Shein and the underbelly of fast fashion

Now the largest online-only fashion brand globally, Shein (she-in) is ubiquitous with the term fast-fashion – inexpensive clothing produced en masse in response to the latest trends. With most items selling for under $15.00, they sell some of the most affordable clothing out there in over 220 countries. In 2020 they became the most talked-about brand across the internet, ranking number one on both YouTube and TikTok and in the top five on Instagram. But not all the talk has been positive. If you Google the prompt “Is Shein…”, the top results are “a scam,” “legit,” “reliable,” and “ethical.” You wondered, and so did we, so let’s take a look together.

What is Shein?

The company launched in China in 2008, initially selling wedding dresses and men’s clothing. Nowadays, Shein describes themselves as “…an international B2C fast fashion e-commerce company. The company mainly focuses on women’s wear, but it also offers men’s apparel, children’s clothes, accessories, shoes, bags, and other fashion items.” Founder, Chris Xu, specializes in SEO marketing, skills that have indeed been a critical factor in the company’s rise in popularity. In the early 2010s, the company was among the first to partner with bloggers, influencers and to take advantage of Facebook and Pinterest during their early years. Although they do not publicly disclose their revenue, the company has received valuation estimates ranging from the hundreds of millions upwards to $15 billion.

How did they get so popular?

Shein capitalizes on social virality

Suppose you’re part of their target demographic, young women. In that case, there is a slim chance you haven’t heard of the brand, thanks to their highly successful marketing campaigns, clever use of social media, and prolific use of influencer marketing. One thing that truly sets this company apart from its competitors is its ability and willingness to grow with technology. In truth, the company has perfectly positioned itself for an entire generation of shoppers – Gen Z – who primarily rely on YouTube reviews and TikTok try-ons before they purchase. For example, if you search #sheinhaul on TikTok, you’ll find it has over 2.6 billion views. The same is true for YouTube, where you can spend hundreds of hours watching vloggers try and rate their new products. 

In addition to their clever use of social media, the brand has strived and successfully cultivated the feeling that they are a brand for the typical person. Instead of partnering with A-list celebrities, they often work with D-list celebrities and small-scale influencers, sending them hundreds of dollars worth of clothes every month to try on and review. This tactic lends to the sense that they are accessible and for the everyday person, a sentiment that has assisted the rise of other fast-fashion brands such as Fashion Nova and H&M. 

How “fast-fashion” are we talking?

The not-so-pretty side of fast fashion

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Shein is the pace at which they can design, produce, and release new products. To give some context, their competitors, the fastest-fashion brands in the business, such as Missguided and Fashion Nova, release around 1,000 new pieces each week. According to Shein’s CEO, Shein releases “700 to 1,000 new items a day on the site.” This degree of production is so fast the company has been dubbed the first-ever “real-time fashion” brand.

Shein gives new meaning to “fast” fashion

As an Ethically user, you’re probably wondering how a company can produce clothing at this pace and maintain sustainable and ethical supply chains. It’s a great question, and we want to give you a clear answer, but the truth is much more complicated. Shein provides zero information on their supply chains, production partners, or manufacturing locations. Instead, they have repeatedly offered vague statements about their values – you can read their entire statement on supply chain transparency here. Their website strives to leave the impression that they are a sustainable brand that values ethical production, but there is little proof available beyond marketing.

Due to the lack of details regarding manufacturing centers, it is impossible to know with certainty what the facility conditions are like or what wages they pay their employees. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the company directly violates supply chain transparency regulations. For the most part, the most the company can be accused of is withholding information. Still, in the past, they have made false claims about their factory’s certifications, claiming they had received sustainability ratings they had not – statements that have since been removed from the website. These factors combined have led to reporting based on extrapolated details, so accusations of child labor and outright slavery are frequent across the internet.

What is real-time fashion?

In 2014, as the brand and its messaging were growing, the company chose to establish its own supply chain. Meaning, they brought everything in-house, from product design to quality assurance. At the same time, the company moved its production center to Guangzhou, an area in China highly focused on garment manufacturing. In doing so, the company began to form close relationships with the clothing factories with which it partnered. Choosing to partner with small to mid-sized manufacturers, the company focused on increasing the speed from design to production and began to place small batch orders as test pieces. If an item did not immediately sell or go viral on social media, Shein would replace the item with a new design – the “fast” in fast fashion. This methodology, relying on algorithms to decide what comes next, eliminated fashion companies’ typical decision-making period, expediting the process.

So although much of what goes on behind the scenes at Shein is a mystery, it is counterintuitive that a company operating at such a pace could possibly have time to focus on sustainability or ethical working conditions. But as of this moment, no one has come forward with evidence in either direction. Although, the lack of information has not stopped TikTokers and bloggers from making claims ranging from forced labor to unsafe working conditions.

Where we land on Shein

Fashion is one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, requiring a vast amount of natural and human resources to maintain the current level of consumption globally. Without a doubt, the number one way to diminish the impact of fashion on the world is to decrease consumption. Unfortunately, fast fashion companies such as Shein downright encourage overconsumption – their entire business model depends on it. The earlier mentioned marketing tactic, the #sheinhaul, is about purchasing as many items as you possibly can for the thrill of trying them on. Marketing methods such as this create a mindset that encourages the customer to think of these items as practically disposable items so cheap that you wouldn’t even bother to return them if they don’t fit. In addition to encouraging overconsumption, most Shein’s clothing is made of synthetic fibers such as polyester, an oil-based product. It goes without saying, the use of these fibers is not an environmentally conscious choice, and a company that willfully uses them to produce millions of garments a year is not likely to do so accidentally.

In addition to questionable labor ethics and environmentally harmful components, Shein has regularly been accused of stealing from smaller independent designers and for selling racially offensive items such as a Muslim prayer rug as a carpet and swastika necklaces. Some point to these examples as further proof of the company’s lack of a moral compass, while others argue that they only indicate the company is out of touch with the many countries it services.

It is crucial to understand the values you’re supporting when you make a purchase. So, before you buy, check the Ethically score in the top right corner of your browser. That way, you can purchase ethically without having to do the research. You can download the extension here.

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