Hello everybody! Now we have talked about fast fashion, in general, many times, like in this impact analysis. We have also often highlighted the blatant greenwashing that is happening within the fast fashion industry from brands like H&M, Zara, NA-KD, etc, if you have followed this channel for a hot second, you will know my stance on fast fashion at this point. However, in light of recent findings, I want to talk about a brand that is so wildly unethical that it makes the rest of the industry look like hippies. Seriously. I want to dedicate an entire post to Shein, and why Shein is the absolute worst of the bunch. If you have been online for more than 5 minutes, it is very likely that you have seen a Shein ad, collab, or shoutout. So, let’s break down why this company is especially awful, and why, if you cannot cut out fast fashion completely, you should at least avoid this brand in particular.
What is Shein? Shein is owned by the parent company Zoetop, it was founded in 2008 by Chris Xu, and Shein describes itself as “an international B2C fast fashion e-commerce platform (that) focuses on women’s wear, but also offers men’s apparel, children’s clothes, accessories, shoes, bags, and other fashion items” and it upholds the philosophy that “everyone can enjoy the beauty of fashion.” The brand was valued at $100 billion (€91 bn) in April 2022, according to Bloomberg.
Shein has created a massive social media presence in a relatively short amount of time, but doubling down on trends, and relying exclusively on influencers and content creators to showcase their styles in Shein hauls – which typically involve showing a lot of clothes, pouring out dozens of bags, to show both the large variety and the easy accessibility of their products. Because, Shein has a lot of styles, and it is really cheap. One talking point that is being repeated over and over on social media is related to the affordability and accessibility of stylish clothing, that everybody can join in and feel trendy and fashionable even on a budget. The average item on Shein is priced around 8 USD.
Business model: Shein has zero transparency, I mean, to a laughable degree really, there is no information about where the clothes are distributed from in China, no addresses or people, manufacturers, or representatives. It is a privately owned company and as such, they don’t publish any information about its revenues. In 2020 Shein made nearly 10 billion USD and an estimated 20 billion USD in 2021. Just some more context, last year Shein added more than 314.000 new styles.
Labour / working conditions: a report from 2021, conducted by Public Eye gave a glimpse into Shein’s factories in China. Several employees from 17 factories, across six different cities, were found to have 75-hour weeks of work, 3 shifts per day and only getting one day off a month. For context, China’s labor laws specify a maximum work week of 40 hours. Moreover, workers at the Shein factories are “paid per item”. This means that workers don’t agree to a paycheck, but have to work harder and harder to get paid what they need to cover their basic needs. The “paid per item” strategy exploits workers by forcing them to continuously work harder and leaves no room for salary negotiation and that means this strategy makes it really easy for the company to exploit their workers.
Public Eye’s researcher, who visited several factories could also report that there were no emergency exits, and barred windows, although Shein has a “code of conduct” on their US website that states that they: “provide a safe, hygienic and healthy workplace environment” and that working hours should comply with local laws and regulations.” So Shein is simply just lying about the conditions in their factories.”
Production: Generally, fast fashion is known for extremely fast-paced supply chains, meaning that it takes a few weeks, to go from design idea to packaged product. Prior to Shein, Zara was the fastest-paced fast fashion brand, with a production cycle of 2-3 weeks, however, Shein is able to “design” products, produce them, package them, and distribute them in under 7 days. Shein reportedly adds over 2,000 new styles to its website every single day. Zara typically has 2,000 items over a 30-day period, for comparison. The Business of Fashion reports that Shein’s success is largely attributed to its tech-driven approach, using AI software that plugs trending styles from social media and across the internet directly into its computers on the factory floor. And yeah, it is definitely easier and faster to create styles when you’re just copy-pasting. There are countless examples of Shein stealing designs from other brands and small independent businesses, but assuming they cared about design integrity, when they don’t seem to care about their own workers is also a little farfetched I guess.
