• Researchers in Finland analyzed the life cycle of a pair of jeans.
  • They discovered that out of five options, including discarding and recycling, renting clothes contributed the most carbon emissions.
  • Owning fewer clothes was the most sustainable option, the researchers concluded.
  • Fashion accounts for around 5% of global emissions.
  • Efforts to create a more circular fashion economy include using digital birth certificates for items of clothing.

Do you really need that latest pair of jeans?

After studying the sustainability of fashion, researchers in Finland hope not.

They have found that owning fewer clothes – and reusing second-hand clothes – is better for the environment than renting or recycling fashion.

The problem with renting clothes

Renting clothes – where the same fashion garment is leased or rented to multiple users over its lifetime – sounds like it should be sustainable.

But researchers at Finland’s LUT University found that renting fashion contributes more to global warming than throwing it away.

Shoppers borrowing and then returning a pair of jeans were likely to create more emissions, according to the study, published in the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research Letters. This is because the sharing of items involved travelling to and from a rental venue, largely by emissions-contributing vehicles.

“After 10 uses, the consumer returns the jeans to the sharing service provider and gets a new pair,” the research team, led by circular economy assistant professor Jarkko Levänen, explains of its model, which makes the assumption that the consumer will have to travel at least two kilometres to return the jeans.

Comparing the sustainability credentials of the different life cycles of a pair of jeans.
Image: Jarkko Levänen et al 2021

Collecting the jeans by low-carbon transport like a bicycle, on the other hand, or consumers wearing them a total of 400 times instead of the expected 200 times, might make renting clothes more sustainable.

Recycling is not the answer, either

The study concluded that reducing the number of clothes we own is the best way to limit fashion emissions. Even recycling – where re-used clothes are turned into new materials – was marked down in terms of its sustainability credentials because the industrial process this involves creates a high level of emissions.

A separate report this year from the World Economic Forum, Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity, listed fashion as one of eight supply chains responsible for more than 50% of global emissions. The industry itself accounts for around 5% of global emissions.

Fashion is one of eight supply chains responsible for more than 50% of global emissions.
Image: Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity, World Economic Forum

Fashion and the circular economy

The quest to produce more sustainable fashion continues.

For example, New York start-up Eon is creating digital birth certificates for fashion items, so that consumers can track the life cycle of a garment.

While Illinois start-up Natural Fiber Welding is making clothes, shoes and furniture from plant fibres.

Both companies are members of The Circulars Accelerator, an initiative to help circular economy entrepreneurs scale up their innovations. It is hosted on Uplink, the World Economic Forum’s innovation crowdsourcing platform.