Alternatives to Buying Clothes: Clothing Swaps and Renting Clothes

A Woman folds clothing
Photo: Sarah Brown from Unsplash

For many of us, clothing is a way of expressing ourselves. We want to feel comfortable, look good and perhaps attract attention or at least make an impression. If we all were Mark Zuckerberg, we would only wear the same uniform clothes. But we're not, and that's why the fashion industry has been able to expand so unbelievably. That's also why the fashion industry is now responsible for almost 10% of global CO₂ emissions.

Breaking all this down  – what does it mean for our wardrobe:

  • In industrialised countries, each of us buys an average of 30 kg of clothes a year.
  • On average, we wear an item of clothing only four times before throwing it away.
  • 75% of discarded clothing ends up in textile recycling
  • More than half of the clothes in our wardrobe remain unworn each year.

Consider that the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the world's wastewater and textile dyeing is the world's second-largest water polluter. If you consider that many of our garments are made under adverse conditions for the workers in the fashion industry, it becomes even more clear that every garment in our wardrobe has an impact on the world and society. The more we wear each garment, the smaller its impact. If we choose slow fashion instead of fast fashion, we reduce the impact, but it is still there.

The only way to further reduce the impact is to wear the garment for a very long time. With this in mind, a very nice new trend has developed over the last few years: Swapping, lending and borrowing clothes so that they are worn for as long as possible.

Swap clothes:

Woman chooses clothes
Clothes swap parties are a nice alternative to shopping and are also suitable for those on a lower budget.Photo: Billow926 from Unsplash

You can either go to an organised clothes swap party or organise one with friends or family. Each guest brings clothes that he or she does not wear any longer. First, the clothes are collected and later everyone can choose new favourite pieces from the clothing collection, try them on and take them home. The beauty of clothing swaps is that it's not about the financial aspect because you don't pay for the clothes.

Rent a dress:

Hiring clothes is ideal when a special item of clothing is needed for a special event. After all, how many evening gowns, suits or occasion-related clothes are in our closets and then never worn again? Simply renting clothes and accessories for a business meeting, the next wedding or dance event is sustainable because the garment does not hang in the wardrobe unworn afterwards.

In the meantime, clothing rental has moved in two directions. In the beginning, the first clothes rentals were only about offering unworn clothes from private wardrobes to other interested parties: Peer-to-Peer. This sector still exists and is growing steadily. But the fashion industry sees a growing turnover potential of about 2 billion US dollars in the next four years. Thus, there are also many professional providers from which you can rent clothes in different rental models. These are subscription models where the clothes can be rented for at least 1-2 weeks or longer periods.

Woman is looking on her cellphone
Dress hire is ideal when a special item of clothing is needed for a special event.Photo: Anete Lusina from Pexels

You either get:

  • A box with a "Capsule Wardrobe", i.e. a selection of clothes for everyday wear that you can combine in a variety of ways,
  • Or you can create a wish list on the platform with clothes you like and you will receive a package with 5-6 items.
  • Your personal selection of clothes that you would like to borrow.

In the end, you usually have the option to buy the clothes you like the most for a lower price. The rest of the clothes are sent back. They are cleaned, repaired if necessary and then rented out again. In the end, the renters decide whether to sell the clothes cheaply in a sale or give them back to the labels to be recycled.

The providers of these models are diverse: from the luxury segment, from the fast-fashion sector but also the slow-fashion scene. Often some platforms offer different fashion labels, such as the sustainable lending platform UNOWN or FAIRNICA, or Dresscoded for luxury fashion.

You can also rent clothes from some fashion companies. MUD Jeans, for example, offers sustainable jeans on a subscription basis. This is to guarantee that the clothes are returned to them in the end. This way, the material can be recycled and reused for new clothes. But not all of them have a sustainable mindset.

A critique of clothing rental:

Just in time for the last Fashion Week in summer, a study from Finland was published that researched how sustainable clothing rental is. The result was devastating. The transport and professional cleaning of the rented clothes increase the CO₂ footprint and harm the environment. Clothing rental thus has the highest negative impact in the clothing industry compared to the normal purchase of a garment. However, it is important to note that the companies studied have a wide range of customers. This means that the clothes are transported over long distances. Therefore, the study also indicated that renting can make sense if the rental is organised with sustainable transportation and is located close to the renter. The negative impact can be further reduced with sustainable, ecological cleaning. And in the end, it all depends on the number of rented clothes and the behaviour, such as care, washing and drying, of the renter.

Renting is ok if you only want to buy one piece of clothing for an event. Or if you want to try out a new style. It is not sustainable to stock the majority of your wardrobe with rented clothes.


In addition to clothing swaps and rentals, there is also the possibility to buy secondhand. Either through shops in your town, at flea markets or clothing markets, or on digital platforms such as Sellpy or Vinted (formerly Kleiderkreisel). If you're looking for clothes for special occasions, you might also want to check out a theatre costume sale.

Wardrobe with shirts
Photo: Fernando Lavin from Unsplash

So what is the secret to a sustainable wardrobe?

  • Wear your clothes as long as possible
  • Replace old unwearable clothes with good quality sustainable clothes, clothes made from natural materials or second-hand.
  • Rent or borrow clothes that you rarely need. However, look at rental platforms to see if they are close to you, if the clothes are cleaned sustainably and if they offer sustainable fashion labels.
  • Swap or share clothes with close friends
  • Sell or swap clothes that you no longer wear but are still in good condition.
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