GenZ Prefers Renting Clothes Over Buying Them to Reduce Consumption, Study States


Aug 13, 2021


Image Credit: Getty Images

That GenZ is purportedly more concerned about sustainability in their lifestyle choices is no secret. If the meteoric rise of thrift shopping is anything to go by, GenZ has been known to make innovative use of social media platforms to promote more sustainable and/or low consumption practices. But while thrift shopping has its share of critiques about not actually reducing consumption, appropriating from and reducing choices for the poor, and being more of a social media trend, a new study has shown that renting clothes is gaining popularity among GenZ adults — throwing more weight to the idea that GenZ’s investment in sustainability might actually be more meaningful than detractors give them credit for. 

A new US based study published in Sustainability employed theories of planned behaviour (TPB), or the intention behind behaviour derived from various motivational factors, to survey around 350 participants born between 1997 and 2002. They were studied for their scores on various factors of TPB like attitudes, norms, perceived consumer effectiveness, past environmental behavior, and fashion leadership to analyze why GenZ is starting to favour a “collaborative clothing consumption” approach. The results of the study showed that GenZ adults are increasingly leaning towards renting, rather than owning clothes — and this is based on a focus on usage rather than ownership in their consumption practices. 

“The idea is growing more popular, especially among Gen Z consumers… They are very interested in sustainable consumerism, care about the environment, and are willing to make changes to help the planet,” said Ting Chi, an author of the paper and researcher from Washington State University. 

The primary motivation for renting clothes is to reduce overconsumption, the study shows. Collaborative consumption is different from its more popular cousin, thrifting, in that the focus is not on buying an article of clothing and adding to the volume of one’s wardrobe, but rather on being fashionable through renting, as it enables more people to share a wider variety of choices while maintaining a net lower consumption rate. 

While the study only includes participants from the United States, the idea of shifting consumption from an ownership-oriented model to a usage-oriented one is worth considering on a larger scale. In many cultures and contexts, sharing clothes is not new. But with the proliferation of the fast fashion industry all over the world, buying and owning have become a marker of aspiration and status mobility in contexts where earlier consumption practices were more sustainable. Looking at the response of the youngest generation facing existential climate threats is a barometer of how unsustainable the current culture of consumption is. 

In India too, renting is gaining more popularity as a more flexible, relatively more affordable fashion lifestyle, and millennials are a part of it too. But urban Indian zoomers in particular have adopted sustainable fashion for its uniqueness and for relatability, rather than for aspiration like with millennials. 

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Here is where the present study holds relevance beyond its US-based demographic. The need for uniqueness (NFU) was a factor that was studied alongside others such as environmental knowledge (EK), materialism (M), and others. Participants scoring high on EK and NFU meant that renting emerged as a consumption practice that bridged the need for unique styles that define one’s personality, but in a flexible manner without the burden of ownership and environmental costs. Materialism, on the other hand, negatively influenced GenZ’s consumption patterns — in other words, they are not motivated by materialism, or the desire to own more things as a status symbol. 

Moreover, greater economic instability fuelled further by the pandemic and rising expenses on all fronts may be an influencing factor. 

“The price of college degrees, housing, rent, and other necessary commodities were already becoming increasingly expensive, but now Gen Z must prepare for an entirely new economy to emerge after the pandemic,” the study notes. This resonates in the Indian context too — with increased privatization and rising costs of living, young urban Indians, despite their already enormous privilege on many fronts, are struggling to find a foothold as they reach adulthood during this particular moment. 

In addition, GenZ is also more experimental and creative in their fashion choices. The idea of renting clothes and keeping a moving wardrobe of styles therefore marries the need to be more economical in consumption, and the inclination towards more unique self expression. 

“They’re more focused on usage… That increases a product’s lifecycle if it is worn by different people. It also reduces waste while still meeting consumer needs for variety,” added Chi.

But above everything else, the most important factor that made usage rather than ownership of clothing most appealing to GenZ was the perception of being able to make a difference, according to the researchers. As a result, GenZ consumers are more adaptive to changes than most other generations. 

“They feel positively towards apparel rental services when they are educated on the sustainable benefits of using these services, perceive their contribution to environmental protection, and feel that it can satisfy their desire to try something new, be ahead of trends, and be unique,” the study concluded. 

The idea of renting rather than owning clothes also drifts further away from the thrifting trend, which has rightfully been accused of gentrifying the clothing industry and making it more inaccessible for the poor. It may be too early to conclude, however, whether a focus on renting and usage will actually be more sustainable for everyone, or whether it will fall into the same trappings of individual moral satisfaction over collective gain much like thrifting has. 

In India too, there is an additional class and caste element that may reserve the renting economy for the relatively more privileged rather than meaningfully promoting a sharing economy for everyone across social spheres. But the intention of sustainability rooted in the unique behavioural motivators of GenZ is in itself worth studying — and its implications on a broader social level remain to be seen.


Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.


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