Imagine. At the beginning of a new month, 30 or 31 outfits are delivered to your door by a rental service. Clothes and accessories are clean, the right fit for your body shape and styled to suit your lifestyle, including specific plans for the month. At the end of the month, the outfits are collected and the following month’s outfits delivered. Your mornings are stress-free. Time is saved.

It offers fashion freedom and wardrobe flexibility without the associated inconveniences

Does this rental service sound like a pipe dream to you? If you’re South African maybe, but in some countries it’s now a reality to dress well, on trend, without having to spend money and time on new clothes. In China, rental service Y : Closet was launched in 2015. Rent the Runway in the USA has offered a rental service since 2009 with the goal of making luxury items more accessible to a wider range of consumers. The organization says it offers fashion freedom and wardrobe flexibility without the associated inconveniences (like dry-cleaning), as well as a smaller environmental footprint. Its tagline is Buy Less, Live More. The Guardian describes these new rental services as being “to the walk-in wardrobe what Netflix is to the DVD shelf, what Spotify is to the record collection, and what iCloud is to the photo album”.

Globally, there has been a collective mind shift from ownership towards renting (or sharing), largely driven by Millennials. While Generation X places value on sole ownership, Millennials participate in a sharing economy, which has lead to the rise of the sharing economy across various industries (including fashion).

The appeal of this service is to be able to wear a one-off piece but without the major price tag

In South Africa, there is already an established market for the renting of suits, tuxedos and wedding dresses, but it’s growth is slow in other areas of fashion. Ahead of the game, Ruff Tung, the Cape Town-based designers of women’s wear, has introduced a niche rental service adding to its existing retail offering. Designer Bridget Pickering says, “This is a relatively new extension to our business and we don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner. The appeal of this service is to be able to wear a one-off piece but without the major price tag.” It has also solved the problem of late returns when clothes are borrowed, and covers the cost of repairs and cleaning.

The current business model for fashion is linear: take, make and dispose. A colossal amount of waste is generated; it tends to accumulate in landfills and create environmental and social issues for many countries. According to an article published by the World Economic Forum, “a staggering 235 million items of unwanted clothing were said to be dumped in UK landfill in 2017, while the average American is estimated to bin 81lb (37kg) of used clothing annually.”

The rental market promotes sustainability via the reuse of clothing, and the consequent extension of the products’ lifespan

The advantages of the rental market for the environment is that this model produces less waste; water and electricity are not used in manufacturing new clothes’ and fewer emissions are released. The rental market promotes sustainability via the reuse of clothing, and the consequent extension of the products’ lifespan. According to The Guardian, “[the] leasing society model would give manufacturers an economic incentive to design sustainable products.” But there are concerns about its sustainability with respect to packaging, transportation and the mass dry cleaning and washing of clothes.

Delegates at the recent PAGE (Partnership for Action on Green Economy) conference held earlier this month in Cape Town made it clear that there is an urgent need for a just transition from our current linear economy to a circular and efficient green economy. The green economy, according to PAGE, should attain inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth and development. The circular economy is understood as the opposite of the linear economy, which is embedded within the finite limits of our planet. It is designed to keep resources in flow for as long as possible, at their maximum value. The sharing economy refers to the sharing of goods by multiple people as happens with Y Closet.

Our actions have to be transformative in their impact

“We are living in a period of crisis. Our actions have to be transformative in impact,” said Tasneem Essop from the National Planning Commission at the conference. “We have 12 years to prevent dangerous runway climate change. We are dealing with an emergency. Our actions have to be transformative in their impact.”

What would a circular economy look like in South Africa? CSIR’s Linda Godfrey says, “It depends on what drives circular economy thinking in a country.  The circular economy has emerged in Europe, as resource scarcity is a very real issue for Europe.  In fact the EU has identified 27 critical raw materials which they see as being a constraint to the EU’s economic development.  Materials which they need, but don’t have direct access to through e.g. mining.  However, for resource-rich countries, like many African countries, we have raw materials in the ground, so scarcity may not necessarily be the immediate driver for us right now.  Perhaps the driver is job creation, or access to products and services we don’t currently have.  So we need to understand what our specific drivers are (as a country) for wanting to shift to a circular economy.  Perhaps its in preparing for a post-mining landscape, i.e. what happens when we do run out of resources in the ground.  Domestication of the circular economy is therefore critical in implementing it.” Godfrey says, “It’s about finding our own unique value proposition.” She added that it also about providing the consumer with something that they didn’t have before or that is more convenient and circularly designed.

The sharing economy, Godfrey says, is an example of a complete paradigm shift which creates opportunities for entirely new business models of resource efficiency through “resource sharing”, “product as service”, and “access over ownership”.

Unreliable courier services are expensive and there is a high national theft rate

Can we expect this sharing or rental economy to take off in South Africa? Perhaps, but not on a mass commercial scale. For the fashion industry, unreliable courier services are expensive and there is a high national theft rate. The renting of clothing could also prove to be expensive over time for consumers. But the renting model focused on accessibility could prove to be successful; the renting out of formal wear by many smaller businesses across South Africa is already established, while businesses focused on renting out items for irregular events, or providing clothing that is frequently replaced (like baby clothing), hold a lot of potential.

Shifting from the linear to the circular economy is imperative if we’re going to address our current environmental global crisis. The rental (leasing) market is one of the many solutions we can encourage and grow to help make fashion more sustainable.

  • Image credit: Jackie May (taken at the Rodarte exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC)
  • Camilla van Hoostraten is an honours graduate of FEDISA and a junior trend researcher for Nicola Cooper and Associates