Q: I am a young professional who needs a wardrobe upgrade. But I don’t have a huge budget, and I keep hearing about fashion’s role in climate change. I have been renting most of my work suits and dresses, but I have heard that this approach is not better for the environment than more traditional shopping. What is the most sustainable way to build a wardrobe? Is there one? — Ellen, New York
When it comes to fashion, climate change and best practice, the truth is that there are no simple answers and definitely no perfect ones. Well, other than not buying anything at all.
There are so many parts to every supply chain, and often so many participants involved, that every choice is really a choice about priorities. Organic cotton is grown without pesticides (good) but very water-intensive (bad). Recycled polyester (good) is still polyester (bad). Leather comes from cows, as does a substantive percentage of methane emissions (bad), but as long as we are eating beef, the skin is a waste product and should be used (good) rather than thrown away. And so on and so on.
The only way to begin to tackle this issue is to understand that every action and purchase is going to have an impact; you just have to decide what is, on balance, the least damaging choice. So asking this question is the right approach.
Many fashion rental companies present as the most sustainable option because they satisfy the need for new stuff without filling up your closet with clothes. But Alden Wicker, the author of “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making You Sick,” pointed out that a 2021 study out of Finland famously “concluded that clothing rental is worse for the climate than resale, recycling, owning for an extended period or even owning for a short time and throwing the clothing away,” in part because of the transportation involved.
Ms. Wicker said that while some of the study’s assumptions were flawed (and Rent the Runway, for one, offsets its transportation emissions and has a public sustainability policy), the fresh plastic film that comes with each delivery and the dry cleaning necessary between renters are the primary issues.
The point, she said, is that “anything can qualify as fast fashion if you go through it fast enough, including rentals and secondhand” clothing.
Both Ms. Wicker and Maxine Bédat, the executive director of the New Standard Institute, believe that the best balance is to use renting as one of the options in your responsible wardrobe toolbox. Essentially, you want to build a core of go-to pieces that are worth investing in. You really can’t go wrong with a well-made black trouser suit in natural fibers, a few great blazers, a jumpsuit and a crisp shirtdress. Then supplement those pieces with rented occasion wear or more trend-driven pieces.
“Personally, I use rental for outfitting some special events like weddings,” Ms. Bédat said. “For my workwear, I have found a few brands that fit me well, and I invest in a couple of pieces a year to build my wardrobe with time. Each individual item had a higher price tag than I was used to but have proven to be a cost savings, now that I have worn them so many times.”
She added, “I also have a good home steamer, so I don’t need to wash or dry clean every time I wear my clothes.”
Then take proper care of what you have. (Honestly, I think every school should bring back home economics as part of its sustainability strategy.) And keep asking the smart questions.