Are we ready for the Airbnb of clothing?

It could be only a matter of time before we're leasing everything from jeans to ball gowns

If you are a young woman or teenage girl, or you share your home with one, you may be used to the arrival of packages of clothes on your doorstep at random points during the day. You may also be familiar with how dresses, jumpsuits, tops and skirts are sometimes widely shared between groups of friends for special occasions.

It seems almost that the phenomenon of online clothes shopping has spawned a new, looser approach to owning clothes than existed before.

But, according to design researcher Rebecca Earley, online sales of new clothes is only the start of a fashion phenomenon that will see more people buying second-hand and vintage clothes online and leasing everything from jeans to ball gowns, some of which will be made from new materials created from recycled clothing.

Earley, who divides her time between researching new fabrics in Sweden and lecturing students at the University of Arts in London, will speak about “The Power of Less: How a new economy can change how we think about sustainability” at the Galway International Arts Festival on July 22nd.


An expert in sustainable fashion and the circular economy (where secondary materials are recycled back into the manufacturing process), she believes that the fashion industry’s interest in creating new materials from used clothing is growing fast.

Growth in engagement

“We’re seeing a growth in engagement and activities with companies like M&S and the C&A Foundation making environmental commitments,” says Earley, who is also a judge for the Global Change Award, a competition set up by the H&M Foundation to fund eco-material projects in the fashion industry.

Earley asks her PhD design students at the University of Arts in London to consider a set of questions before they create new designs.

These include: What will change for the better? Where have these materials come from? How have they been processed and manufactured into fabric? Whose hands were a part of this process and how were those people treated? When the user washes, dries, irons or repairs the product, what impacts are created? When the user no longer wants the product, will it become redundant or will someone else use it?

Sustainable-design students are then encouraged to design new fabrics and textiles to minimise waste, water and chemical impact; to increase recyclability, to reduce the need to consume and to support and value workers’ rights and fair trade materials.

Earley says an emphasis on recycling fabrics and creating new materials is currently driving change in the fashion industry. “It’s all about the scarcity of oil, which is putting up the price of materials.”

So, as material costs go up and people’s desire for an ever-changing wardrobe of clothes remains high, something must give. This is where the circular economy can play its part, according to Earley. “H&M has been collecting back polyester and breaking it down to get a new fibre without losing out on quality. There is also great potential to change the way we make fleece to reduce the microfibre pollution in the seas,” she explains.

But Earley says consumers need to catch up. “Getting back enough supplies from customers is still a problem due to people hoarding clothes,” she says.

She also suggests that, for the circular economy to really take hold, people will need to get “newness” from other systems and services rather than from the traditional cradle-to-the-grave approach, or linear manufacturing system where everything is thrown out in the end.

Leases rather than sells

And, this is where new enterprises such as the Dutch denim brand Mud Jeans, which leases rather than sells jeans, come into play.

“Mud Jeans has done a huge job in showing us what’s possible. But also second-hand websites and apps allow people register their size, brand preferences and price range so that they can select items and have four weeks to decide what to keep and what to return.”

The EU-funded Trash2Cash initiative ( is another example of the circular economy in action. Designers, design researchers, scientists, raw-material suppliers and product manufacturers from across Europe have come together to recycle paper and textiles into fabrics that are the same quality as new materials. The long-term aim is to produce a new range of eco-fibres that can be used in fashion, interiors and luxury goods.

Ultimately, Rebecca Earley believes it’s time for the Airbnb of wardrobes. “If you think about how Airbnb has allowed people to travel more and experience more diversity by staying in people’s houses rather than booking accommodation with a travel agent. It’s something that’s cheaper and more interesting for the user. Well, the same could work for fashion. You get to experience rather than buy the clothes you want. It also offers more choice with less resources, which creates sustainability in the fashion industry too.”

The Power of Less: How a New Economy Can Change How We Think About Sustainability is the title of Prof Rebecca Earley's talk at 10am on Saturday, July 22th in the Bailey Allen Hall, NUI Galway. It is part of the First Thought Talks 2017 which features conversations on power with academics, activists, architects, artists and authors. Tickets are €10. Booking on See also