Renting an Identity: Experts Warn of ‘Addictive, Exploitative’ Side of Fashion Sharing Economy

A woman contemplates her reflection in the mirror. Shutterstock.com

Imagine you’re on a yacht with your friends wearing the latest Jimmy Choo handbag, your red bottom shoes and a cute little dress by Moschino, partying the night away eating food prepared by a personal chef. Well, what if you could do it all for a fraction of what it would cost to own it all? Thousands and thousands less? It’s now entirely possible, thanks to the advent of the sharing economy. But experts warn behind the facade of shiny, designer goods lurks a darker, more troubling side for young women chasing an unattainable lifestyle.

Experiencing a lifestyle you otherwise could not afford, say economists and entrepreneurs, is the thrill of the sharing economy. Still in its infancy, economists at Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimate it is currently worth $15 billion, but in 10 years time, that’s set to rise to $335 billion. Crucially, that would put it on par with the traditional buying market. Based on their predictions, the sharing economy is set to change the very nature of how we use and buy things forever.

From getting a loan for a startup, to using the wifi in someone else’s home or staying in their apartment for the weekend, the sharing economy is branching out into almost every avenue possible.

“There is almost no limit,” says Michael Munger, a professor and the director of the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University. Munger, who has been researching and writing about the growth of the sharing marketplace, says there is one simple principle at its heart: “The sharing economy encourages more intensive use of existing resources. Almost anything might be sold, or rented. And that’s what the sharing economy really is. It’s selling reductions in transaction costs, not selling products.”

It uses modern techniques, but also relies on concepts going back thousands of years in terms of the way humans have traded. Dr Munger says three things are crucial for the sharing economy to flourish: “Information, trust, and transaction. People have to find each other, be able to trust each other, and to make a financial exchange that is cheap and reliable.”

The potential is so great that hedge funds and investment banks have already started pumping millions of dollars into new companies based on the sharing economy and bolstering existing ones. The UK government has invested $60 million into a peer-to-peer money lending scheme that connects small scale savers with small scale businesses. Goldman Sachs investment bank and the Blackrock investment management firm have both invested in several start ups.

It’s clear that both users and businesses are excited by what this new culture of sharing rather than owning can bring—and the world of fashion is no exception.

In Silicon Valley, of all places, the merging of the sharing economy and the fashion industry is being forged. With the backing of influential seed funding company Y Combinator and others, former model Lona Duncan set up Style Lend in San Francisco. Essentially, the app-based business allows women to share their closets with others who want to rent a middle-to-high-end item for a fraction of the retail price. Style Lend takes an up to 20 percent cut of the rental transaction, while women who rent out more expensive items can make $300 a month from clothing that would otherwise be sitting unworn in their closets.

“Women love the idea,” says Tania Arrayales, chief marketing officer at Style Lend. “It’s democratizing the fashion world by opening it up for all women.” She says that firms facilitating clothes sharing, like Style Lend, Posh Mark and Rent The Runway, are “thriving” as “millennials don’t want to own things.” They allow you access to a whole new wardrobe in a transaction that be completed using a smartphone on the bus ride home or on your lunch break. It’s an innovative way for a new, tech-savvy generation to do business. Arrayales says that such peer-to-peer marketplaces are making those seemingly out of reach luxury designers “more attainable.”

Today, a twenty-something can have that sought-after Balenciaga bag for a weekend or that must-have Model Behaviour dress for the week, all for under $150.

Mariam Ezzat is a 24-year-old recruitment consultant working in London. She says websites that allow her to rent fashion must-haves are a “revelation.” “The best thing about it is how quickly you can get the dress or jewelry you want to rent,” she says.

“At first I thought it was a bit odd paying to borrow someone else’s clothes, but it’s not like that. The things I’ve rented I just can’t afford on my current salary. I use it a lot more than I thought I would and just love that I wear amazing things and just hire a new one for every occasion.”

But critics are beginning to worry that when it comes to the sharing economy and fashion, the effects on the consumer is much more troubling than simply renting someone’s apartment for the night. Fashion for hire, it seems, is different.  

Steven Taylor, a professor of psychology at Leeds Beckett University, is one person who is highly dubious about the end result of luxury brand hire businesses.

The danger is that due to its short-lived thrill can be quite addictive, like taking a drug,” Taylor says.