Shein products aren’t made in a couple of large factories, but instead, the brand relies on thousands of smaller suppliers that create small batches of clothes. It is reported sometimes 50-100 units of an item, which is rather uncommon in the fast fashion industry, which is usually known for massive loads of clothing being produced. It is also what we typically think of when we hear “overconsumption”. However, it is much easier to track and source supply chain issues like waste, abuse, exploitation, slavery, and pollution from big factories (not that fast fashion companies do that often, but it does happen that they improve issues, especially if it gets bad press), it becomes practically impossible if your supply chain consists of thousands of small supplier, as such, there is no way to source, trace or improve these issues, so when you buy Shein clothing you have no idea what you’re supporting.
The company has accelerated the “test and repeat” model, so they introduce thousands of items extremely quickly, but just 6% of their inventory is available for more than 90 days. (Public Eye, 2021).
Disposable clothing and overconsuming inclusivity: there are several reasons for the Shein price tags, and how they are able to keep the prices down. First of all, not paying workers fair wages and creating a toxic “pay per item” environment is one, not designing their own items is another, but quality also plays a huge factor here. The majority of the clothes offered by Shein are made from synthetic polyester fibers, or synthetic/cotton blends, materials that are extremely cheap to produce. And can you get good-quality polyester? Yes, but not for 9 bucks you can’t. One thing that I have noticed in my local thrift shops, as well as on online platforms like Depop is that millions of Shein clothes are being put up for sale, and the quality is through and through horrendous. Now that is my personal experience with the clothes, as I have never bought anything from Shein, but from what I can tell most consumers know that the quality is a gamble. But that doesn’t matter, because the clothes we so cheap. While other fast fashion brands are definitely doing this as well, Shein is taking the concept of disposables fashion to a new level; where it is easy for consumers to try new trendy, and perhaps risqué styles for specific events. There are of course a lot of cultural aspects to this, but with the rise of social media events like music festivals are becoming hot spots for trends and new fashion styles, like Coachella. Just one example, there are many others. However, it exemplifies the consumer mentality that we can buy outfits for an event only to never wear them again, and Shein makes that possible for everybody – I know very inclusive. Previously, this type of behavior was reserved for the wealthy, for celebrities, but has since then become an accessible lifestyle to everybody that wants to participate.
I have seen a lot of content creators defend their Shein collaboration, or purchases by pointing to the fact that Shein is simply making fashion accessible to everybody, and that everybody deserves to feel pretty, which sounds nice. But no one is entitled to overconsuming, no one is entitled to buying outfits to only wear once, it was wrong when celebs did, and it is obviously also wrong now. Why is this a problem? Well during just the last two decades the production of clothing has doubled, today more than 100 billion pieces of clothes are being produced worldwide, however, the average amount of times a piece of clothing is being worn has dropped by 36%.
I think it is a highly misunderstood concept that we as consumers are entitled to buy whole new outfits, and whole new wardrobes whenever we feel like it. I realize that the overall sustainable fashion industry has issues in terms of affordability and size inclusivity, but sustainable fashion is more than supporting a sustainable brand, it has to do with how long we wear out clothes, how we maintain them, wash them, what materials we choose, what styles we pick, and how long we can make them last. Sustainable fashion also means mending, buying second-hand, and swapping clothing. While there are some people who have more options than others, I don’t think Shein is the solution to that issue either, and while many creators brush off criticism by saying that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”, I think they fail to realize how consumers have agency to choose who they support, at least to a reasonable degree. This mentality is often used to remove all responsibility from ourselves and seems to work like a get-out-of-jail-free card for overconsumption, of course, there are more ethical and sustainable ways of living, capitalism or not. I honestly think it is lazy. I also think this type of reasoning piggyback rides on very real issues in the garment industry, like asymmetrical accessibility and sizing, but instead of actually addressing them they become an alibi for showcasing 700 dollars’ worth of sponsored Shein pieces that you’re probably never going to get much wear out of.
also check out: Eco Brands I Stand By // a list of sustainable fashion companies
I hope to see more accountability in this industry, and especially from a large platform like Shein, which so far has failed to address any of the issues in their supply chain, but a lot of this work also starts with consumers actually caring about it. So what we can do is buy less, only use what we need, we can be a tad more mindful of who we give our money to and what demand we are participating in. We can support organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign that fight for garment workers’ rights and we can stop supporting creators that encourage and celebrate overconsumption. Because frankly, resource waste is everybody’s business, and we’re all paying the price of those 700-dollar hauls.