• Environmental concerns may lead to the decline of “fast-fashion” clothing.
  • EU plans to force textile industry changes that raise the cost of clothing.
  • EU initiative to encourage more reusable textiles may result in expanded sales for clothing rental services.  

“Fast-fashion” clothes — trendy items that are meant to be worn a few times then tossed away — may soon become as unacceptable as wearing a mink fur coat.

Consumers concerned about the environment are turning more and more to buying used clothes or renting new fashions, and clothing retailers are responding. H&M, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters are among those now offering clothing rental, while online startups including Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee offer subscriptions that enable customers to “swap” fashions on a monthly basis.

The move may help boost the fashion industry’s reputation as a major polluter, responsible for more CO2 emissions worldwide than the international aviation and shipping industry combined. Adding to the problem, only 13% of total material in the clothing industry is recycled, Morgan Stanley analysts have said.

The European Union on Wednesday introduced a plan aimed at cutting municipal waste in half throughout the bloc by 2030 through such actions as making more packaging reusable or recyclable and promoting longer product lifetimes with a “right to repair.” The circular economy action plan said a strategy is needed to encourage the clothing industry to boost the re-use and recycling of textiles through innovation and regulatory measures.

“We must ensure that these future requirements make people and planet-friendly clothes the norm,” tweeted the European Environmental Bureau, a network of more than 143 environmental citizens’ organizations, after the EU plan was released. The EU “should make sure textile products with the lowest environmental impact become the ‘default,’” the group said on its website.

“Fast-fashion” clothes are expected to be hit hard by the EU’s actions regarding the textiles industry, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a March 2 report. While “it seems unlikely that cheap, fast fashion will be banned” the EU’s plans may increase costs for the clothing companies that focus on brands expected to be worn then tossed.

That’s where renting comes in.

H&M began a trial rental service at its Stockholm flagship store toward the end of last year, enabling shoppers in the company’s loyalty program to rent skirts and dresses from the Conscious Exclusive collections made from sustainably sourced materials. The store also includes a repair service “to inspire customers to reuse and recycle,” the company said.

Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, meanwhile, are mail-order services where consumers can rent, or “swap” as Rent the Runway puts it, a certain number of items per month depending on the subscription plan. One-time rentals and purchases are also available.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)