The Sharing Economy Comes to Congress While Plastic Bags Leave New York

by |February 24, 2020

I’ve written more than a few times about the “sharing economy” and the cultural shift it represents as we progress toward sustainability. The underlying cultural change is that more and more people are interested in experiences rather than ownership. They want to get from place to place in a motor vehicle but don’t necessarily want to own it, insure it and maintain it. A ride-share will do fine. The clothing-borrowing company Rent the Runway rents designer clothing to women. Either for work-life, or a special occasion, this company lends, cleans and repairs clothing. It takes fashion, one of the most resource consumptive industries we have, and develops a new business model that allows women to wear but not own the latest fashions.

The right wing’s ceaseless quest to find fault or hypocrisy with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s family history, work history or lifestyle ran right into the sharing economy last week. In an appearance on the TV show The View, the Congresswoman appeared wearing what turned out to be a Rent the Runway designer dress. New York Post reporter Dean Balsamini observed in classic Post prose that:

“The lefty darling set tongues wagging when she donned a luxe designer dress for her Wednesday appearance on ‘The View.’ ‘Don’t you love it when an avowed SOCIALIST wears $580 dresses from Rickie Freeman? I mean, who doesn’t need a sequin leopard dress to be an effective Congresswoman?” snarked Conservative Erica Nurnberg in a tweet.’”

In response, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “Yep! I rent, borrow, and thrift my clothes. (It’s also environmentally sustainable!)” It turns out, that Rent the Runway had become a popular new addition to Capital Hill and was featured in a Washington Post story written by Jacqueline Alemany this past December. Alemany reported that:

“It’s the latest sign of the times in an evolving Congress: stacks of black garment bags, stuffed with blazers, gowns and dresses, deposited in piles at UPS drop-off spots on Capitol Hill. They contain the latest fashion choices for the women of Congress — members and staffers alike — who are increasingly turning to a popular online retailer to look on trend and polished while doing their demanding jobs. They are borrowing outfits — individually, or on an unlimited basis — from Rent the Runway, which allows women to efficiently rotate their wardrobes without breaking their budgets (while providing free shipping…[and] dry cleaning).”

The Washington Post story provides thoughtful insight on the company and its usefulness in the changing, somewhat less male-dominated professional setting in our nation’s capital. The story reminded me of the degree to which our changing technology and its impact on our culture pervade daily life. A company like Rent the Runway would not be possible without the internet, smartphones and inexpensive computing. This, in turn, has made sharing clothing easy and far less expensive than it might otherwise be. Alemany’s piece also notes the company’s claim that it utilizes “progressive workplace policies and saves more than 5 million pounds of total waste through recycling garment bags, plastic and hangers…”

What is in many ways most significant about this practice is that people are willing to wear clothing that was worn by someone else. The traditional idea of “used” clothing is that it was a “hand-me-down” that you wore because you couldn’t afford new clothing. Stylish, designer clothing was owned, not shared. Enhancing the status of rented clothing is a significant change in our culture of consumption. In environmental terms, Rent the Runway still consumes many resources. The clothing is shipped and must be dry cleaned. But of course, all clothing (one hopes!)  is cleaned after it is used a few times. Someday the shipping might be in electric vehicles powered by renewable energy, but for now, that is not the case. But there are significant savings in material and net energy use gained by reductions in the manufacturing of clothing.

I am focused on the cultural change represented by the sharing economy, because of the common belief that sustainability requires denial and sacrifice. What this company demonstrates is that with creativity and a well-executed business model, a less resource consumptive practice can result in a more exciting and convenient-to-access wardrobe. We saw the same phenomenon with the shift from video discs to streaming video. Same product; less physical production. I believe it is very important to demonstrate that economic growth and additions to the GDP can be achieved without using more material resources.

In addition to sharing, we can also adopt practices or make products that use fewer nonrenewable resources. Here in New York, we are less than a week away from a partial ban on the use of one-way plastic bags. According to Christina Knight, writing on the Inside Thirteen website:

New York State is not banning the purchase of bags like garbage can liners, sandwich bags, and whatever you might want to pick up after a dog. The State act that goes into effect March 1 prohibits the stores that collect New York State sales tax from packing items “to-go” in a single-use plastic bag. Your corner deli can sell you boxes of garbage bags and freezer bags, but can’t give you a plastic bag to carry them away in. Here are notable exceptions: In places you purchase food, bags can be used for items from bulk containers, for raw meat and seafood and other unwrapped food (like deli counter cold-cuts), flowers or plants.  Restaurants and eateries that offer take-out can still pack meals in plastic bags, whether for delivery or pick-up. Laundry services and dry cleaners can continue using plastic to protect garments. Newspapers may still be wrapped in plastic to protect them from outdoor elements. Bags provided by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs are still permissible.”

In the New York Post last week, Lisa Fickenscher reported that early enforcement of the ban would be quite lenient as retailers and customers adjusted to the ban. The elimination of these bags will change behavior and add a new thought process to buying and selling. More people will carry reusable bags with them to stores or carry items in backpacks and while New Yorkers will certainly complain (we are, after all, New Yorkers), the small inconvenience will soon be forgotten. Hopefully, the complaining will be replaced by the practice of thinking about what you will use to carry the item home in. I would also expect that retailers will make some extra money when they sell re-usable bags. Remember, they didn’t charge for the plastic bags and most will charge for bags made of more durable materials.

Both clothing rental and plastic bag bans are small steps on the long road to sustainable cities and a circular, less environmentally destructive economy. The shift will take several generations to complete and the transition will not be easy or simple. There are several fundamental facts that will influence this process. First, people in the developed world like their lifestyles and want to retain them. Second, the planet’s air, water and land resources must be protected for our species to survive. Third, our investments in infrastructure and agriculture are threatened by climate change and must be protected by mitigating climate change and adapting to its impact. Finally, our success depends on human ingenuity, new technology and the development of creative business and public policy practices like the sharing economy and the plastic bag ban.

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