The fashion industry is a big culprit when it comes to sustainability. 114 billion items of clothing were sold in 2019. More than 70% ends up in landfill or incinerators. About 8% of global greenhouse gases are emitted each year by the apparel and footwear industries. And, as for a figure everyone can probably relate to, on average, we don’t wear 30% of what we own.
Social fashion rental app, By Rotation, wants to change that.
Founder Eshita Kabra-Davies refers to the platform as the Airbnb of contemporary and designer fashion, through which users can lend and rent items of clothing and accessories from each other. It takes the US-led concept of fashion rental – dominated by Rent the Runway – to another level: making it peer-to-peer and grounding it in technology.
“The business is a tech company at the end of the day,” Kabra-Davies explains. It means By Rotation has been able to form a community just like any other social network; it means it places a value on endlessly analysing the data to aid its continuous improvement; and it means it’s attracting interest from investors and fashion houses, many of which have lost interest in other fashion rental propositions.
Monetise your outfits, make new friends, save the planet
By Rotation was inspired by Kabra-Davies’ honeymoon to her motherland, Rajasthan, where she saw the volume of textile waste littering the streets hadn’t changed in the 13 or 14 years since she’d last been back. 90% of what we donate to charity shops ends up being sent to somewhere in Asia, she says.
Combined with her love of shopping (she grew up in Singapore “where shopping is the national hobby”) and her childhood interest in web development, the sharing app seemed to her like a pragmatic solution. “I felt this was a great way to tackle the issues as an average consumer. Not waiting for the fashion brands to change themselves, because I’m not sure when they will,” she said, adding that there is still very little regulation incentivising the industry to change.
After six months of building and rigorously testing the platform alongside her day job in financial services, Kabra-Davies made the start-up her full-time focus – just six months before the pandemic struck. But despite the lockdowns, fewer special occasions to tempt people to rent higher value clothes, and a more hands-off approach to marketing for sensitivity’s sake, the platform already has 60,000 users under its belt. Revenues have taken off – up eightfold so far this year. And publicity around Carrie Johnson’s rented wedding dress (from an alternative platform), alongside the reopening of the economy, will likely provide another boost.
But how much do users care about sustainability?
“Sustainability is one of our core values as a start up,” says Kabra-Davies, “whereas users normally come to us for the affordability part of the equation. But being stuck at home is making people more conscious consumers. Where some people are trying it out for occasions, others are using their profiles to highlight that they’re trying to make it a normal part of everyday consumption.”
By Rotation also tries to promote this behaviour, educating its users at the rental checkout screen with a personalised impact scale – a feature that shows the positive savings they are making by renting an item, not just in terms of cost, but in saving waste too.
Kabra-Davies doesn’t want to stop there. “We want to transform how fashion is consumed. There are just so many stores, so many brands, so many ecommerce websites – any of them could very easily come up with rental platforms, yet very few are promoting sustainability. They’re still telling you to buy new products.
“We want rental to rank in there with resale, which has seen an incredible resurgence. People can share and still enjoy that feeling of having something new and different to wear.”
More than 70 fashion brands have taken the leap onto the app to rent out items directly – including Ghost and Paul Costello, as well as up-and-coming designers wanting to test out the market and get feedback on their designs before launch. Celebrities and influencers have got on board, and the fashion press has rooted for its success.
It’s Kabra-Davies’ vision to take By Rotation global, starting at the end of this year – or early next. But she adds that the UK has been a great place to launch. Not just because of the ease with which she was able to network with tech-focused venture capitalists, at least before lockdown. It’s also because the Brits are among the worst offenders when it comes to fast fashion – consuming four times as much as their European counterparts.
Is that enough to make you stop and think next time you make a purchase? Although she challenges government to act, arguing that regulation would drive faster change, Kabra-Davies hopes that by empowering the average consumer, it helps create the trickle of demand that could eventually prompt the fashion industry to commit to the race to net zero.