The concept of an “extended clothing lifespan” is not new, but something that was lost in time as the world took to consuming more and indulging in a throwaway culture. The long forgotten practices of rentals, seconds and repairs are silently but steadily staging a comeback.

A person holding a signDescription automatically generated with medium confidenceIf one were to narrow the story down to the textiles-apparel-fashion industry, it rung truer here than in most other industries. Sometime in the latter part of the last century, time-honoured traditions were thrown to the winds. Age-old practices of repairing garments were frowned upon, and the ritual of handing clothes down a generation was scoffed at. Consumerism was heralded as the only way of looking at life, and consuming more was the mechanism of implementing it. Clothes were unceremoniously discarded with nary a thought or feeling, and with the boom in fast fashion this meant that clothes needed to be thrown away sooner than later.The mindless hedonism and reckless throwaway culture pushed the planet to a tipping point.

Measures and ideas to counter this had always existed, but would unfailingly be drowned in the din of the impassioned and raucous debates that have continued over the subjects of sustainability/circularity in recent years. As in the case of many other aspects of the industry, the pandemic has fuelled this debate too and counterideas are increasingly seeing the light of day as tangible business initiatives. The primary keywords here are recommerce (i.e. secondhand clothing), rental and repair. Then, there are the related keywords like repurpose (i.e. alter) and repeat. There are many more, and quite a few of them overlap or complement one another. But the underlying sentiment remains the same: extended clothing lifespan.

There's just one problem: the idea can't easily cut ice with industry. For, this necessarily means that you ought to expect to sell less not just during the lockdown days but till eternity, and can't for the same reason grow at the frenetic pace of the pre-pandemic days of extravagant glory. Yet, industry can't turn ostrich on reality— it’s not going to go away. All the while that talks about circularity were going on, many felt that circularity simply meant that all that came out of the end-of-life of a garment would go back into the system, and you could keep growing as the circle grew larger. Given the realities, complexities and conflicts (of interest), can one even expect industry to reconcile to the fact that there is a big section of people—expanding by the day—who want their garments to last long, preferably into a lifetime? Does the business of fashion make business sense anymore? With big players already testing the waters and finding some currency, would it mean that the small fishes would die out as the fight for survival becomes tougher? These are not easy questions to answer, but it is important to see what's going on in the market.

UP for hire

Clothing rental is an age-old business, but not in the way we might understand it now. Film and theatre production units and companies, for instance, have always rented apparel for their productions. But those were niche, highly-customised businesses and had precious little to do with ordinary people, save for those rare occasions when people would hire clothes for parties, etc.

But today clothing rental is a consumer market segment, with big brands foraying in one by one. It's a trickle now, but not that faint that it cannot be noticed. The latest big-ticket happening is that of Rent the Runway reportedly filing paperwork in mid-July with US regulators for an initial public offering (IPO).Founded in 2009, New York-based Rent the Runway is allowing customers to rent clothes and shop secondhand merchandise from over 750 designer brands. The company had raised funds in 2020 at a valuation of $750 million.

This came shortly after luxury department store Harrods was reported to be launching a fashion rental service in partnership with My Wardrobe HQ. The feature will be hosted on My Wardrobe HQ’s website, besides existing simultaneously as a pop-up store at Harrod’s Knightsbridge outlet. The range will include 1,000 statement pieces by designers such as Huishan Zhang, Rotate, Roksanda and Zimmermann, available for customers to rent for 4-14 days, or to purchase. The cost for a four-day rental would range from £23 to £400.

Only the previous month, hi-end store chain Selfridges introduced a rental offering online. It had already launched an in-store rental service early 2020 for the first time via a pop-up in a deal with rental platform Hurr Collective. The new initiative too uses Hurr technology but with the products this time being curated by the Selfridges buying team “from the best new-season womenswear, menswear and accessories”. Items would be available to rent for four, eight, 10 and 20-day periods. Prices start at £20 for a four-day rental.

It would seem that luxury brands and retailers who had felt quite the pinch during the most stringent lockdown phases are seeing rentals to be the best way out.

But, no. In April, Swedish fast fashion giant H&M created a flutter when it introduced its first rental clothing service One/Second/Suit. The programme is geared towards young men on the hunt for a job, who may not have the means to buy their own suit or professional wear. It was initially launched in the UK and started rolling out across the US the following month. Sara Spannar, head of marketing & communications at the company, was clear about the target audience: "Job interviews can be a nerve-wracking experience. But we believe nothing should hold you back. Least of all what you wear. The One/Second/Suit is ready-to-wear confidence. A signal to the world and a reminder to yourself that you've got what it takes." Rentals seem to work well for customers with specific goals.

