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Op-Ed | Buy, Don't Rent: The Virtues of Owning Clothes

The sharing economy promotes mindless overconsumption, argues Eugene Rabkin. Buy less, pay more and keep your garments for longer.
Rent the Runway's San Francisco flagship store | Source: Getty Images
  • Eugene Rabkin

NEW YORK, United States — In recent years, the sharing economy has grown dramatically. This includes the rise of new platforms for fashion rentals. The global market for online clothing rentals is expected to reach $1.96 billion by 2023, up from $1.18 billion in 2018, and following the ascent of fashion rental frontrunner Rent the Runway, retailers from Urban Outfitters to Bloomingdales have jumped on the bandwagon.

On its website, Rent the Runway, which is now valued at more than $1 billion, touts benefits like "fashion freedom" and "total flexibility," as well as its green credentials. It all sounds seductive, but steering shoppers away from ownership may actually be doing more harm than good.

First, rental’s sustainability credentials are suspect. No one knows the real footprint that rental companies leave when they dry-clean, package and ship mountains of clothes, a cycle that has to be repeated after each and every garment has been rented, even if it hasn't been worn.

"There is no thorough research to support the notion that subscription rental platforms are inherently sustainable. We need more data on their shipping and dry cleaning impacts," says Elizabeth Cline, the author of two books on clothing consumption, Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, and who in a recent article for Elle questioned whether the clothing rental business was, in fact, sustainable.

Rent the Runway's carefully constructed sustainability narrative makes it seem like fast fashion is the only alternative to its services, implying that ownership by default means buying garments destined to have a short life before ending up in a landfill. This is untrue.

Then, there are the promises of "fashion freedom" and "total flexibility," which ultimately mean consumerism without commitment. In the rental world everything is ephemeral. The sharing economy makes our relationship with the physical world transient and empty. What Rent the Runway touts as freedom is really lack of attachment.

Fashion is often called materialistic, but materialism does not necessarily have to be shallow.

Fashion is often called "materialistic," but materialism does not necessarily have to be shallow. There is something positive to be said about being attached to material things. When you become attached to a coat, for example, it acquires a value that transcends its basic use-value. It may be sentimental value linked to the person who gave it to you or the fact that you bought it with your first paycheck; it may be respect for the coat's maker, or the cultural values transmitted from creator to consumer; or simply the feeling of being protected or the confidence it gives you.

A coat you own for a long time has likely been through plenty of life experiences with you. That coat acquires meaning and you acquire a sense of care for it. You express this feeling intuitively when you say, "this is my favourite coat." You hold on to it instead of sending it to a landfill.

With renting you don't hold on to anything. The clothes you rent mean little, nor do you particularly care for them. Rented clothes, at best, may make you feel good for a day or two (provided that the clothes actually fit you and look as good in real life as they do on the web), but their deeper emotional value is largely lost.

Renting strips clothing back to its use-value. That hypothetical coat becomes "phantom-like," to quote Karl Marx. "All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished." Marx, no fetishiser of commodities, knew a thing or two about being attached to a coat; his went in and out of a pawnshop regularly throughout the 1850s so he could buy food and writing paper while he was doing research for "Das Kapital."

Renting strips clothing back to its use-value.

In today's world, many of us have lives that are far removed from Marx's experience. Perhaps too far. There is something rotten in the consumerist mentality of contemporary society, namely its insistence on constant newness. Current etiquette, shaped by the throwaway mentality that accompanies the carefully constructed Instagram life, dictates that we should not wear the same thing twice during the week. And god forbid you run into someone at a party wearing the same dress. It's this same attitude (or perhaps addiction) fuelled by the drug of low prices that has given rise, not just to fast fashion but also rental services, which promote the same mentality of over-consumption.

I call people who consume fashion without commitment "fashion tourists." What they engage in is a type of sampling, scratching the surface without the deep dive that any form of creativity, including fashion, demands from its audience. They are neither attached to a particular style, nor to the work of a particular designer, nor to a particular garment. This, not ownership, is what is truly shallow.

"One of the reasons I don't rent very often is that I feel like it takes a while to understand your clothes, to figure out how to make them work and to fully appreciate them," says Cline.

There is deep pleasure in ownership, not just the fleeting pleasure of acquisition but also the lasting pleasure of possession. The German philosopher, cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin once wrote: “The period, the region, the craftsmanship… for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fast of his object.” Benjamin was writing about his attachment to the books in his library, but you could say the same thing about clothes.

Rental services may rush to tout the freedom, flexibility and sustainability of their services, but as far as clothes are concerned, I say: buy less, pay more and hold on to your garments for longer. Perhaps you'll also discover the pleasure of ownership.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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