Sharing is Caring: The Future of Your Wardrobe

33712140_1911662715550682_6075104710455459840_nWith the advent of the internet, mobile devices, and big data, our lives and society are speeding up. From our smartphones to our interactions with friends and family, everything is getting faster. Fashion is no exception. Clothing trends are changing more rapidly than ever before, with consumers demanding access to new styles immediately following their catwalk debuts. Most consumers no longer buy clothing for the long haul. Rather, they acquire and discard clothing at a shocking pace, with the average American discarding 82 pounds of textile each year.[1] In response, the fashion industry is adopting a“see now, buy now” model, and turning to mobile platforms to conduct the majority of its business.[2]

This “fast fashion” is rapidly transforming the textile and apparel industry. Fast fashion allows consumers to wear the latest trends, free of the feelings of guilt that come with purchasing expensive clothing items and discarding pricey articles when they go out of style.[3] Clothing sales in the United States are up markedly, though the quality and price of apparel are on the decline.[4] In fact, the average American now purchases four times more clothing than twenty years ago, but has only increased their annual clothing budget by $500.[1,5] Young Americans’ demand for instant gratification is reshaping the industry as they insist on getting the latest clothing styles at bargain prices. Rachel Saunders, Insights and Strategy Director at Cassandra, a research firm that anticipates industry trends set by millennials, puts the blame for the addiction squarely on social media. “Social media,” she claims, “has created an atmosphere in which, yeah, you could wear the same thing twice, but you’d rather not if you can avoid it.”[6]

As it happens, cheap clothing from companies like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara is made to be worn only ten times before being discarded. Dr. Annamma Joy, Professor of Marketing at the University of British Columbia, explains the “ten wash standard”: “The reference to ten washes is derived from fast fashion companies themselves, who openly proffer the number as a benchmark, after which an item will no longer be expected to retain its original value, due to poor-quality materials and manufacturing. The companies pay no price for such revelations, nor do most customers experience regret in tossing out clothes based on this principle.”[3] The trend towards so-called “landfill clothing” presents significant environmental concerns stemming from the industry’s rapidly increasing carbon footprint, water contamination due to inappropriate disposal of toxic dyes, and increased solid waste, to name but a few.[7]


“M&S Shwopping” by Su-May is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Negative environmental impacts are disproportionately worse in low-income countries where most fast fashion is manufactured. To contain production costs, factories operate outdated equipment that releases higher concentrations of toxic gases than their modern counterparts.[8] Moreover, a lack of production planning often leads to overuse of water and natural fibers, while weak regulations or limited compliance cause untreated factory effluents to be dumped directly into surface waters.[9] To further aggravate the situation, lax labor laws condone the operation of sweatshops, where workers risk their health enduring long hours for very low wages.[10]

It is striking that young Americans who pride themselves on being environmentally conscious and socially progressive often turn a blind eye to the deplorable environmental conditions and lack of labor standards that allow manufacturers in poor countries to churn out clothes for next to nothing. How can young adults be convinced to embrace environmentally conscious fashion habits? Can the fashion industry adopt a new economic model by aligning its production and distribution practices with 21st century ideals? Leaders in the fashion industry are now trying to align production and distribution practices with 21st century ideals through a novel economic model: the sharing economy. 

Attractiveness of the Sharing Economy

The sharing economy refers to a transaction model that enables the sharing of goods and services, often mediated through online platforms. The concept has rapidly taken hold through companies such as Airbnb, which allows homeowners to rent their living quarters to tourists, and ZipCar, which facilitates the sharing of vehicles by its subscribers. Now, researchers and entrepreneurs worldwide are exploring clothes-sharing as a way to reduce the detrimental impact of the fast fashion industry on the environment while meeting the consumer demand for instant access to a stylish and contemporary wardrobe. They hope to achieve this goal through a shift from fast fashion to the collaborative consumption of sustainable and high-end clothing that is made to last.