H&M has been checking things out. In October 2019, its Sergels Torg store in Stockholm started offering through a customer loyalty programme the possibility to rent select party dresses and skirts from its 2012-19 Conscious Exclusive collections.The space offered a few unique pieces designed with inspiration from that fall’s Conscious Exclusive collection. At that time, Pascal Brun, head of sustainability at H&M, had indicated that this was a sign of things to come: "We have looked at clothing rental for quite some time and are so happy to offer fashion fans the possibility to rent some stunning pieces from our Conscious Exclusive collections. We look forward to evaluating this as we are dedicated to change the way fashion is made and consumed today."

The company is known to spot trends early on, and it had in 2019, the same year that Banana Republic, Scotch & Soda and Urban Outfitters had all launched clothing rental services.

Again, in January this year, H&M Group’s Arket brand launched a rental for kidswear “to encourage reuse and re-wear” as sustainability increasingly becomes a key priority for millennial parents. It started offering products for rent from its children’s collection via a partnership with Amsterdam-based online shop and clothing subscription business Circos. The subscription was available to European customers from €19.50 a month. Rented clothes could be “kept and used for as long as they fit and returned when it’s time to size up or update the wardrobe for a new season”. In fact, this year there have been many developments on this front. Sustainable fashion brand Mother of Pearl in April partnered with online fashion rental service Onloan for an initiative to increase circularity. Called the Full Circle, it aims to break the traditional “linear” retail model and extend the lifecycle of garments by linking up with Onloan’s rental and pre-loved garment services.

But not before American label Ralph Lauren announced a subscription-based platform called The Lauren Look that would offer apparel from its sub-brand Lauren. A customer can sign up for the service, launched in North America in March, for $125 after which a virtual closet is created for the user. A customer needs at least 10 items in the closet to automatically trigger the first box. The company recommends maintaining 24 items for a seamless service. Next, it ships four items at a time from your Closet, based on item availability, to wear for as long as one would like. When the subscriber is ready for a new box, one can return all four items or buy the favourites at a members-only discount. Clearly, rentals either as one-offs or driven through subscriptions come in all shapes, sizes and customisations. This is where brands will need to experiment considerably.

With rental/subscription services announcements coming every other week, brands are also choosing to divulge their programmes in a way so as to be noticed. Danish fashion label Ganni released its rental-only line of clothing titled Stage at the digital version of the Copenhagen Fashion Week in February. The collection consists of 26 reworked pieces from Ganni’s previous season that had been modified and reimagined through embroidery, spray-paint and embellishment. Available initially in the UK and Denmark, the pieces could be rented out for one, two or three weeks at a time and prices ranged from £26 to £78. Fashion weeks henceforth could see more of such launches.

But, can or will this form of sales work out for industry? That would be difficult to say in these early days. What is certain is that if done and handled well, brands have nothing to lose. On the other hand, whether the rental/subscription segment will grow big will depend on how consumers take to the habit of hiring clothes. According to Dublin-based Future Market Insights, the online clothing rental market will see solid growth between 2021 and 2031. The firm says the market will reach $1.8 billion this year and rise at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11 per cent between now and 2031. The US is expected to lead, and the UK is expected to do better than Germany and France. In Asia, the demand for rentals in China andSouth Korea will be higher than in Japan.

In a matter of seconds

A group of people sitting on the floorDescription automatically generated with low confidenceIt’s in the nature of fashion that vanity should come tagging along. And nothing can be more vain than utter derision for both secondhand clothes and the people who wear them. Yes, once upon a time it was not so. But with globalisation, burgeoning middle classes and fast fashion, people not just took pride in brand new clothes butalso forgot to give clothes a second lease of life.

However, tides are a turning. According to ThredUp, an online consignment and thrift store where people can buy and sell high-quality secondhand clothes, the US secondhand market is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77 billion. The 2021 Resale Report reveals new insights on tailwinds propellingresale in the pandemic recovery, and asserts that the resale sector grew during thepandemic and is projected to accelerate in the recovery. Secondhand is now a $36 billion market, and resale is expected to grow 11 times faster than retail clothing over the next five years. Assigning numbers to the lockdown year, the report says 33 million consumers bought secondhand apparel for the first time during the year in the US, and 76 per cent of those first-time buyers plan to increase their spend on secondhand in the next five years.

