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Yours, Mine, and Ours: Re-Imagining the Apparel Industry

The sharing economy – think UberAirbnbIndego  – is not only changing the ways we organize our lives, it’s also changing the way the world does business. The shift is prompting companies from various sectors to re-think conventional notions of consumer preference for personal ownership. Increasingly, these companies are discovering that people want to experience a product, not necessarily to own it. What if the same could be true of clothing?

The traditional clothing model follows a linear take-make-waste trajectory. Consumers buy a product, take it home, wear it, and eventually discard it. The average American throws away approximately 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.

The advent of fast fashion has transformed the apparel landscape. Short production cycles and low prices have led to excess consumption and the perceived disposability of products. From a sustainability perspective, it is a model ripe for re-visioning.

Sustainable Product Service Systems

Clothing as a service attempts to close the loop in apparel through repair and redesign, take-back, swapping, and rentals. In contrast to the take-make-waste model, these sustainability product service systems (PSS’s) follow a circular borrow-use-return model. Below are a few examples and hypothetical narratives from a recent study on sustainable PSS’s for clothing.

Repair & redesign: A brand offers high quality clothing and provides repair and/or tailoring services.

Marguerite visits her favorite fashion boutique… she will purchase a stylish and high quality dress … she is offered a maintenance service for a fee, providing repair and/or tailoring, alterations to improve fit … for five years after purchase. Another option to re-design the garment is offered… transforming the original garment into a new fashion item.

Take-back: Used clothing can be brought back to the store in exchange for a discount on new purchases. The store recycles the used clothing or puts it into a redesign and resale cycle.

MaryAnn visits her local department store … she discovers a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces created from old garments. The collection is the result of a new take-back service. Used clothing items can also be brought back in exchange for a coupon for new purchases. The store recycles used clothing fibers or redesigns garments for resale, like the ones MaryAnn is considering.

Renting: Customers pay a one-time or ongoing fee to rent articles of clothing from a service provider.

Julie hears about a fashion library that just opened in town… She can become a member and use her “library card” to use a certain number of garments for a short time period… an online portal is also available so she can shop at home. Timeshare rentals are also available, if friends with similar tastes wish to share a borrowed item for a season or longer.

Company Examples

If these narratives sound far-fetched or unrealistic, it’s because the idea of clothing as a service is still an anomaly in the apparel industry. PSS concepts have unique challenges, such as consumer trust in the products and service provider, and ensuring the hygiene of goods. Despite these challenges, there are a handful of companies that offer similar services to the examples described above:

Patagonia. The company’s Worn Wear initiative extends the life of clothing through proper care and repair. If products are beyond repair, customers can return the item to Patagonia so that it can be repurposed or recycled into something new.

Marks and Spencer. Every M&S retail store has “Shwop Drop” bins where customers can bring in unwanted clothes. Shwopped clothing is donated to Oxfam to be resold online, recycled, or repurposed.

Vinted. This is an online app that serves as a peer-to-peer marketplace to buy, sell, and swap clothes. For more apps to swap, trade, and sell clothing, see this blog.

Rent the Runway. This is an online service for designer dress and accessory rentals. The company’s new subscription service “Unlimited” allows customers to rent three items at a time, which can include anything from jewelry, handbags, dresses, skirts, tops, and pants.

Is sustainable apparel an oxymoron?

In the traditional take-make-waste model, material consumption is inseparable from revenue generation. In other words, for companies to grow profits they have to sell more stuff. And they sell more stuff by appealing to the innate human desire for newness, novelty, and beauty. This begs the question: isn’t this running counter to sustainability?

When I recently spoke with Sustrana principal Nancy Cleveland about this dilemma, her response was simple and direct: “If we go to a world with no beauty, no excitement or pizzazz, what is the point of living in that world? It’s human nature to strut our stuff. We just need to get creative and figure out how to do those things without trashing the planet.” Amen, sister – I couldn’t agree more.  PSS concepts are leading the way.

The coming years will be an exciting and innovative time for the apparel industry as it strives to become more sustainable. Part of the change will come from brands thinking outside the box and being innovative with new ideas, but consumers also have a big role to play.

There are many things you (yes you!) can do to participate in the collaborative consumption movement. Buy second hand. Learn to sew. Rent a dress for your next big event. Save up for high quality products. Host a clothes-swapping party with friends. Donate the old sweater that’s been collecting dust in your closet for years.

Let go and let come. And start spreading the word: sharing is the new black.