Clothing subscription boxes and sustainability: What to know

Subscribing to a clothing rental service? On top of convenience (or necessity), renting some of your clothes can help the planet. Here's how.
Image: High Angle View Of Shirt and Box On Bed
Shopping for clothes in stores comfortably might seem like a distant reality. Subscribing to a clothing rental service is one way to try new clothes without committing to buying them. Somrudee Doikaewkhao / Getty Images/EyeEm
By Elizabeth Wolfe

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According to the United Nations Environment Programme, global clothing production accounts for 10 percent of our annual carbon emissions. Between 2000 and 2015, the world’s clothing production nearly doubled. Left unchecked, this pattern could more than triple by 2050, according to estimates from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity organization. This trajectory, the report says, could result in “catastrophic outcomes” as the industry increases its harmful impact on the environment.

These numbers may seem staggering, but individual consumers can do their part to reduce the demand for new clothes, recycling as they shop. We’ve previously shared shopping guides to help you reduce your footprint while buying food containers, kitchen products, bathroom items, shoes, weighted blankets, mattresses and more. We’re now taking a look at clothes: The growing sector of clothing rental subscription services offer one alternative to frequently buying and disposing of clothes. Fashion and sustainable supply chain experts (who research how to provide goods and services more efficiently) seem to agree, but only when the services are used in moderation.  “I think viewing renting as supplemental is more sustainable,” says author of “The Conscious Closet” and sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline. “You buy your basics and then you rent your fun stuff. So you're renting the stuff that you would normally only wear a handful of times.”

In this article

  1. What is a clothing rental subscription service?
  2. Pros and cons of a clothing rental subscription
  3. Best rental subscriptions for a sustainable closet
  4. Other clothes rental subscriptions to shop

What is a clothing rental subscription service?

For years, shoppers have been able to rent single items of clothing through services like Rent the Runway and Style Lend, but a new business trend — clothing rental subscription — has emerged, allowing shoppers to rent multiple garments and accessories regularly for a monthly fee. 

Just last summer, URBN (the group that owns Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Free People) launched its own service called Nuuly where customers pay $88 a month to get six clothing items of their choice from hundreds of popular brands like Ralph Lauren, Cynthia Rowley and Reebok.

You may end up just having a fast fashion model for the rental services, just by a different name. And this is not good for the environment

Josué Velázquez Martínez, Executive Director, MIT Supply Chain Management Program

Clothing rental subscription: pros and cons

Nuuly, along with many of its rental peers, markets itself as an environmentally-friendly alternative to frequent shopping. Reusing any piece of clothing is, broadly speaking, better than buying new as you’re helping reduce demand for manufacturing a new product, Cline explains. “Renting has got to be a more sustainable business model,” she said.

“Fashion’s biggest environmental crime lies in overproduction,” Cline wrote in Elle last year. “Of the 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalents generated by the apparel industry every year, the majority are emitted while making more clothes, clothes that mostly end up in landfills long before their useful lives are over. Reducing the impact of industry is the most challenging part of tackling climate change; sharing clothes through rental platforms presents a simple and obvious solution.”

While most rental services offer monthly exchanges of clothes, some, like Rent the Runway and Bloomingdale’s My List, have plans that allow you to exchange as often as every few days or weeks, a practice that could make clothing rental just as harmful as regular shopping habits. It all comes down to how you use the service.

Regular shipping and returns the renting requires could be enough to tip your carbon emissions over that of a fast fashion consumer, explains Josué Velázquez Martínez, executive director of MIT’s Supply Chain Management Program and a sustainable logistics expert. “You may end up just having a fast fashion model for the rental services, just by a different name. And this is not good for the environment,” he says. 

Someone who is renting sustainably is thinking through events or appearances where they know that they would otherwise be buying something and wearing it once.

Elizabeth Cline, sustainable fashion expert and author of “The Conscious Closet”

So how will a clothing rental subscription help you build a more sustainable wardrobe? Both Cline and Velázquez Martínez agree that, if used wisely, these services would still be less damaging than buying fast fashion.  Instead of receiving and returning an endless supply of new clothes, Cline explains, these subscriptions can be used as a way to rent outfits for special occasions, trendy items, or clothes that you want to try out before buying. 