And it’s not just the US. A recent report from Carousell, one of Southeast Asia’s most popular secondhand marketplaces, Hong Kong’s millennials are purchasing secondhand as part of their sustainability efforts. The marketplace’s study, which defined millennials as users below the age of 35, pointed out that this generation was using the platform as part of their sustainable lifestyle. In Hong Kong, an overwhelming 93 per cent of millennials said they were purchasing secondhand onthe app because they felt that it was the more sustainable choice.

Even during the pandemic itself, industry leader Levi’s understood the growing popularity of thrift, vintage and consignments and made the big move. In October 2020, Levi’s announced a move to extend the lifespan of its jeans with the launch of Levi’s SecondHand, a buy-back programme for customers to purchase secondhand jeans and jackets on while also giving customers the opportunity to turn in their worn jeans and jackets in Levi’s stores for a gift card towards a future purchase.

The deal was simple. Resellers would receive between $15 and $25 in store credit for their old Levi’s jeans, and quality would determine the price. The platform would then relist the garments for between $30 and $100 for shoppers to purchase. For pairs too well-worn to be resold, Levi’s would offer $5 credit for a future purchase and recycle the unusable pair of jeans with its Sweden-based sustainable partner Re:newcell. Levi’s partnered with Trove to handle the backend operations of theresale platform including cleaning, inventory processing, and fulfillment. Trove, a re-commerce technology and logistics startup, was already providing similar services to Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, REI and some others. For Levi’s, it was a continuation of its sustainability efforts. A few months earlier, it had launched a sustainable jeans developed in partnership with Re:newcell. The jean was made with 60 per cent organic cotton and Circulose, Re:newcell’s breakthrough material that includes 20 per cent recycled denim and 20 per cent sustainably sourced viscose.

Levi’s also threw up numbers. According to Jennifer Sey, chief marketing officer of the brand, buying Levi’s jeans through Second Hand would not only help save around 80 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, but also 700 gram waste when compared to purchasing a new pair of jeans from the brand. The company was already testing how rentals worked on the ground. In August, Levi’s joined hands with Ganni for a denim rental collection, a three-piece women’s capsule collection that included garments made with upcycled vintage Levi’s and repurposed denim. It is no surprise, thus, that there is also a new term to go by these days: Resaleas- a-Service (RaaS), and there has been a flurry of activities on this count in 2021.

In July, ThredUp Inc entered into an agreement to acquire Remix Global AD,one of Europe’s leading fashion resale companies. This is in line with the company's plans for Europe where the secondhand market was estimated to be $21 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $39 billion in another four years. ThredUP has already inked RaaS deals with Vera Bradley, Farfetch, LG and Madewell. Later in the month, ThredUp announced a public offering.

Earlier, in February, Reflaunt secured $2.7 million in pre-Series A funding, led by the investment arm of MadaLuxe Group, a leading worldwide distributorof luxury fashion. The investment will enable Reflaunt to add top talent to itstechnology and business development teams as it executes its growth strategy andoffers a variety of resale models to more leading global brands. Others who have raised big monies include Lithuanian clothes and home goods marketplace Vinted,and Depop which was acquired for $1.62 billion by Etsy.

All this while people have been splurging on pre-owned garments. Till May this year, luxury resale site The RealReal reported to its investors, the total value of goods sold on the site was about $239 million, up 53 per cent from the sameperiod in 2019. “Our GMV (gross merchandise volume) growth rate quarter to date reflects the strong momentum we are experiencing coming out of COVID, highlighted by accelerating growth year over year versus the equivalent period in 2019. Encouraging early results in our neighbourhood stores, growing contributions from a return to in-home consignments and strong resale market trends are all contributing to our performance. As we build on our recent momentum, we remain laser focused on driving scale and operating efficiency gains as we march toward profitability,” Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of The Real Real, said.

Meanwhile, seconds—especially the online platforms—can have the same problem that ecommerce sites have always faced: that of sizing. Herein, fechfech companies have already started catching on. Israeli developer and creator of smartphone measurement solutions, MySize Inc, in June announced that it is developing an AI-driven sizing solution specifically for second-hand clothing retailers. The platform is designed to help online shoppers find their correct size in pre-owned apparel, and is intended to provide a full end-to-end solution for merchants to cut down on return rates.