This clothing is provided to consumers through a “fashion library,” described by Dr. Esben Rahbek Pedersen and Dr. Sarah Netter of the Copenhagen Business School as a “subscription-based service that allows people to share wardrobes.”[11] Fashion libraries use either brick and mortar facilities or online platforms, and allow for members “to borrow a specific number of clothing pieces in a set time, typically a few weeks.”[12] The fashion market business is booming with many startups aiming to claim their stake of what could be a huge industry. Two of the most prominent names are Kladoteket and Style Lend, which use different models to fill the same niche.

Kladoteket, a Swedish company founded in 2012, created a successful fashion library using a subscription-based model. The company partners with high-end fashion brands to make sustainable clothing accessible to the general public. Customers can choose to rent for a two or four week period, with the option of purchasing the items they like at the end of the rental period. The company handles shipping and laundry, and offers special subscription packages for its most frequent users.[13]

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Style Lend, a New York based company started in 2013, which operates a peer-to-peer fashion rental market. Fashionistas can list their designer clothing items on the company website and others can rent them for a week. Lenders receive 80% of the rental proceeds along with $6.50 to clean each item between rental periods.[14] Variations of these two models abound, with some companies sending out monthly surprise boxes curated to a subscriber’s fashion preferences, and other companies focusing on just business wear, maternity clothing, plus-size apparel, or fashion accessories.

Researchers believe that the shared and continuous use of garments that otherwise do little more than collect dust will benefit both consumers and the environment.[11] Consumers gain access to high-end clothing and increased styling options without the financial commitment that comes with traditional purchases. The environment benefits from decreased pollution realized by extending the effective life span of clothing. Instead of purchasing obscene amounts of cheap clothing–most of which will go unworn for weeks at a time–individuals can share sustainably-sourced clothing and lower their environmental impact through reductions in textile waste, air pollution, and toxic dyes entering waste streams.

Barriers to Sharing

While the collaborative consumption clothing model seems good on paper, many concerns regarding the viability of the model remain unanswered. Both peer-to-peer and subscription-based fashion markets require moving clothing items between consumers and/or central facilities. Once collaborative consumption companies operate on a national scale, these shipments will require both air and motor-vehicle transportation and lead to increased greenhouse gas production. Clothing items also need to be thoroughly laundered, dry- and spot-cleaned between rental periods, which negatively impacts air and water quality.

Bahareh Zamani, a researcher at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, compared the environmental impact of clothing libraries to that of fast fashion. Her study finds that a fashion sharing economy under most conditions would yield reductions in environmental stressors, but might increase pollution levels in scenarios involving high transportation costs. Without a doubt, the industry should focus on streamlining transportation and distribution logistics and developing environmental technologies that minimize the collateral impact of the clothes-sharing economy on the environment before claiming a net benefit to society.[12]

Another concern involves the economic accessibility of the collaborative consumption market. With most fashion libraries focusing on designer clothing, renting clothes is not exactly cheap. In fact, the present cost of renting a designer item oftentimes rivals the purchase price of its faux fast fashion counterpart. For the average consumer to abandon fast fashion in favor of shared clothing, rental costs must come down. Several collaborative consumption companies already are working towards this lofty goal. For example, Rent the Runway recently released its Unlimited service, which allows subscribers to “get 4 pieces on constant rotation” at a fraction of the cost of renting individual items from the company. With more and more companies and consumers entering the market, rental costs will continue to decrease for the foreseeable future.[15]

A Win-Win Solution

No one can predict the future of the fashion industry. With a myriad of designers, entrepreneurs, and celebrities influencing the industry, tomorrow’s clothing trends are anyone’s best guess. What is certain, however, is that fast fashion is environmentally (and by extension, commercially) unsustainable. The industry is ripe for disruption. Collaborative consumption is a middle ground solution to the fast fashion crisis that represents a win-win for consumers and the environment. By borrowing items from a clothing library, consumers can access a greater selection of styles without breaking the bank or contributing to the environmental repercussions associated with fast fashion purchases. In the case of Mother Nature, sharing is indeed caring.

Cover photo is courtesy of Jeramiah Winston. 


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