Here at Rent the Runway, we believe shared access to fashion can help solve the retail industry’s excess problem, and together we can make it happen. When you rent your clothes on RTR vs. buying new, you’re contributing to a more sustainable future of fashion one outfit at a time. Go you!
In honor of Earth Day, we tapped RTR’s Sr. Director of Sustainability Megan Farrell to share how we’re working towards our long-term commitments to Mother Nature. Read the full Q&A below to hear more about what Megan does here at RTR, gain a better understanding of our sustainability goals and practices, discover what we’re doing right now(!) to take action and so much more.
(PS: if you want to learn even more, you can dive into our full Impact Strategy here!)
What does your job as Senior Director of Sustainability entail? What does your day-to-day look like?
Whether I’m partnering with my colleagues and external organizations to drive progress against our goals, or testing new ideas and approaches to solve whatever sustainability related challenges or opportunities exist — no one day is alike.
Two constants though are that I am almost always working cross-functionally throughout the business and that I’m always reading the latest news and topics related to sustainability. The sustainability landscape — including new science, technology and regulations — is constantly evolving, and it’s important to assess how these might impact your work, the business and broader industry.
Have you always been interested in sustainability?
I was very inspired by the then-recent election of President Obama in 2008 and his call to action to my millennial generation to think and act bigger for the benefit of your community and the greater good. I had been working a little bit post-undergrad at that point and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. With that inspiration, I started to explore various topics of interest and even those that scared me, like climate change. Rather than be paralyzed by my own concern or fear of the implications of climate change to our futures, I did what was not innate to me, and challenged myself to prioritize it in my professional career. It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey or linear career path, but it’s been incredibly rewarding to have the opportunity to shape corporate actions that drive meaningful change for the environment and society.
What led you to this role?
As someone who worked in the fashion sustainability space for many years, joining RTR was almost a full circle, pinch me moment. I have seen the power the business has to drive much needed change in fashion first-hand as a long-time customer, fan and advocate. Since I first started renting with RTR in 2012, I have fundamentally changed my relationship with clothing and how I dress myself — buying significantly less and renting much more thanks to the variety offered from the Closet in the Cloud. I couldn’t be more excited to help drive similar changes for our current and future customers.
“We may be the only company in fashion that tells customers to buy less and wear more and we are proud of that.”Megan Farrell, rtr sr. director of sustainability
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Driving positive change, no matter how big or small, is an incredibly rewarding and satisfying part of my job. Whether I’m brainstorming with employees on the personal changes they can make to reduce their environmental footprint, or coalition building with influential leaders in the fashion industry, I’m humbled to have the opportunity to create change that is so needed and tangible.
Something that is also extremely gratifying about my work is that it requires you to have a deep understanding of the business and industry you are working in. You really have to have knowledge and awareness of all the functions of the organization — whether that’s IT systems, finance, fashion operations or communications. The breadth and skillset this type of work requires feeds your curiosity and constantly keeps you on your toes and [feeling] challenged.
What sustainability efforts are you proudest of at RTR?
One of the things I’m most proud of, both as a customer and someone who now works here, is that this company started a cultural movement around clothing rental. Think back to a little over a decade ago and the fact that people were flatly not accepting of wearing rental or preloved clothes. But now 89% of our subscribers report buying less clothing than they did prior to joining our platform and 83% report buying less fast fashion since using RTR — acceptance of rental and preloved clothing matters. I’m also particularly proud of the findings from the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) we completed last year, which crystallized that every time a customer rents a garment from RTR (versus buying new) the result is net environmental savings across water, energy and GHG emissions.
Not sure there are many traditional retailers or fashion brands out there that are excited when they hear their customers are buying less clothes.
What kind of foundational work did RTR undertake in order to create the Impact Strategy?
Typically, my first step towards building out a sustainability strategy is building a robust factbase; fundamentally understanding where the environmental and social impacts and risks of the business [are], what data the business has to support this, and where potentially there are differentiating opportunities. As you can imagine, building a strong factbase can take many years to pull together and many companies struggle to have a basic understanding of what any of these things are.
When I walked into RTR, it was the exact opposite situation. The company had many years worth of strategic and thoughtful work related to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) — things like assessments and studies, an LCA of the business model, excellent customer and operational data related to long standing ESG programs, and a Scope 1 and Scope 2 footprint completed. These provided a strong foundation for launching our strategy and roadmap for future progress.
What did we learn about our business along the way that might be interesting or surprising?
There’s a lot of misconceptions or misinformation about the environmental impacts of a rental business model; that it could potentially be worse than buying and disposing of clothes in a typical linear consumption model. Understanding our environmental impacts was a focus for RTR, even in the midst of the global pandemic, and in 2020, the business commissioned a first-of-its-kind LCA of the rental business model to better understand the environmental impact of renting. The assessment was conducted in partnership with third-party consultants specializing in apparel LCAs and used RTR’s actual data. What was interesting from that study was that even when you factor in shipping product back and forth to customers and cleaning, on a per garment basis, rental has a smaller environmental footprint across water, energy and emissions compared to producing and purchasing new. I encourage everyone to read more about our LCA study here.