“Someone who is renting sustainably is thinking through events or appearances where they know that they would otherwise be buying something and wearing it once. And they're switching those purchases over to renting,” she says. Possible rental occasions could include weddings, parties, professional events and even vacations. (There’s no need to buy that billowing beachy sundress if you will only wear it for two weeks out of the year.)

“I think trying things out is one of the really great benefits of renting,” Cline says. “You know, let’s say you start a new job and you want to figure out where you want to take your office wardrobe. Or you work in a really conservative workplace so most of your clothes are kind of neutral but you would like to wear something trendy.”

Most clothing rental services let you buy a garment if you want to keep it and often offer reduced prices.  So go ahead and rent that fantastic faux fur coat for your birthday extravaganza and a $258 metallic dress for your best friend’s wedding. Or maybe you want to see if a certain pair of trousers are comfortable enough to wear all day at work.

Best rental subscriptions for a more sustainable closet

1. Rent the Runway 1 Swap Plan

Choose four items at a time from Rent the Runway’s selection of high-end clothing, accessories and jewelry. The 1 Swap plan — which lets you rent up to $1,400-worth of clothes a month — is great for renters who need options ranging from casual Madewell blouses to elegant Badgley Mischka cocktail dresses.

The service ships items in reusable garment bags and encourages customers to return all plastic hangers and dry cleaning bags for reuse and eventual recycling. RTR also extends the lifecycle of its garments by donating them or selling them in online sample sales or through its partnership program with Nordstrom Rack.  Customers in select cities like New York and D.C. can also bypass shipping by visiting a Rent the Runway brick and mortar store near them (once brick and mortar stores open again, that is.).

2. Nuuly Subscription Clothing Rental

Flooded with offerings from Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Free People, and hundreds more brands, Nuuly lets you pick six pieces a month, including vintage, petite and plus size garments. Your monthly picks will arrive in a reusable garment box made from recycled ocean plastic, which also doubles as sustainable and easy-to-use return packaging. 

3. Le Tote 10 Clothing Plan

If you’re looking for plenty of plan options, Le Tote is the rental subscription for you. The service offers more than ten different plans, ranging from four clothing items per box to as many as 10 clothing items and five accessories per box, including maternity options. It also gives the option to split your items into two separate boxes over the course of the month. 

To reduce its environmental impact, Le Tote says it has developed cleaning methods that use biodegradable detergents and consume 43 percent less electricity and 50 percent less water than if you were to wash the clothes yourself. Compared to Nuuly and Rent the Runway, though, it’s slightly more difficult to see the clothing styles and brands Le Tote offers before signing up. The service does offer an abundance of professional, maternity and everyday looks.

Other clothing rental subscriptions to consider

Whether you are looking to freshen up your work wardrobe or infuse your closet with more designer styles, options abound. Infinite Style by Ann Taylor and Infinitely Loft both offer versatile women’s workwear for relatively affordable prices. And many trends-driven and luxury labels, like Express Style Trial and Vince Unfold, offer their own subscription boxes.

4. Infinite Style by Ann Taylor

Made specifically for shoppers seeking modern workwear, Infinite Style by Ann Taylor allows you to get three pieces at a time with unlimited box swaps for $95 per month.

5. Infinitely Loft

With petite, plus, tall and maternity collections, Infinitely Loft embraces a range of playful and professional styles for subscribers of all sizes. Select three Loft garments at a time and get unlimited box swaps for $65 per month.

6. Express Style Trial

Maybe you’re dying to put together a zebra-print look or rock a white jumpsuit. If you’re looking to experiment with style or incorporate the latest fashion fad, Express Style Trial’s offers hundreds of selections. For $60 per month, you can get three Express pieces at a time and exchange them whenever you like.

7. Vince unfold

California-based brand Vince is known for laid-back, contemporary luxury pieces. Its service, Vice unfold, allows subscribers to have quick access to four Vince garments at a time for $160 with limitless exchanges. This option is also a great way to try high-end designer pieces before you commit to buying them.

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