The fashion industry is not especially kind to our planet. Most people now know this and many have adjusted their shopping habits accordingly. But the rise of sustainable fashion has coincided with another prominent trend: social media’s #OOTD (outfit of the day) culture. One in six young people feel that they cannot wear an outfit again if it has been seen on social media, with 41% of 18- to 25-year-olds feeling pressure to wear a different outfit every time they go out. 

But if research shows that the “wear it once, then throw it away” attitude encouraged by fast fashion is not good for the environment, yet young people are facing immense pressure to do exactly that, how is this pattern of behaviour sustainable? Clue: it isn’t.

Feeding the Instagram beast

The issue is even more complex than these opposing perspectives suggest, according to Joni O’Brien, customer services director at the Glasgow-based hirewear and garment refurbishment provider ACS Clothing, which is responsible for 30% of the UK’s market share of the men’s hirewear sector.

“Some of the desire for fast fashion comes from Instagram culture, but there is also substantial demand from consumers attending formal events such as weddings, days at the races and Christmas parties. These people want to look their best, which inevitably equates to a new outfit,” she says. “While these are the pressures that consumers are facing, the additional challenge is the impact that this behaviour has on online retailers.

“If we look at occasionwear, for example, many online shoppers will purchase three, four, maybe upwards of five dresses, with the intention of keeping only one and sending the rest back. Often, these surplus garments are soiled or damaged while being tried on, whether through make-up, fake tan, deodorant or even a snag or a lost button. The items that are returned do not come back to the retailer in a saleable condition,” O’Brien says.

Retailers such as ASOS have attempted to curb “serial returners” by deactivating the accounts of customers whom they deem to have abused the system, but the nature of online shopping means that a certain amount of returns is inevitable. The problem arises when garments are returned in an unsaleable condition, leading retailers to get rid of them at wholesale prices. These garments can then be shipped overseas or even end up in landfill, at a significant cost to the environment.

How to extend the life of textiles

ACS Clothing has long experience in extending the life of garments, building on its success in the men’s hirewear sector, and there are many elements of the hirewear operation in which the company’s methods are directly transferable to the restoration of e-retailers’ returned items.

“If we can restore a garment to its original condition without using any mechanical action, such as washing or dry-cleaning, it can still be classed as new and therefore sold as a new item,” O’Brien says. “ACS’s unique selling point is its ozone chamber, which sanitises clothing by killing 100% of odour and bacteria, restoring garments to their original condition without ‘washing’ and enabling retailers to reintroduce items to their supply chain.”

There are obvious financial benefits for retailers whose returned stock can be salvaged and sold, but this also means that the life of a garment can be extended, with fewer pieces being sold for pennies to individuals who do not care where they end up.

The clothing even an ozone chamber can’t save

The storage, logistics and cleaning capabilities required for the men’s hirewear market are transferable to the women’s equivalent, too. ACS is now working with a number of women’s clothing rental businesses, handling the storage of garments, delivery and collection from customers and dry-cleaning, so that items can be rented again.

Where online-shopping returns need refurbishment beyond the capability of ACS’s ozone chamber, the business will dry-clean and repair items as required – but instead of returning them to the retailer to be sold as second-hand stock, ACS passes the garments to one of its partner hirewear companies, which then split the rental revenue with the retailer. This prevents unnecessary waste and also minimises the financial impact on online retailers, which can recoup some of their losses on soiled returns.

This model works because of changing attitudes towards clothing rental, according to ACS’s marketing manager, David Clark. “Once upon a time, hirewear was seen as something for formal occasions only, and the menswear side of the business is perhaps still like that. But in women’s hirewear, many younger customers are just looking for a dress they can wear on a night out,” he says. “It means that high-street dresses now have a place in the rental market, so we can pass on these refurbished, returned items and give them a second lease of life.”

Is there a place for dress rental in the UK?

Although the concept of renting clothes is more familiar in the US, UK consumers are quickly catching up. A study conducted by Westfield in 2017 found that the UK clothing rental market has a potential value of £923m and that 50% of the 25- to 34-year-olds surveyed would be willing to spend up to £200 each month on rented clothes.

As well as the obvious benefits – renting clothes saves space, is better for the environment and can fulfil temporary fashion-related demands – the practice can also make aspirational brands more accessible to a broader demographic, with renting also offering a low-risk way for shoppers to trial new designers and brands. 

Then there is the increased profit for retailers themselves: traditional clothing sales models have a fixed margin, based on cost and retail price, but if a rented garment is well looked after, it can continue to generate profits by being hired a number of times.

The age demographic of the customers interested in hiring clothes is surprising, too. “Some of the companies we have spoken to are pleasantly surprised to find that their customer base is predominantly 45-plus, rather than the 18- to 30-year-olds they were expecting,” O’Brien says. “Our mantra at ACS is that renting is recycling, so it’s great to see a real variety of consumers interested in a more sustainable way of enjoying fashion.”

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