How Rent the Runway's 'Closet in the Cloud' Is Changing the Face of Sustainability

CEO Jenn Hyman thinks ethical fashion consumers can have their cake and eat it, too.
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It's an accepted fact that a more ethical fashion industry — i.e. one that doesn't damage the planet, or does so significantly less — is going to require a massive change in consumer behavior. And while many sustainable fashion advocates lean heavily on the idea that consumers need to buy less, as well as choose timeless, trend-immune pieces when they do buy, Rent the Runway CEO Jenn Hyman has a different idea.

"We're encouraging people to rent inventory that they never would think about buying — things that are printed and trendy and colorful and completely of-the-moment," Hyman explains to Fashionista via phone. "Things that people want to wear on rotation, but you don't actually want to be stuck with in your closet."

It's this idea that has led Rent the Runway to launch a new lower-priced subscription option, which allows users to select four designer pieces that they keep for a month at a time. Unlike RTR's premium unlimited offering, which costs over $100 per month, the new option clocks in at $89. Add to that the fact that one-time rentals can start as low as $30 — making it an appealing option even for consumers whose normal fare is Target or Zara — and you have a formula that Hyman hopes can reach more women than ever with the ability to wear their favorite trends without feeding into the wasteful lifecycle of most clothing.

"85 percent of the current American closet is sitting there not utilized and then things end up in landfills," Hyman says. "But our subscription customers have reported that they are shopping 68 percent less. We've really seen consumer behavior change. Our customer's closet is going into the cloud and she's comfortable with her wardrobe being on rotation."

Whether the Rent the Runway customer is primarily concerned with the environment or just keeping her closet free of unnecessary clutter, Hyman and her colleagues are serious about the former. RTR has developed and patented reusable garment bags that Hyman estimates have saved hundreds of thousands of pounds of cardboard boxes from ending up in landfills. Plus, the company uses "100 percent green" dry cleaning and encourages customers to send any plastics their inventory is packaged in back to RTR for recycling.

"Basically everything in our business was designed around the concept of sustainability," Hyman says. By making rentable fashion a more affordable option, she's hopeful that the vision will continue to spread.

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