“The more that our garments are worn, the better our financial and environmental outcomes are.”Megan Farrell, rtr sr. director of sustainability
How is ESG (and sustainability practices in general) different for RTR, compared to other companies in the fashion space?
If you were to unpack existing ESG strategies and practices of traditional fashion retailers right now, you would generally find that they are focused on improvements via their existing business model. That doesn’t solve the central issue — that their business model, which relies on mass production and consumption of clothing, is fundamentally at odds with their sustainability ambitions. Their bottom line is dependent on producing and selling more items to customers, which contributes to significant negative environmental and social impacts.
RTR’s business model complements versus competes with our sustainability and financial goals. In other words, the more that our garments are worn, the better our financial and environmental outcomes are. We believe that shared access to fashion can curb the negative from its excess. We may be the only company in fashion that tells customers to buy less and wear more and we are proud of that.
What sets our efforts, goals & mindset apart from that of a fast fashion fashion retailer or brand?
Specifically our goal to displace the need for production of a half million new garments, that’s truly distinguishing and I don’t believe you see many, if any, goals like that out there right now (although I hope that will change in the future).
Displacement in general can be kind of a hard thing for someone to grasp, so I try to illustrate it in this way — The fashion industry produces approximately 150 billion clothes globally each year, a staggering number. Conversely, RTR is able to dress hundreds of thousands of customers every year from products in just two warehouses and we estimate that our shared closet has displaced the need for new production of approximately 1.3 million new garments since 2010.
What happens to our rental inventory once it’s no longer in condition to be rented via the Closet in the Cloud?
Unlike most fashion companies, we maintain our products through their use phase and believe that the lifecycle of products does not end with our operations. We recognize the importance of responsible end of life practices and as such, we resell, donate or recycle all products when they are no longer able to cycle through the Closet in the Cloud to approved third-party organizations. In total, as of June 2021, we estimate that approximately 1.1 million products weighing approximately 900,000 lbs have been either resold, donated or recycled and diverted from landfill. Responsible end of life practices for clothing is a blind spot of the fashion industry and we hope that our commitments and practices can inspire other businesses to join us.
As of February 1st 2022, 100% of carbon emissions are offset on shipments to and from customers. Can you explain what’s going on here in layman’s terms?
Simply put, we are purchasing certified carbon reductions to balance out the carbon emissions from shipping to and from customers. Certified carbon reductions can come from projects related to reforestation, renewable energy and much more. We also think that our offset program will serve as a helpful tool to innovate our transportation network for lower carbon solutions as we scale.
“We can’t begin to inspire and drive the level of change needed unless we’re first and foremost doing that work ourselves.”Megan Farrell, rtr sr. director of sustainability
Eliminating single use plastic packaging is top of mind for many renters — what future changes are in the works/are you most excited to see?
We are really excited about our goal to eliminate unnecessary single use plastic packaging by fiscal year end 2023, meaning that in the future, we plan to eliminate poly garment covers in our shipments.
While poly garment covers serve an important and necessary role in protecting our garments while at our warehouses and while in transit (particularly from liquids), we innovated our garment bags and our new ones are waterproof. As we start to roll out our new garment bags more broadly, we will be able to phase out these poly covers.
Until then, it’s important to note that we have and will continue to recycle 100% of all poly covers returned to our warehouse through our third party partner Trex, who in turn uses them for wood alternative decking. From 2017 through June 2021 approximately 408 tons have been recycled since through this program.
Tell us more about the *new* garment bags! What’s so exciting about the switch?
I can’t wait for more customers to get their hands on them, they are amazing! The team really went above and beyond in innovating something that was already iconic to something even better and more sustainable.
Specifically, these new garment bags don’t need to be washed anymore in between uses as we can wipe clean, meaning that this bag will reduce our water usage by 1.25 gallons per bag as compared to the current garment bag.
What felt most important to you personally to touch upon in our broader goals?
All of them feel important to me. There’s so much change that’s needed in this world, both from an environmental and social perspective. We can’t begin to inspire and drive the level of change needed unless we’re first and foremost doing that work ourselves, which is why I’m so proud of the goals we have set across both our business ambitions to drive specific and measurable progress in many key areas over the next five years.
How will we communicate updates on our progress towards each goal going forward?
We take our Impact Strategy and driving progress against our goals seriously and because of that, we plan to communicate progress towards our goals on an annual basis in our Form 10-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. We also plan to supplement this core reporting with stories related to our progress so stay tuned.