Many ideas are put forward as solutions to solving the disastrous environmental impacts of fast fashion. As well as reducing consumer consumption through encouraging customers to buy fewer clothes, other solutions include disposing of clothing, donating and recycling. Renting clothing is also often cited as an interesting idea that’s better for increasing sustainability, especially for one-off, more expensive items. But recent research has found that renting clothes is actually the worst environmental option.

Renting has become high profile in recent times, including renting wedding dresses, ball gowns and suits. The study assessed the environmental impact of five different ways of owning and disposing of clothing, including renting, resale and recycling. It concluded that renting clothes actually had the highest sustainability impact of all; due to delivery and packaging costs associated with transportation, as well as damaging impacts of dry cleaning. 

Recycling and donation of garments can also have negative impacts on sustainability

Recycling and donation of unwanted garments are often cited as key solutions in creating a more circular fast fashion economy, and on the surface, they seem to make sense as sustainable choices. But they too have issues, including lack of design circularity and  supply-chain impacts of sending unwanted clothes abroad for recycling.

Second hand clothes recycling has had negative socio-economic impacts for many African countries, with Eastern African countries including Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda implementing a ban on importing second-hand clothing in order to strengthen their own textile economies.

Even when consumers, companies and manufacturers have the best of intentions to recycle, the current system of production and fast fashion mean it’s not that simple. Recycling fabrics to usable quality is a difficult process, and currently not perfect. Common poly-cotton mixes used significantly in fast fashion items make it impossible to fully recycle, meaning that these fast fashion clothes are still likely to end up in landfill.

So what will these mean for solving fashion’s sustainability problem?

The fact that the ‘answers’ to the sustainability issues of the fashion industry (including renting, recycling and donating clothes) often also have environmental costs themselves highlight the huge challenges in creating a more eco-friendly fashion industry. 

Reducing consumer demand and consumption in the first place remains the most effective way to improve sustainability. But, if the ‘solutions’ also have significant environmental costs, how will this impact consumer engagement with more sustainable choices? There’s a real danger that disengagement will occur, at a critical time consumer buy in for sustainability is needed.

So what can be done instead?

  • There is still a place for renting clothes in sustainability, specifically for occasional, high end pieces. This will maximise the benefit, while also reducing any impacts of dry cleaning etc. Innovation will be key to maximising the benefits of such schemes.
  • There’s a risk that greenwashing by brands will lead to despondency around making the best choices. Consumers must be more willing to look closely at brand claims of sustainability, and brands must stop greenwashing.
  • Brands and manufacturers must engage with consumers with honesty and transparency, as well as encouraging them to buy less, buy better and keep clothes for longer. Better choices are needed, and small measures such as making fewer, more sustainable choices can have a huge impact.

To wrap up

From poor recycling potential, to damaging cleaning chemicals and delivery in the rental fashion market, many of the solutions to increase the sustainability of fast fashion can create problems themselves. There’s a real danger that this will lead to increased consumer disengagement with sustainability. As a result, brands and manufacturers must do more to increase engagement, transparency and innovation.

Textile Consult is a management and training consultancy operating worldwide. We are currently working with clients to find the best solution for sustainability- by recycling textile products with minimal negative environmental impacts. Contact us today to find out how we can advise your business on sustainability within the textile industry.