is one of the first – and very few – major traditional retail brands to embrace the circular economy.

Stella McCartney: Incentivising resale

It’s not just about rentals; sustainable retailers have adapted to this change in consumer behaviour in different ways.

Stella McCartney, for instance, partnered with second-hand luxury fashion site The RealReal in 2017, offering consumers up to $100 credit for consigning her products on the platform.

This not only incentivises consumers to shop with Stella McCartney, it keeps her garments in circulation for much longer than they would have been in the past. A UK study recently found that 1 in 3 young women consider clothes ‘old’ after wearing them once or twice.

“Essentially, this marks the first time a luxury brand is actively pushing for items to be consigned,” Mario Abad wrote in Forbes

“By purchasing a quality, sustainable product that retains value and then reselling it to a buyer or consignment store like The RealReal once one is done with it, its lifespan increases significantly, avoids landfills and is placed in the hands of another consumer.”

Peer-to-peer: Giving power back to consumers

It’s encouraging that more fashion retailers and brands are embracing rentals and consignment, but ultimately, consumers are driving this trend whether businesses get on board or not. 

The rise of peer-to-peer fashion rental – whether through informal channels like Facebook groups, or robust platforms like Designerex – is a good indication of the demand for more sustainable forms of shopping.

Compared to retail offerings, peer-to-peer networks are virtually unrestricted when it comes to the brands or styles available, and they give power to consumers, who can rent out their wardrobes and make money.

As McKinsey wrote in a recent report: “In fashion, the shift to new ownership models is driven by growing consumer desire for variety, sustainability, and affordability, and sources suggest that the resale market, for instance, could be bigger than fast fashion within ten years.”

Among all the rising trends and major changes we are now witnessing in the fashion sector, one thing is very clear: consumers are telling us what they want. Those that listen ultimately are set to win big.

Kirsten Kore is the co-founder of Designerex, the world’s largest peer-to-peer designer dress sharing platform and the first to launch in two international markets with its 2019 US launch.

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