The company sizes up the problem thus: “Many secondhand garment retailers offer items from a wide variety of brands, which use different measurements and sizing charts, leaving customers in the dark when it comes to a single table that they can reference to find their size. Additionally, vintage items are often based on sizing models which are no longer relevant in the fashion industry today. For example, a customer buying a size 8 from 20 years ago will likely receive an item that's sized differently than a modern-day size 8. With up to 40 per cent of online apparel returned, and poor fit cited as the most common reason, wrongly sized items cost retailers billions annually.”

MySize has found a role to play, as well as others. As the segment grows, it is likely to spawn a whole new sub-ecosystem of players who will provide ancillary

support to the seconds market segment. Sooner or later this will include traceability. Something along these lines is already in the market. New York startup Eon has started a service wherein brands can upload data about their products to its Connected Products platform, an IoT solution that tracks fashion items throughout their lifecycle. The platform gives each item a digital birth certificate which includes information about where and when it was made and what it’s made from. This segment is all set to see a lot of tech-play.

Wear and repair

The world of readymade garments and fast fashion has had one casualty that none talk about: the neighbourhood tailor, who has all but disappeared. An entire profession has been driven either inside humongous garmenting factories or left to salvaging the last remains of clothes of the less-privileged who cannot afford another set to wear. Vanity has had a role to play here too.

Once again, it is not just the case of fashion, but a problem with manufacturing across sectors. One cannot now keep using a phone if the battery runs out, and laptops become redundant after a point even if it remains sturdy otherwise. You got to keep buying stuff to keep living.

It is on this front that we are likely to see much traction and a lot of action as well. And, much of it has already started, though in other industries. Right to repair laws are coming soon in Great Britain, the European Union and in 14 of the United States. The right to repair rules in Britain are meant to tackle "built-in obsolescence" where manufacturers deliberately build appliances to break down after a certain period to encourage consumers to buy new ones. Manufacturers have a two-year window to make the necessary changes to abide by the new law, introduced in July. As of now, the legislation only covers dishwashers, washing machines and washerdryers, refrigeration appliances besides televisions and electronic displays. Some non-consumer products are also included like electric motors, retail refrigerators and light sources. Smartphones and laptops have been exempted, but could figure in the list as campaigns hot up.

Under new EU rules in effect since March 1, manufacturers will have to ensure parts are available for up to a decade; some will only be provided to professional repair companies to ensure they are installed correctly. New devices will have to come with repair manuals and be made in such a way that they can be dismantled using conventional tools when they really can't be fixed anymore, to improve recycling. The new legislation came into effect after the European Parliament voted in favour of establishing stronger “right to repair” rules, particularly to reduce electrical waste, which has been increasing due to greater manufacturing. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draft new regulations limiting device manufacturers’ ability to restrict independent repairs of their products. The new rules are aimed at banking, tech platforms, labour markets, internet service providers, and airlines—with the collective goal of increasing competition across the US economy. The decree came in the wake of the FTC's 54-page report to Congress that concluded “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

While all these new laws are meant for the US and European countries and confined to electronic/electrical goods, they are bound to have far-reaching effects in other countries, and soon spread to other sectors and industries too.

It’s, however, not that related laws for the clothing sector do not exist. In early 2020, the French parliament passed an anti-waste law to prohibit designer clothes and luxury goods firms from destroying unsold or returned products, and ensuring their reuse, recycling and redistribution. The country had already banned supermarkets from throwing away unsold foods and forced them to donate them to charities. The new law will come into effect from 2023. The backdrop to this had been a lot of bad press for big brands. The 2017–18 annual report of Burberry had revealed that the “cost of finished goods physically destroyed in the year was $37.8 million” up from $35.6 million for 2017. H&M, around the same time, was alleged to have burnt at least 60 tonnes of unworn apparel.

The repair aspect of the “extended clothing lifespan” is a tad different from that of rentals and seconds in that this could be driven by both legislation and activism.There’s no running away.

There have been initiatives and measures on repair, though those are too few and far between. Nevertheless, they work, and add to the sustainability quotient of brands.

