What began as a call for "conscious consumption" by a few idealists is evolving into a global movement to change the clothes we wear every day.

H&M, Sweden's premier apparel outlet, has 4,500 stores in 62 countries. It has worked with stars from Beyonce and Naomi Campbell to Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld. 

Now it is experimenting with a new business model: renting clothing instead of selling.

It’s the latest in the 21st century trend of trading ownership for renting, a revolution that has already swept through automobiles, homes, work spaces and even pets.

H&M debuted its new rental program at its flagship Stockholm store late last year. For 350 Swedish kronor — about $36 USD — per item, members of H&M's customer loyalty program can rent up to three pieces from its Conscious Collection, the chain’s high-end offering of dresses, suits and jackets made of recycled fabrics. If you’re buying, the pieces can cost more than $300 each.

Known as one of the world’s biggest purveyors of fast fashion, H&M has come under criticism in the past for making use of cheap labor and for manufacturing garments that have a significant carbon and environmental footprint.

It’s a huge problem. According to the World Resources Institute, polyester production alone created annual carbon emissions of 1.5 trillion pounds in 2015, the equivalent of 185 coal-fired power plants. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution around the world is due to garment manufacturing. 

H&M has pledged to become 100 percent carbon positive by 2040 and is hoping its new rental program will be a giant step in that direction. The company already mandates recycled fabrics for many of their trendy clothes, and their Garment Collecting Program offers a discount to customers who donate articles of clothing for recycling.

H&M is not entirely breaking new ground here. Other retailers, such as Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic, already offer rental options. But what H&M offers as a global company with more than $30 billion in annual sales is scale. 

And some argue that clothing rental programs are a way to just kick the can down the road if fast fashion retailers are not making other changes within their larger supply chain.

But if a new generation of clothes-minded consumers are open-minded to wearing rented clothing, H&M’s program could be a big step in the right direction.

Published on Jan 30, 2020