“If you have a expensive designer good, it can only give you a short term thrill, making you feel like a significant person with a high status. As soon as it’s taken away, you’re back to being just normal and this has an intense deflating effect. The high fades away so quickly you have get it back again.”

Taylor explains that the clothes we choose to wear are our way of telling the world who we are and where we fit into it. By renting designer labels, we are signifying all sorts of things about our lives and socio-economic backgrounds, and giving this up can make us less happy. Taylor says younger women are far more susceptible to this trap than older women, who tend to be more secure in their identity.

“The fashion industry is based on telling people to buy things that are not really necessary and people are encouraged to believe that they become somebody by buying and owning particular things. A lot of this is capitalizing on the instinct of humans to want to feel special, which is a basic need,” he says.

The team at Style Lend are not naive about the potential danger to younger women. Arrayales  says she hopes that the company isn’t encouraging addictive behavior. “Addictive is such a strong word. What we do want is for women to fall in love with our clothes and come back to Style Lend.”

Yet, she adds: “Once you try on designer, chances are you’re hooked.”

Mariam Ezzat admits that she now does rely on renting dresses more than ever before. “Who doesn’t want nice things? Now that I’ve gone to a few parties with nice pieces, people expect me to continue looking like that. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever got into debt for it, no… but I would prioritize getting the right outfit a lot more.”

That’s where the addictive behavior can kick in, says Duke University’s Taylor. He disagrees with the view that these sharing websites are bringing the unattainable closer to the women who covet them.

“They are infecting people with elitism,” he says. “They are just perpetuating and encouraging what I think is a negative impulse to gain identity through possessions in order to feel special.”

But from the perspective of these sharing marketplaces, they are at the forefront of the changing landscape of the intrinsic desire of seeing it, then needing it.

Anna Bance is the co-founder of Girl Meets Dress, a website that has recently expanded from the UK to Europe after starting up just six years ago. Bance says the idea for buying luxury dresses and accessories to hire out came to her while working for fashion house Hermès. “Celebrities have always borrowed dresses for special events, and I noticed that with the proliferation of social media, everyone is now a mini-celebrity in their own world,” she says.

Bance saw a lucrative gap in the market and decided to build her own business around it. It has been going from strength to strength, and now has millions of users. Bance believes that women no longer want to own things in a traditional sense but would rather “experience” it and move on, a fundamental characteristic of consumers in the sharing marketplace. There’s also the “increasing social pressure to a women’s inherent desire not to wear the same dress twice,” she says.

The model may be new, but the consumer culture it promotes is the same.

The world of fashion has always had to contend with those who say it promotes a vicious cycle of spending. Through advertising, fashion and glossy magazines, women are sold an image that is wholly unachievable, leaving them feeling disconnected from their bodies and disheartened. Many then feel the need to buy their way to attaining this ideal image of femininity. It’s then that the fashion and beauty industry is best placed to sell them everything they need to get it.  

Psychologist Tim Kasser has done extensive research into materialism and how people interact with consumer culture. He is concerned that, in essence, these fashion sharing companies are attracting young women in order to rent them a “better” identity.

“These businesses reinforce and encourage a value system which is focused on image, money and status. If these are being encouraged, then that is going to increase the likelihood of people to prioritize these values which is not so good for their well being,” he says.

Kasser says that dozens of studies show there are downsides to being too reliant on the things you own when building your identity and status.

The more people prioritize what others can see above who they truly are, the more “these individuals report that they are less satisfied with life. That they’re less happy, that they are more depressed and anxious. They tend to use more substances like cigarettes and alcohol. They tend to compulsively consume at higher rates and tend to be overall less vital.”

Taylor also makes the point that young women are particularly vulnerable to these pressures because adolescence is a difficult time to navigate. “At that time of life,” he says, “there’s a lack of identity, a sense of insecurity for lots of young women.”

These business are exploiting girls’ need to feel significant and have higher status.”

Yet the increasingly popular option to “rent an identity” is simply business as usual for these firms, complicit in a system that tells young women to buy their way to happiness. “On one level I would agree that it is democratizing expensive things,” says Kasser, “but people who aren’t rich will continue to buy and rent those items and eventually the wealthy will move onto another item because they don’t want to be with the common folk.”