The average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as they did 15 years ago.
A shift toward fast fashion in the past two decades has lead to the dramatic decrease of the practical service life of clothes (how long they are actually worn) compared to their technical service life (how long they could be worn).
Women are championing the hyper-consumption trend, with up to 70 percent of closets going unworn and 33 percent of women wearing items less than five times before they are discarded. This fast cycle of buying and disposing of clothes drives demand for nonstop manufacturing and contributes to the fashion industry’s incredible wastefulness and polluting impact. Quantis recently reported that the apparel industry’s climate change impact increased by 35 percent between 2005 and 2016, and it identifies increased consumption per capita as a key driver.
If we were to continue on with business as usual, the next 15 years will see a further dramatic increase of 49 percent in climate change impact—a scenario we cannot afford to play out.
Most of the industry’s sustainability efforts thus far have been dominated by a focus on sustainable materials. While this is of course a very important driver for impact reduction, it is becoming increasingly clear that with a growing population that is consuming at hyperspeed, a shift toward using sustainable materials alone is not going to cut it.
In light of this, the industry is now also exploring new business models—like garment resale, rental and subscription—that could optimize the practical service life of garments. These models promise to do more with less, reducing the total environmental impact required to fulfill the needs of a growing consumer population.
Extending the active service life of garments is considered one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of the clothing industry. Using a garment just three months longer can lower its water, carbon and waste footprint by 5 percent to 10 percent. On average, resale extends the lifecycle of a garment by 2.2 years, potentially reducing its water/carbon/waste footprint by roughly 73 percent. For rental models, however, there is a potential risk of problem shifting.
A recent LCA study by Chalmers University and RISE shows that in certain rental scenarios, impact reductions due to the expanded service life of a garment could be completely offset by the increased impact of additional transport and laundry that is needed to have garments switch from user to user. This highlights the need to carefully consider all impacts, including logistics when implementing these business models.
When it comes to the market for these models, things are looking up.
The global resale market is currently estimated at 20 billion dollars and is even eating away market share from traditional retail with a projected growth rate of 15 percent over the next five years compared to only 2 percent for retail. It’s resale disruptors like Thredup, The RealReal and Yerdle Recommerce that are taking the most advantage of this double-digit growth.
And it’s not just resale. The global online clothing rental market is also growing, albeit to a lesser extent, and is estimated to reach almost $2 billion by 2023, growing 10 percent annually over the next five years. Here, its renting platforms like Rent The Runway, Gwynnie Bee, LeTote, Chic by Choice, and Rentez-vous that are entering our closets by storm.
The accelerated adoption of resale and rental models suggests changing attitudes among consumers toward wearing clothes that are not new.
The stigma of ‘old’ or ‘used’ is now being replaced by ‘vintage’ or ‘authentic.’ For resale, the main benefits consumers report are that, in general, it is better value for money, you can buy brands that you can’t afford new and there is a thrill of the hunt that is not experienced in traditional retail.
The benefits of renting are especially clear for clothes consumers only wear once, like wedding attire, or only for a short term, like maternity clothing or adventure gear. An additional effect of rental is that consumers say they make more fashion-forward choices, knowing that they only need to wear the item a couple of times, and can then return it.
Innovative and environmentally conscious brands like Eileen Fisher, Nudie Jeans, and Patagonia already launched resale or rental models years ago. Now, many early adopters are following suit, seeing very clearly the commercial opportunities that resale and rental can offer them.
Most are turning to resale and rental partners to tap into these markets. Third parties offer brands the logistics, renewal and repair capabilities that are needed to enable rapid scaling while offering customers maximum convenience and accessibility. In the past year, collaborations between brands and resale/rental platforms are popping up left and right: Reformation and Thred up Upcycle, The North Face and The Renewal Workshop, Stuffstr and John Lewis, and more. There are also platforms, like Yerdle Recommerce and CaaStle, that specialize in white-labeling their technology to brands, making resale or rental part of one and the same brand experience for customers.
It remains to be seen whether resale and rental models will live up to their forecasted potential and how their adoption by different consumer groups and for different product categories will develop and have an impact.
While it’s clear many brands are showing interest in circular business models, the question remains whether they will actually be able to implement and scale these new models.
This year the C&A foundation committed 1.29 million euro ($1.48 million) to five projects with the aim to ‘Bridge this implementation Gap’ toward circular business models in the apparel sector. One of the projects, led by Circle Economy, will guide six pioneering brands through a two year circular innovation process to overcome barriers and build internal capacity towards the design and implementation of resale and renting models–an ambitious project that aims to produce tangible pilots and new insights that can inspire and support a bigger industry transformation.
Helene Smits builds on more than seven years of experience in Circular Economy and sustainable innovation. In 2014, she set up the Circle Textiles Program at Circle Economy, dedicating herself exclusively to bringing circular economy principles to the textiles industry.