A stellar example here is that of Nudie Jeans, for “every pair of Nudie Jeans comes with a promise of free repair.” As the brand says, “We don’t call our stores ‘Repair Shops’ for nothing. Just as important as selling jeans it is for us to repair what we once sold. Wash your jeans and hand them in at your closest Nudie Jeans Repair Shop. When they’re done you have a new version of your old favourite. Making your mark on your things adds value to them and make them worth caring for. The idea behind the Nudie Jeans Repair Shops is that they are hubs for our jeans to be repaired, resold as secondhand or even donated to the Nudie Jeans recycling programme.” In addition, there are the Repair Partners, who are fully equipped and do it for free as well. Then, there are repairs on wheels touring around the globe in the form of Mobile Repair Stations. If there are no Repair Shops closely or planned visits from the Mobile Repair Station, one can order a free of charge Repair Kit. In 2019, Nudie Jeans “repaired 63,281 pairs of jeans, which means we prolonged the life of 50,000 kg of clothes. That's an increase of 15 per cent up on 2018. If each person who repaired their jeans with us had decided to buy a new pair, the production of these jeans would demand 443,000 tons of water, an amount that would fill 177 Olympic swimming pools.”

Luxury fashion platform Farfetch in February joined hands with The Restory to power its luxury aftercare service, Farfetch Fix. The services will be provided directly by the latter, and is an outcome of the Positively Farfetch strategy, through which the company aims to become the “platform for good in luxury fashion.” Aftercare isto help customers extend the life of their purchases.

It’s not that the idea is a new-fangled one; it’s just that it has not taken off in a big way yet. There are already big brands and retailers who offer such services. In June 2018, when H&M reopened its flagship store in Paris, it was the first to permanently feature the company's “Take Care” service, which was launched as a pilot in Hamburg two months earlier. The “Take Care” service allows customers to repair their clothes in-store, buy garment-care products and get advice on how to take better care of their pieces. The H&M Take Care section on its website offers tips and hacks on how to repair, remake and refresh the clothes to make them last longer. Similarly, the Levi's Tailor Shop offers countless measures—from embroidering jackets to using laser technology for adding patterns and colours. It’sonly that not too many people were interested in doing so. Or, knew either. In 2014, American researchers had found that a significant gap existed in the amount of “common” clothes repair skills possessed by members of the baby boomer generation and millennials. Pamela Norum, a professor in the department of textile and apparel management in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences, found that there was a need for increased education on what once was considered common clothing maintenance knowledge.

Norum concluded: “Traditionally, these skills were learned in the home or in secondary school. With the increase of women in the labour force and the decrease in funding for family and consumer sciences (FACS) programmes, the opportunity to acquire such skills has diminished for young Americans. Existing FACS curriculum may want to tie in sewing/mending skills with sustainable consumption as a way of appealing to younger generations while providing the skills they need.” The pandemic has forced many realities, and 2021 is not 2014. Brands and retailers can earn revenues from rentals and seconds, but repair is a different ballgame. It is a follow-up service for garments, and needs to be offered as a perquisite and not as a paid-for ministration. This face is not a trickle, but once big players get started the floodgates will be opened.

Going around in circles

This brings us back to where we started. Debates and policies on the subject of a circular economy, or specifically in our case that of circular fashion, have been more insistent on getting end-consumer waste back into the system than spending more time on advocating the extension of product lifespans. This has led to a substantial chunk of industry heads believing that going circular is all fine as long as you get everything back and make the circle bigger by the

Such a misconception would belie the overarching principle of the sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #12: Sustainable Consumption And Production. Sustainability needs to be seen and understood as a consumption issue, not just as a set of hardcoded abilities and measures to get the raw materials back. Extending the lifespan of garments factored in as much.

Levi’s has started asking buyers to buy less. Not in as many words, but still. The new Levi’s brand spring campaign is urging people to “Buy Better, Wear Longer” — raising awareness and speaking to “our” shared responsibility on the environmental impacts of apparel production and consumption. “Ultimately, Levi’s denim is meant to be worn for generations, not seasons,” Jen Sey, brand president, said during the launch. “So, we are also using this campaign to encourage consumers to be more intentional about their apparel choices: to wear each item longer, for example, to buy Second-hand, or to use our in-store Tailor Shops to extend the life of their garments.”

There have been similar statements in the past, but a seasonal campaign by a leading brand carries the message far and wide. Nevertheless, there is so far nothing to indicate that rentals, seconds and repairs have become mainstream, leave alone become a watchword of life. Sure, that would be looking for something in the wrong place. The correct way would be to heed John Milton’s “The childhood shows the man/ As morning shows the day.” The morning is here.

This article was first published in the August 21 edition of the print magazine