Q. I recently subscribed to a clothing subscription, where you rent the clothes and send them back for a new lot in a few days – kinda like old-school Netflix DVDs in the mail. I know being fashion-forward is usually not so great (quick turnover, impactful industry), but subscribing to clothes means lots of people wear them vs. buying them, right? Though the service may purchase in bulk at less than ethical prices and discard too quickly? How does this balance out? 

Taylor
San Francisco, Calif.

A. Dearest Taylor,

You know how in futuristic dystopian movies, fashion expression is the first of our privileges to go? Goodbye, individual style, hello, utilitarian jumpsuits? This is usually presented as a bad thing — the loss of our freedom, etc. — but I confess part of me wouldn’t mind a jumpsuit edict. It would certainly simplify the complicated, environmentally taxing, globally significant task of getting dressed every morning.

Without the mandated uniforms, we’re left to navigate the cloudy waters of fashion on our own. We do know that clothing has a major impact on the planet: Fiber production is water- and energy-intensive, manufacturing is highly polluting, labor is linked to human rights abuses, and Americans’ “fast fashion” consumption is hugely wasteful. So anything that might reduce the flood of clothing flowing through our closets sounds like the greatest idea since sliced bellbottoms. But is bringing fashion into the sharing economy really the answer?

There’s lots to love about the idea of rotating pieces of clothing among a group of subscribers. Instead of 10 people buying the same top and letting it lie fallow in their closets most of the time, one top can do the job for those 10 people. Presumably, that means one-tenth of the resources, pollution, and waste. The clothing comes right to your door, which should represent a better deal, environmentally, than multiple shopping trips: Delivery routes are often more efficient than individuals driving to and fro. And maintaining a warehouse of stylin’ duds is less resource-intensive than lighting, heating, and cooling a series of brick-and-mortar boutiques. If you’ll allow me to conjecture a bit, this kind of clothing subscription might even enable increasingly efficient urban living — dramatically smaller mounds of clothes means less physical space needed for storage means more tiny, cute, resource-sipping apartments.

But as you point out, there are downsides to this “Netflix model” of fashion, too. For one, clothing subscriptions create more packaging through repeated shipping — a cycle of cardboard boxes or plastic bags that we don’t have when people are shopping in the traditional way. You have less choice about where your clothes are coming from, so it may be harder to avoid manufacturers who are contributing to human rights issues or pollution in third-world countries. And then there’s the matter of cleaning these items. If companies must dry-clean that rental LBD every time it changes hands (whereas dress owners can employ greener laundering methods or at least wear it a few times between dry cleanings), then that represents a big jump in the use of volatile chemicals. Pee-yew.

Like so many of our thorny environmental dilemmas, this one doesn’t have a clear answer. I don’t know how this all shakes out, and as this interesting piece on Netflix and the sharing economy shows, hard data on this topic is scarce. I did pose your question to Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, and she shared a few musings of her own. “The problem is that [these services] require people to get new items of clothing every month, not on an as-needed basis,” she said over email. “Maybe the impact is mitigated a bit by sharing a garment, but the total number of new garments members ‘consume’ is going to go up dramatically. The sites create a lot of demand for new clothes, and members are complicit in that — even if a few other people have worn the same dress.”

Taylor, I encourage you to ask your subscription service some nitpicky questions. How many “uses” does each jacket or sweater get before it’s retired? Is said jacket thrown away, or donated/recycled? Where does the service get its clothes in the first place, and do they offer sustainable and/or ethical options? How are returned clothes cleaned?

You should also think about how this service relates to your personal dressing and shopping habits. The average American buys 64 garments per year; if you’re on the shopaholic end of this consumption scale, and a clothing rental subscription will actually cut down on the clothes you wear, it might be a good bet. If you’re the type who still clings to her favorite outfits from high school (babydoll dresses are coming back, I just know it), this sort of thing could actually increase your fashion footprint.

In short, Taylor: I’ve given you some homework. Take a closer look at your service’s practices and your own shopping habits, and I think your answer will become clearer. As for me, I’m waiting for the season when jumpsuits patched together from worn-out, organic jeans are the next big thing.

Trendily,
Umbra